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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, May 25, 2024

Karen Panetta, graduate engineering dean, honored with engineering service award

The Science and Engineering Complex is pictured in Sept. 2021.

Karen Panetta, the Tufts School of Engineering dean of graduate education, was awarded the 2022 Distinguished Service Award from the honor society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, IEEE Eta Kappa Nu (IEEE-HKN). IEEE-HKN’s Distinguished Service Award is given annually to a member who has made major contributions for the development of the society and its activities, resulting in a significant benefit to all its members. 

Panetta was also presented a U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Math and Engineering Mentoring by President Barack Obama in 2011. Panetta has a long history working with the IEEE and is currently a fellow there. Most notably, she was the president of IEEE-HKN in 2019. 

Despite being trained as an electrical computer engineer, Panetta’s work and service primarily utilizes computer science, specifically artificial intelligence.

“Right now, a lot of folks are thinking of AI as something that will replace humans, and I don’t believe it,” Panetta said. “AI should help us explain, explore and expand our capability to understand our universe. … You want a human being at the end making an intelligent decision.”

In the past year, Panetta has been involved in a number of conservationist projects that use artificial intelligence and signal processing. 

“I worked with elephant conservation to help with the Tufts Veterinary School with Dr. Alan Rothberg. … I also looked with him at white deer populations … their health as well as their overpopulation,” Panetta said. “I’ve done underwater coral and kelp health to help kelp farmers looking at snail infestations that destroy their entire crops.”  

Panetta also played an important role in a project to help mitigate the impact of COVID-19. 

“When COVID hit, we had already built a lot of artificial intelligence algorithms,” Panetta said. “I said, ‘Let’s try and see if we can do it on chest X-rays to classify the different categories, whether it’s normal COVID or viral pneumonia.’”

Panetta’s work also touches on the ethical side of AI research; she created “the world’s first and … largest facial recognition database.”

The database includes faces from “different countries, different genders, even transgender people [and] how they identify,” Panetta said. “It’s called the Tufts Face Database, and right now … it’s the leading database being used for testing for bias in AI.”

Nancy Ostin, the director of IEEE-HKN, worked with Panetta while Panetta served as president of IEEE-HKN in 2019.

“Karen was really responsible for a lot of the strategic vision of Eta Kappa Nu,” Ostin said. “We have a five-year plan that under Karen’s leadership, we really laid out. … [It has] really kept us growing and moving forward in a positive way”

According to Ostin, one of the markers of Panetta’s successful leadership was in 2019 during the Eta Kappa Nu Student Leadership Conference on Tufts’ campus. Ostin said that the conference was the first experience of its kind for most students who attended.

“Karen really helped us reimagine the conference in big ways, in terms of bringing in technical speakers, because of her great contacts in industry, her contacts in IEEE and her contacts within technical societies,” Ostin said. “Being able to bring together subject matter experts and thought leaders in a very exciting, dynamic way … was really useful for the students.”

Dr. Asad Madni, a distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering at UCLA, IEEE fellow, and eminent member of IEEE-HKN, expressed his admiration for Panetta’s leadership and her contributions to IEEE through her role as editor in chief of IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine. 

“Equity, diversity and inclusion … sit very close to her heart,” Madni said.

Ostin praised Panetta’s leadership.

“When you talk to people that work with Karen … you can always tell how … dedicated they are to her and how committed her staff is because they [are] also inspired by Karen as a leader,” Ostin said. “That empathy, that emotional intelligence … she’s got it. So it was really a pleasure that we were able to recognize her in this way.”

“When I look at Karen, I look at an individual who’s extremely rare, a real treasure in the engineering profession. … [She has] total awareness and dedication towards the next generation of engineers and scientists,” Madni said.