Spotlight Interview: On Karen Panetta, IEEE-USA Vice-President of Communications & Public Awareness

BY Georgia C. Stelluto Posted: 1 Mar 2013

Q: Tell us a little about you and your family, Karen.

A: I am the youngest of three children, and the only girl. I grew up playing with trucks, doing carpentry, masonry, and helping my Dad work on heavy construction equipment engines. Dad wanted me to be a civil engineer, and he still gives me a hard time about choosing computer and electrical engineering over civil engineering.

I married an electrical engineer, who is an IEEE Senior Member, so the “tech talk” never stops in our house.  We are new parents to a beautiful baby boy, Benjamin, who incidentally has a bib that says “My mom is a Fellow,” meaning IEEE Fellow. He’s very proud of his Mama.

 

Q:  What’s the best thing about living in Boston?

A. Boston provides unimaginable access to industry, educational institutions and culture. The city is truly a melting pot, where the entrepreneurial spirit is nurtured. When I was the 2011 IEEE Boston Section chair, I learned so much about great historical innovations that took place in Massachusetts, many of which have been commemorated as IEEE milestones, such as the Apollo guidance system; the first electrified railway system; and the first transmitted network packet, not to mention Fessenden’s first wireless audio transmission--most people incorrectly attribute that achievement to Marconi! Great trivia!

 

Q: What misconceptions do you think people have about engineers?

A: Unfortunately, many people still do not know what engineers really do. We’ve done such a great job of embedding technology into everyday life, that often our contributions become transparent to the end user. The stereotype of the one-dimensional, antisocial engineer, who “fixes broken electronics,” still persists. I was really excited to see IEEE start highlighting all the talents and interests that our members engage in for fun: dancing, music, art, sports, writing, photography, languages (spoken, not only computer languages); and a multitude of other hobbies showing engineers are well-rounded, as well as interdisciplinary, and that these ingredients are all essential for innovative people. 

 

Q: What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A:  Being surrounded by only positive people at work and at play. Being healthy, stress free, and being at home with my family.

 

What is your greatest fear?

A: My greatest fear is that the technology we create will not always be used for the best intentions; namely, not to benefit humanity, but rather to harm it. I know this fear is one of the driving motivations for my research in security and detection of threat objects.

I also fear that our youth do not value education. Throughout history, people have given their lives in pursuit of equal access to education, regardless of an individual’s socio-economic background, or ethnicity. Too many young people don’t appreciate or realize how education can change their future. We need them to stay in school and thrive, if we are to remain world leaders in innovation, and sustain our workforce. It’s horrifying to believe that in this day and age, in some countries, women still aren’t allowed to be educated, or are killed for trying to educate themselves.


Q: What living person do you admire most, and why?

A: My husband Jamie. He is so honest, kind, patient, and thorough in everything he does. He really is the strength behind my energy. I have traveled around the world giving talks to help inspire young engineers and scientists (more than 50 per year!), and he’s been right there beside me.  

I am often asked how I can “do it all”….I don’t do it all alone! Jamie is the team supporting my initiatives, my career, and sharing our family responsibilities. He genuinely loves learning new technology and brainstorming new ideas with me. Jamie is my secret weapon; he enables me to quickly ramp up on new innovations, new software, and interesting research, as well as good parenting practices. His software talents are the best on the planet, and he is a great cook too! Jamie married me for me-- not for my power tools and woodworking workshop!

 

Q:  Tell us about your favorite hobbies or pastimes.

 A: I enjoy playing music—piano and flute; singing opera, belly dancing (the ancient dance performed for women by women), gardening, ichthyology, and carpentry.

 

Q: What is your favorite journey?

A: Being a mom. I never knew I would be so happy not sleeping and having food and drool smeared all over everything I own.

 

Q: What is your most distinctive characteristic?

A: You mean besides my Boston accent? I think people are amazed that I can think in big pictures--and execute these ideas with little to no money. I call it my low-cost/no-cost approach.

 

Q:  What’s your favorite comfort food, and why?

A: Pizza. It kept me alive me through college--and now that I work at an educational institution, pizza is the one food staple that is always available, fast and cheap. Plus, it’s a good motivator for my students.

 

Q:  Tell us about an item you own that you just can’t part with…

A: Two things: First, my Swarovski crystal-encrusted, pink, Hello Kitty laptop. I had it imported from Japan, and it really is a powerful computer. I use it in all my outreach presentations to youth. It breaks the stereotypes of what kids think a computer engineer should be, namely boring and uncool.

The second item: my Prada rocket high heel shoes. They have flames shooting out of the back of the heel from the rocket boosters! I wear them to outreach presentations. I couldn’t think of something more appropriate for an engineer who once worked at NASA, as a Research Fellow, doing rocket science. Kids love them because the only other two people they know who own a pair in the United States are Beyoncé and Rhianna, who are very popular with youth. If engineers are wearing them, then we must be cool too!

 

Q: Share your motto with us, Karen.

A: Run through the finish line. This motto is for inspiring students and young career professionals to stick with engineering and science. Outreach programs get students to the door of colleges; but then, many are left without any guidance or support.  Once they enter school, a new entry-level position, or internship, they may give up. If you see the finish line, you shouldn’t slow down or stop, you should push even harder. This motto applies to all of life’s challenges.

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Georgia C. Stelluto is editor-in-chief of IEEE-USA IN ACTION; IEEE-USA’s publishing manager; the program manager and editor for IEEE-USA E-Books; and the staff manager for IEEE-USA’s Communications Committee, and the IEEE-USA E-Books Editorial Board.  She can be contacted at g.stelluto@ieee.org.

 

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