Joann DiGennaro was warned, but she didn’t listen.
DiGennaro was attending a social function with her husband, a former Navy officer. Standing alone in the corner – “like a bump on a pickle,” DiGennaro said – was Admiral Hyman G. Rickover.
Known as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” Rickover was also know for having a prickly personality.
“He did not suffer fools lightly,” DiGennaro said. Rickover’s critics usually weren’t that kind.
A few minutes into their conversation, Rickover shouted, “That’s wrong!” loud enough that the room became silent.
After telling Rickover “I know I’m correct,” DiGennaro walked back to her husband to receive a laughing, “I told you so.” She never expected to see Admiral Rickover again.
Somehow, from that brief encounter, a link was established between DiGennaro and Rickover that would last until the admiral’s death in 1986. In 1983, Rickover tabbed DiGennaro to head the Center for Excellence in Education, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2018.
“I really had no idea what I was getting into,” DiGennaro said. “We opened our first program in 1984, and he had a stroke in ’85 and died in ’86. He could just pick up the phone and get $25,000 or $50,000. Well, I couldn’t get any of those people on the phone that he talked to. We almost went under.”
DiGennaro said CEE started with the Research Science Institute program, originally known as the Rickover Science Institute. She said the admiral was convinced the United States was falling behind the rest of the world in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education, and he wanted to establish a free program to give top students more opportunities.
“It started with $250 he got from a speaking engagement,” DiGennaro said. “He had grown up poor, and he always said he would never have had the opportunity to get a good education if it had not been for the Naval Academy.”
CEE now has its offices in McLean with the RSI conducted every summer in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Another program, the USA Biology Olympiad, is jointly sponsored with the University of California-San Diego on its campus each summer.
“We started in the old Xerox Training Center (now the National Conference Center in Lansdowne),” DiGennaro said. “David Kern, who was then CEO of Xerox, had been a naval officer and he gave room and board free of cost.”
In 35 years, RSI has grown to where thousands of students from around the world apply annually.
“Every year, we accept the top 50 U.S. students and top 30 international students,” DiGennaro said. “It is internationally recognized as the most rigorous program in the world.”
One student selected for the program was Marissa Sumathipala, a 2018 graduate of Broad Run High School who now attends Harvard.
“Marissa was a grand award winner one year and also a national finalist another year,” DiGennaro said.
Sumathipala has already formed a start-up company called Theraplexus and is in the process of obtaining a nonprovisional patent for her computational platform for finding cures for diseases like cancer.
“CEE’s Research Science Institute was a truly transformative experience for me,” Sumathipala said. “The bonds I formed at RSI, both with my peers as well as with my research mentors at Harvard and Northeastern University, have been vital to shaping my personal and academic trajectory. (It) has led to countless amazing opportunities, something I am forever grateful for.”
Sumathipala said DiGennaro is key to everything CEE has accomplished.
“Joann DiGennaro, or ‘Ms. D’ as we like to affectionately call her, is the driving force behind CEE and all the wonderful work they do,” Sumathipala said. “She’s incredibly dedicated to the mission of CEE in promoting students in STEM careers and leadership, and is very much a pragmatic, no-nonsense kind of person, two things I deeply admire about her.”
In addition to RSI, CEE also oversees the Teacher Enrichment Program and the USA Biology Olympiad.
A native of Logansport, Indiana, DiGennaro got her bachelor’s degree at Purdue University. She got a MS degree from the University of Maryland, read the Law at Oxford and and received her Juris Doctorate Degree from George Mason University. She saw first-hand how STEM education has been under-valued in the United States.
“At my high school, physics was taught by the gym teacher,” she said.
DiGennaro said CEE has made progress in achieving many of its goals, both in increasing STEM opportunities overall and making those opportunities equal across gender and race.
“In terms of the gender gap we are making progress,” DiGennaro said. “Women are doing very nicely in engineering, but there is still a gap in electrical engineering and theoretical physics. The biggest gap we are still seeing is in rural and urban STEM degrees.”
DiGennaro said one of the best parts about the 35th anniversary celebration in Cambridge was seeing RSI alumni, including Pinterest founder Ben Silbermann, return who are changing the world.
“We can boast that over 70 percent of our alumni – we still call them “Rickoids” because of the admiral – have maintained their base in STEM,” she said. “We had over 300 alumni come back. I know it made our board and our donors so proud to see what they have achieved in science, technology and business. And they are good kids. Good kids.”