Petit Foundation Hosts First "Women in Science" Awards


MaryEllen Fillo

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Dr. Bill Petit thought daughter Hayley Petit's academic strengths were primarily in the English and foreign language areas.

So when she came to him as high school senior and announced she would be pursuing a degree in biology at his alma mater, Dartmouth, he admits he was more than surprised.

Hayley, who was killed in 2007 along with her sister Michaela and mother Jennifer-Hawkes Petit in a home invasion at their house in Cheshire, planted the seed in her father's head about women in science. On Thursday that idea was celebrated as the Petit Foundation, established in honor of the three slain women, held its first "An Evening Honoring Women in Science" program at the Connecticut Science Center.

Two women, Anabella Villalobos, Pfizer's vice president of antibacterials and neuro-science chemistry and Jennifer Whiffen, sr. bio-medical engineer at Covidien, were honored for their contributions to the field as part of the program that also featured GE CEO/Chairman Jeff Immelt.

Immelt, who has been named one of the "World's Best CEO's" three times by Barron's, was the featured speaker at a pre-program VIP presentation on the economy with CBIA president John Rathgeber.

But sometimes he had trouble paying attention.

"I was just thinking about being a college student in 1978 at Dartmouth," laughed Immelt, making believe he was not following a question on the economy. 

Immelt, you see, was a friend and fellow classmate of Dr. Petit, also a graduate of Dartmouth.

So Java's question was "tell me a story about the two of you when you were crazy college kids outside the classroom."

"Oh no," laughed Immelt again. "What happened at Dartmouth stays at Dartmouth."

Walking the walk when it came to women in science was a contingent from General Electricincluding Luis Manuel Ramirez, who heads up GE's Industrial Solutions division based in Plainville.

"We are always encouraging and recruiting more women to the sciences," said Ramirez, proving his point by introducing several women who are part of the company's "Edison" program designed to recruit and mentor men and women in the engineering and science fields.

 On a day that would have been Michaela's 16th birthday, and another day of draining court proceedings in the sentencing of Joshua Komisarjevsky, who with Steven Hayes, were convicted of murdering the women, the celebration was bittersweet. For many of those at the event, that also included new foundation scholarships for women pursuing careers in science, those mixed feelings did not go unnoticed.

"They say that when you have tragedy in your life it is for a reason, a good reason you may not understand at first," said Rory McAndrews, a Hartford resident and engineer who joined friends at the event. "Maybe the good out of it all is what the foundation has accomplished for others in such a short period of time," she said. "I hope people realize and appreciate what is being done for others because of those women's deaths."