President Obama Honors UMass Amherst Professor among Outstanding Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentors

Sandra Petersen

AMHERST, Mass. – President Obama today named University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Sandra Petersen as one of 14 individuals and one organization to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM). These mentors will receive their awards at a White House ceremony later this year.

Petersen, a professor in the veterinary and animal sciences department at UMass Amherst, since 2003 has served as executive director and a mentor for the Northeast Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (NEAGEP), a 15-institution alliance focused on increasing the number of students from underrepresented groups who earn Ph.D. degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

She is also principal investigator and project director for two current National Institutes of Health grants totaling $3.8 million. One funds internships for post-baccalaureate studentsfrom underrepresented groups who are interested in biomedical andbio-behavioral research and the other funds programs to increaseconnections to minority-serving institutions and supportstage-specific development of underrepresented minority students who are in biomedical andbiobehavioral Ph.D. programs.

Petersen says of today’s White House honor, “The NEAGEP students are the ones who are to be congratulated; my job is to help move obstacles placed in their way and to remind them of who they are when they forget. I am grateful for having the opportunity to know each of them. They enrich my life daily and we are truly mutual mentors.”

Petersen’s colleague, chemistry professor Lynmarie Thompson, points out that under Petersen’s leadership, the NEAGEP has been “one of the most effective AGEPs in the country.” She adds, “Petersen is an inspiring mentor of underrepresented minority students, an excellent community builder and an agent of change at the institutional level. She has mentored more than 30 African-American, Hispanic and Native American students through the Ph.D. and many more through associated programs.”

“Letters from students and colleagues explain how Dr. Petersen has achieved these outstanding results as a mentor,” Thompson adds. “Student letters explain that Sandy is a good listener who always makes time for students and cares about the whole person. According to them, she is also ‘very good at explaining to the student their responsibilities.’ And, most importantly, she is ‘helpful in a way that you learn how to help yourself as well.’”

Campus officials say that under Petersen’s leadership, the number of research-active faculty involved in recruiting, mentoring and community-building for underrepresented minority students increased 1,000 percent at UMass Amherst, from 19 in 2003 to more than 200 today. The enrollment and retention rate of minority students in STEM disciplines and the number of URM who earned STEM PhD degrees also increased significantly. This year’s graduating class is the largest ever and the increasing number of students on the path promises that the numbers will continue to grow. Over its 15 years, NEAGEP has brought in a total of$16.5 million and UMass Amherst has provided substantial matches toensure the success of those programs.

The White House says that the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring is awarded to individuals and organizations to recognize the crucial role that mentoring plays in the academic and personal development of students studying science and engineering, particularly those who belong to groups that are underrepresented in these fields. By offering their expertise and encouragement, mentors help prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers while ensuring that tomorrow’s innovators represent a diverse pool of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics talent throughout the United States.

President Obama said, “These educators are helping to cultivate America’s future scientists, engineers and mathematicians. They open new worlds to their students, and give them the encouragement they need to learn, discover and innovate. That’s transforming those students’ futures, and our nation’s future, too.”

In addition to being honored at the White House, recipients receive awards of $10,000 from the National Science Foundation. The mentors and organizations announced today represent the winners for 2012 and 2013.