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Sandy Petersen, center, with John Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology, and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and France A. Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation
June 29, 2015

President Obama Honors Petersen for Mentoring

  • Amherst

In a White House ceremony on June 17, President Barack Obama saluted professor Sandra Petersen, with 14 others and one organization, who received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM) for 2012 and 2013. In addition to being personally honored by the president, recipients receive $10,000 from the National Science Foundation.

Obama said in a statement, “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.”

Petersen, a professor in veterinary and animal sciences, 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.

President Obama meets with the 2013 winners of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring in the Oval Office, June 17. Sandy Petersen is second from right. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

She was the founding director of the STEM Diversity Institute, a campus-wide umbrella to coordinate diversity initiatives in STEM workforce development. Over the past six years, she has been principal investigator (PI) on three National Institutes of Health grants bringing over $5.3 million to support student internships and graduate recruitment and retention programs for underrepresented groups. Petersen was also co-PI and project director on three NSF grants totaling $11.3 million that support NEAGEP activities. She is currently focused on NEAGEP Next, a project to expand activities and STEM faculty from underrepresented groups in the 15 NEAGEP institutions and beyond.

Returning from the White House ceremony, Petersen said, “It was an extraordinary honor to be at the White House and to meet President Obama. His knowledge and support of what we are doing reinvigorated each of us in the PAEMSEM group and reminded us of why we do what we do. We all agreed that the most important outcome of the award was the opportunity be part of a national network of like-minded people who are truly committed to and understand the urgency of diversifying the national STEM workforce.  Over the years I have learned that it is the development of personal relationships and interactive networks that really make things happen.I also know that success in diversity efforts requires both faculty leadership and continuous administrative support. I am quite fortunate to be part of a faculty that understands the need for diversity of background, experience and thought in order to produce true innovation.”

She added, “I have also enjoyed the support of a number of mentors, including the former provosts Seymour and Staros, who truly understand what it takes to do this work. Their trust and enthusiastic backing made all of this possible at UMass Amherst. When we started our efforts, there were fewer than 25 doctoral students from underrepresented groups in all of STEM and we now have nearly triple that number, and we increased the graduation rate by over four-fold. It’s an amazing experience to see the ideas and outcomes we proposed in grants actually come to fruition.” 

“Meeting the president and hearing his praise was uplifting, but it does not produce the sustained satisfaction and joy that I feel knowing that each of my ‘mutual mentors’ will truly make a difference in the world. They are extraordinary people who show their ‘grit factor’ every day. They are the ones to be congratulated,” she said.

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.