A friendship sparked by a scholarship has led to Nebraska’s Angela Pannier being named the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s inaugural Swarts Family Chair in Biological Systems Engineering.
Celebrated July 13, the named chair is an honor decades in the making, taking root in 1997 when a scholarship gift sparked a friendship between Pannier (then an engineering student) and Dr. Carol Swarts, a pioneering Nebraska physician.
That initial connection has grown through the years as the two women have shared similar career paths, opening doors and achieving success in male-dominated fields. The University of Nebraska Medical Center accepted very few women when Swarts attended. And Pannier, now a professor of biological systems engineering, was the first female faculty member to earn tenure in her department.
Swarts was born on a rental farm in western Box Butte County, Nebraska. Throughout her childhood, the family moved to multiple farms in several states as her father farmed. Swarts took note of her parents’ work ethic and values, which inspired her from an early age.
Swarts’ mother, Elenore Gakemeier Swarts, was a first-generation American and a pioneer in many regards. She was the first female school superintendent in Nebraska. Her spunky attitude and determination to model success for herself and her family instilled in the Swarts children a deep respect for education. Her parents’ example fueled Carol’s dream of becoming a doctor.
“Back in the ’30s and ’40s, that was not the goal for a lot of parents for their girls, and neither of them questioned that I was going to be a physician,” Swarts said.
As she had planned, Swarts pioneered a career in medicine. She graduated from the University of Nebraska Medical Center in 1959. Despite the comments of some saying that women were not to be doctors, Swarts and her female peers supported each other and embarked on successful careers.
After Elenore died at age 99, Carol and her brothers decided to create an undergraduate scholarship fund in her memory.
Pannier was one of the early recipients of the Elenore Gakemeier Swarts Biological Systems Engineering Scholarship, a fund that continues to support students. Each year since the inception of the fund, Swarts makes an effort to meet the scholarship recipients over lunch or dinner. Upon meeting Pannier those many years ago, Swarts saw a remarkable young woman.
“Angie was one of the early recipients, and just watching her through undergrad, she was a representative for the area; she was a rock star,” Swarts said. “She was encouraging other women to get into bioengineering, and then over the years I’ve had the privilege of meeting her and watching her grow.”
Likewise, Pannier was in awe of Swarts’ success, as well as her generosity in meeting with her as a scholarship recipient.
“I was just amazed that someone with all these attributes is spending any time with me, some random student, and is helping fund my education, which was critical for me,” Pannier said.
Passionate about the environment, clean water and medicine, Swarts has continued to support Nebraska’s biological systems engineering program. When Pannier returned to the university as a faculty member, their relationship blossomed into something larger.
Swarts began to ask Pannier what she needed to ensure the department had the support to perform cutting-edge research and continue outstanding educational programs. Pannier’s research focuses on DNA vaccines, tissue engineering of developmental biology, and non-viral gene delivery systems for stem cell and medical device applications. This work — as well as the work of her students — was beginning to attract national and worldwide attention.
Swarts expanded her support for students to include graduate scholar travel awards. She has also supported the creation of a hands-on teaching lab and an annual outstanding graduate student award. When Pannier brought up the idea of funding faculty research, Swarts had a big idea — the Swarts Family Chair in Biological Systems Engineering.
Swarts’ gift will fund the endowed chair, as well as several other endowed faculty positions. The cash stipend that the named chair position provides will be used by Pannier and the students in her lab to pilot innovative projects and explore new areas of research.
“I’m extremely grateful to Dr. Swarts for her unwavering and incredibly generous support of our biological systems engineering department,” said Mike Boehm, NU vice president and Harlan Vice Chancellor for Nebraska’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Our biological systems engineering program has incredible momentum, and this gift infuses more energy into critical work of its faculty, staff and students.”
Pannier said she is honored by the continuous support Swarts has provided her, her students and her department to fulfill their mission.
“I am humbled and grateful that I not only get to hold the endowed chair, but I get to hold the Swarts family endowed chair, endowed by a person who has meant and continues to mean so much to me,” Pannier said.
Swarts’ gifts have created a ripple effect that will reward current and future generations of Husker researchers and students. It’s those direct impacts on individuals that inspire Swarts to continue supporting education and research.
“I see things as what can happen because of what I can contribute,” Swarts said. “I support scholarship because I think students who are interested in learning and progressing deserve that extra help and inspiration.”