Karen Panetta, Dean of Engineering, Honored with Engineering Service Award

Karen Panetta, Dean of Graduate Education at the Tufts School of Engineering, received the 2022 Distinguished Service Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Honor Society, IEEE Eta Kappa Nu (IEEE-HKN). The IEEE-HKN Distinguished Service Award is presented annually to a member who has made a significant contribution to the development of the society and its activities, resulting in significant benefit to all of its members.

Panetta also received the 2011 US Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Math and Engineering Mentoring from President Barack Obama. Panetta is a longtime associate of the IEEE and is currently a Fellow. Most notably, she was President of IEEE-HKN in 2019.

Although he is qualified as an electronic computer scientist, Panetta mainly uses computer science, especially artificial intelligence, in his work and service.

“Right now, a lot of people are thinking of AI as something that’s going to replace humans, and I don’t believe in that,” Panetta said. “AI should help us explain, explore and expand our ability to understand our universe. … They want a human being to make an intelligent decision in the end.”

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

“I have worked with Elephant Conservation to work at Tufts Veterinary School with Dr. to help Alan Rothberg. … I also looked at white deer populations with him … their health as well as their overpopulation,” Panetta said. “I’ve been doing underwater coral and kelp health to help kelp farmers investigate snail infestations that are destroying their entire crops.”

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

“By the time COVID hit, we had already developed a lot of artificial intelligence algorithms,” said Panetta. “I said, ‘Let’s try to 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 premier database used for bias testing in AI.”

IEEE-HKN Director Nancy Ostin worked with Panetta while Panetta served as IEEE-HKN President in 2019.

“Karen was really responsible for much of Eta Kappa Nu’s strategic vision,” Ostin said. “We have a five-year plan that we’ve really worked out under Karen’s leadership. … [It has] really made us grow and moved us forward in a positive way.”

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

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

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dr Asad Madni, Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UCLA, IEEE Fellow, and distinguished member of the IEEE-HKN, expressed his admiration for Panetta’s leadership and her contributions to the IEEE through her role as Editor-in-Chief of IEEE Women in Engineering magazine.

“Justice, diversity and inclusion … are very important to her,” said Madni.

Ostin praised Panetta’s leadership.

“When you speak to people who work with Karen … you can always tell how … they are devoted to her and how committed their staff are to her [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 could recognize them in this way.”

“When I look at Karen, I see a person who is extremely rare, a real gem in the engineering field. … [She has] full awareness and commitment to the next generation of engineers and scientists,” said Madni.