homepage logo

Sue Kemnitzer: Making a global impact

By Staff | Feb 5, 2010

Sue Kemnitzer at her E. German St. home in Shepherdstown Photo by Michael Theis/Chronicle

The world awoke on Jan. 12 to the news that Haiti had just been hit with a 7.5 earthquake and Port au Prince was all but gone. As we were first processing the horrific news, the National Science Foundation in Washington, DC was processing grant funding for a team of the best engineers, geologists, and geophysicists in the country to get to Haiti to study the aftershock situation, examine the buildings, find out what went wrong and lay out a plan to protect the people in the future..

Dr. Eric Calais, Professor of Geophysics, Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at Purdue lead the team. Most aftershocks occur within weeks and there was a real urgency to get on the ground and begin collecting crucial information about whether this enormous quake would trigger other major ones. “The big question is instead of small aftershocks, could there be a bigger earthquake coming,” Calais said. “There are many historical examples of an initial earthquake triggering even larger ones.”

Sue Kemnitzer is the Deputy Division Director of Engineering and Centers at NSF. And throughout a long prestigious career, Sue has been responsible for awarding more than two billion dollars in grant money to as she says, “the smartest people in the world to do really innovative projects.” Some examples of NSF’s early funding in which Sue was involved: Mark Andresen’s search engine that morphed into Netscape, Semantech, Medtronic’s, NOVA, Children’s Television Workshop, Magic School Bus, and Bill Nye the Science Guy. On Jan. 12 that total increased considerably when grants to finance the team to Haiti were awarded within a day.

Susan Coady Kemnitzer was born and grew up in San Diego just before the dawning of the ’50s. Raymond and Katherine Murphy Coady encouraged Susan and her sister Patricia, to pursue their interests no matter how far ahead of the times they were.

Young Sue loved golf and by the time she was eighteen, she was burning up California courses. When it came time for college she was determined to be coached by the best so she chose UCLA. By the 1967 she was in LA with a triple majorpsychology, physiology and golf.

It was the time before Title Nine. Equal opportunity in women’s sports was not yet reality but UCLA was already into the future offering an excellent athletic program to “the girls. ” “UCLA was the training ground for women Olympiads in those days and I got to know some great athletesDonna de Verona (Gold Medalist in swimming) and her teammates created an environment of winning sportsmanship for us.” But Sue also said “John Wooden was the men’s basketball coach and he was the real leader for setting the quality standards in life skills for UCLA athletics. “

Sue graduated in 1970 recognized for her scholarship and leadership being elected to the national honor society Mortar Board and distinguishing herself on the golf course. That year the NCAA UCLA women’s golf team won the first national championship in women’s athletics by trouncing favored Arizona State in the playoffs by eighteen points.

Then came a move to Washington, DC and the Office of Management and Budget. She was immediately assigned to the executive office of the President where she set budget and legislative policy for the science and national resource agencies. In her spare time she co-authored, with Robert Brainard, the first two Science Indicators Reports of the National Science Board; and went to George Washington University on a NASA Graduate Fellowship and picked up a Masters in science, technology and international affairs.

No dispute, she was busy. But, was her life all work and no play you ask. Nope. In 1973 Sue went to one of those fancy DC dos, that used to be really fancy before black tie was optional. It was there she met a brilliant and very gregarious young architect from Ohio named David Kemnitzer. It was one of those life-altering nights when you’re really glad you decided to go to the party. We’ve all have them and some work out better than others. This one worked out great. David and Sue were married in 1974, settled down in one of the loveliest sections of NW Washington and began their life together. It was full of fun, family and friends, travel and important work and it still is.

In 1976 Sue became the special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior, Cecil Andrus, where she advised the Secretary and managed cross agency teams to accomplish his priorities. One top priority was the resolution of the use of the 140 million acres in Alaska by balancing parks, wildlife resources and energy reserves, native land and subsistence hunting and fishing claims and the State’s rights under the Statehood Act. After three years of mark-up sessions and contentious floor debate, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Act.

