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Two Purdue researchers receive Presidential Award

August 1, 2012


Two Purdue researchers will travel to Washington D.C. Tuesday to receive Presidential Awards for their research, one of which will be driving over 600 miles with her 8-week-old son.

Alice Pawley, assistant professor in the School of Engineering, and Ian Kaplan, an assistant entomology professor, are two of 96 recipients to be awarded the Presidential Early Career awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) from President Barack Obama. This is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals.


“I’m shocked,” Pawley said, “because the research that I proposed doing is crazy. It is explicitly feminist research in the context of engineering, which has not historically been known as a super feminist field. To get the original grant was awesome and then to have it recognized in this hugely, amazing way from the White House Presidential Award, I’m beyond humbled and really excited.”

Pawley was one of six Purdue faculty to receive a Faculty Early Career Development award in 2010, which is the most prestigious honor for young researchers from the National Science Foundation. This helped lead to her research getting nominated and eventually chosen for the PECASE awards.

The research Pawley is working on looks into why women and people of color are underrepresented in engineering. The project she is working on is called “Learning from Small Numbers,” in which our researchers are trying to think about how to change how institutions and universities are designed through student’s individual stories.

“The research that we do tries to understand, on the undergraduate level, why we are stuck at the 18 to 21 percent (of students) depending on the school,” Pawley said. “In some places, why is the rate in which women are increasingly going into engineering decreasing? What is going on? We have been looking into this for 30 years.”

Kaplan said the attention that has risen from being honored with this award has been unlike anything he has ever experienced before as far as his research has gone.

“The past week has been sort of a whirlwind. It’s been just crazy as far as the press this has generated,” Kaplan said. “It’s intense. Who knows what the long term effects are but in the short term the publicity is incredible.”

Kaplan’s research for the award is mostly based on what his lab does, which is working on ecological approaches to managing insects and pests in agricultural systems. They do this using bio-control, which is using beneficial insects, predators and other natural enemies to manage the insects and pests.

Since the process of this award is through nomination, neither recipients were expecting the honor. Kaplan said that it has been a bit overwhelming but also a lot of fun.

Pawley said it was an incredible shock to her and she got goosebumps. She said that a colleague told her, while applying for the grant, to put her most precious idea into the project and she did.

“There’s a risk to that,” she said. “If a whole bunch of people who judge the grant say this is not worth funding, then your hopes and dreams you put into this grant are dashed. Your precious idea is trampled on, but it wasn’t trampled on even though it uses feminist theory, inter-sectional research methods and uses all kinds of women studies in an engineering education grant. It not only got funded but it got submitted to get this really prestigious award.”

Kaplan went to Maryland University for his Ph.D. which he said is basically a close suburb to D.C. so he is familiar with the area, but it still excited for the visit.

“Some of the White House stuff will be exciting,” he said. “I’ve been to D.C. before a lot but I’ve never gone to touristy type of things. I think that most of us are anxious and excited about the Obama meeting.”

Pawley said that she is also excited about the chance to meet President Barack Obama and that it will be the highlight of the experience. In a close second she said the fact that her newly born baby, husband and parents will all be attending is also very exciting.

Pawley said this will be the third PECASE Award to go to her department and that she can’t imagine many places in the country have three winners in one department. Kaplan also starting looking up some facts about the awards and found some interesting statistics.

“I looked it up and there are no IU awards and Purdue can brag about that,” Kaplan said. “We get two and they get zero.”

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