UMass professor honored by President Obama

By Colby Sears

(Courtesy of Professor Sandra Petersen)
(Courtesy of Professor Sandra Petersen)

After being honored by President Barack Obama last month, University of Massachusetts professor Sandra Petersen will soon be on her way to the White House.

Petersen will attend a ceremony in Washington, D.C. later this year to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, along with a $10,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

According to the White House, the PAESMEM recognizes the important role mentoring plays in the development of science and engineering students, particularly in students underrepresented in those fields. Petersen was one of 14 individuals and one organization chosen for the award.

“These educators are helping to cultivate America’s future scientists, engineers and mathematicians,” President Obama said in a White House press release. “They open new worlds to their students and give them the encouragement they need to learn, discover and innovate.”

Petersen teaches in the veterinary and animal science department at the University and has served as the executive director and mentor for the Northeast Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate since 2003.

NEAGEP focuses on increasing the number of underrepresented students who earn Ph.D. degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, subjects, according to its website. The alliance is made up of 15 universities and is led by UMass.

“The NEAGEP students are the ones who are to be congratulated,” Petersen said of her award in a University press release. “My job is to help move obstacles placed in their way and remind them of who they are when they forget.”

Petersen said she and the NEAGEP students are “mutual mentors” and she is grateful to have the opportunity to know and collaborate with each of them.

University officials said the number of research-active faculty members involved in recruiting and mentoring minority students at UMass has increased 1,000 percent under Petersen’s leadership, rising from 19 in 2003 to more than 200 this year. Enrollment and retention rates for minority students in STEM disciplines increased, as well.

UMass chemistry professor Lynmarie Thompson said in the press release, “Petersen is an inspiring mentor of underrepresented minority students, an excellent community builder and an agent of change at the institutional level.”

According to Thompson, letters from students and colleagues indicate Petersen’s outstanding results as a mentor, adding that Petersen is a good listener who always makes time for her students and is good at explaining to students their responsibilities.

Students also said in their letters that Petersen is “helpful in a way that you learn how to help yourself as well,” according to the release.

The mentors and organizations chosen for the PAESMEM represent the winners for 2012 and 2013. Candidates can nominate themselves or be nominated by faculty and students in their institutions or through professional affiliations.

Colby Sears can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @colbysears.