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Packenham shines at STEM conference

By Matt Goad
December 2010

Joan Packenham, Ph.D.
Packenham, above, posed with her award for career achievement. "I enjoyed meeting women in other scientific disciplines and learning what challenges they had to overcome and how they successfully handled those challenges," she said. (Photo courtesy of Joan Packenham)

NIEHS scientist Joan Packenham, Ph.D., was honored Oct. 30 at the 15th annual Women of Color STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Conference in Dallas for her years of work and achievements in the sciences. In her talk and interaction at the conference, Packenham also promoted career and training opportunities in the environmental health sciences.

Packenham, director of the Institute's Office of Human Research Compliance (OHRC), attended the three-day conference, capped by the 15th Women of Color STEM Awards Gala, a black-tie event where she received her award for STEM career achievement in government.

"The conference was exceptional," Packenham said. "It was great to see so many phenomenal women together who have made great contributions in STEM. Rarely do women scientists have an opportunity to interact and network with so many peers and role models in one place. It was an incredible experience."

The 28 awardees were of several different ethnicities, including African-American, Native American, Middle Eastern, Asian, Southeast Asian, Pacific Islander, and Latina. They were selected from a competitive group of approximately 300 nominees for 14 STEM award categories.

In her speech, Packenham accepted the award in the memory of her parents, both educators in Durham, N.C. Her mother was an elementary school teacher, and her father, who started as a high school biology teacher, finished his career as the K-12 science and mathematics supervisor for the Durham public school system.

"They gave me my first educational foundation and instilled in me core values, confidence, and the importance of giving back to the community," Packenham said. "It was my father who gave me that first foundation and love of science. It was an honor for me to dedicate it to them."

Promoting NIEHS and the environmental health sciences

There were more than 2,000 STEM professionals who attended the conference from industry and government, Packenham said. In addition, there were 500-600 undergraduate students from 38 colleges and universities. She participated in professional development workshops with other STEM professionals on knowledge management, teamwork, team building, and communication strategies.

She also gave a presentation, "Environmental Health Science UNWRAPPED," in two life sciences sessions for the students, giving students inside knowledge about NIH, NIEHS, and career opportunities in the environmental health sciences.

"Besides receiving the award, the best part for me was interacting with the students," she said. "They were very inquisitive about the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and career opportunities in the environmental sciences. Many students had never been introduced to the environmental health sciences and, therefore, had not considered exploring environmental sciences as a career option. It was exciting to give them their first lesson."

Packenham said she has received e-mails from students since the conference, inquiring about educational opportunities, summer internships, and employment opportunities at NIEHS.

"I think we should have a booth at their Career Fair Expo," she said. "The top science students from the various universities and colleges are there. It is an excellent venue for NIEHS to recruit for the Summers of Discovery Program [summer internship opportunities] and for other educational opportunities."

Edith Lee, protocol specialist for the OHRC, who accompanied Packenham to the conference, said Packenham is a visionary who knows how to get things done.

"She's not going to do something unless it's going to work, or at least has done the research to see that it is possible," Lee said. "She knows what battles to fight and what battles to leave alone. I've known her about a decade, and she's a very competent person."

As director of the OHRC, Packenham oversees the NIEHS Human Research Protection Program, which protects the rights and welfare of human subjects by reviewing, approving, and monitoring clinical research activities involving human subjects within the Intramural Research Program.

(Matt Goad is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

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