From Interior, Sue was tapped by the National Science Foundation as a legislative affairs specialist and for the next six years represented the NSF to Congress. In 1986 she became the Executive Director of the Task Force on Women, Minorities and the Handicapped in Science and Technology. Under her direction the report “Changing America: the new face of science and engineering” was developed, funded and implemented by the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

In 1990, this wonderfully good-natured woman who delights in her two hundred year old home on E. German St., entertains like a champ, plays crack golf and is wildly proud of her award-winning husband for everything from his historic preservation architecture to his cooking and their son Alex, who is carving His own path in finance and economics at Shepherd, Class of ’10, was appointed NSF Deputy Director Engineering Education – Centers Division Directorate for Engineering. Here she manages a portfolio of grants which explore the most innovative multidisciplinary research and education to discover new knowledge and develop the next generation of researchers, inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs prepared for the global economy.

Sue has been recognized for her work with NSF with a string of prestigious awards too long to list for her work which has taken her all over the world. In 1994, just after the end of Apartheid she led workshops at engineering schools in South Africa to assist in planning and implementing integration of black students. She followed-up by organizing workshops and brought expert US educators to the country to provide faculty development and promote modernization in engineering. In Chile there were planning workshops to encourage women to participate in science and engineering and advised the Chilean Department of Education on how to make this happen. Then there was three months in Italy in 2007 on a similar project. In Japan, for two months last fall, she advised the Japanese government’s science and tech agency on moving to the peer review system and then organized seminars to further it. She has worked in and with Embassies around the world on science and technology related projects, touring universities, making recommendations and translating her work into results.

When I first met Sue last summer she was just coming off a triumph at home. “I was in the playoffs at the women’s champion golf tournament at Cress Creek.” Tied for first with Wellesley student, Kimberly Eaton the two women entered into sudden death playoffs. Then with that wonderfully contagious laugh of hers, Sue said. “No . . . I didn’t care how young Kimberly was, I was in it to win. I’m really very competitive.” Well, Sue took second and is pleased with it. But . . . well there’s always this summer.

The Kemnitzers found and bought a 1790 house on E. German Street in 2000. It used to be a tavern owned by a man named Wynkoop. David, who has a list of historic preservation and reconstruction awards to match Sue’s science and tech awards, jumped right in to the thrill of the building’s rich history and the two set about restoring what was necessary while leaving the old world feeling so intact that you think you’ve stepped back into Shepherdstown in the 1800s. All the good stuff is still there. It is a family-friendly home in the best sense of the word . . . working fireplaces, busy kitchen, shelves of books, a cozy living room and banquet sized dining room . . . it’s really great. There’s a wine collection, “for drinking, not investing,” a really good tea collection, books all over the place and art . . . lots of art.

Sue is at NSF most of the workweek but somehow you always seem to see David and Sue together. They love the Press Room, St. Agnes Church, (where Sue is on the Building Fund, where she and Tom Conlon co-chaired raising funds for the new church. David is on the Building Committee,) concerts at Shepherd University, The Conservation Film Festival, and their new favorite place: The Wellness Center. Come April the Kemnitzers are off again, this time to Malta where Sue will be participating, along with more than 1,000 of her “sisters,” in the annual meeting of the Convent of the Sacred Heart alumnae association. Sacred Heart’s charitable work is all related to the issues of poverty and refugees supporting the nun’s projects. One such project is an orphanage and hospital in Haiti.

Than it’s back home for Alex’s graduation and the beautiful Shepherdstown spring. Sue Kemnitzer is amazing. NSF has made so much positive and innovative work possible throughout the world because of what she does. But that’s not why I think she’s amazing. In these times of Washington-insiders breaking their arms patting themselves on the back in every sound bite, here is a woman could but doesn’t. She’d much rather talk about you.