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Athena honors women at science lab-themed event

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Talent and ambition formed a chemical reaction of high energy and celebration of women Wednesday at Athena’s science lab-themed Pinnacle Awards.

Athena’s 2013 Pinnacle Awards featured five high school seniors who were chosen for this year's scholarship recipients. They sat on a panel and won the crowd over with their intelligence, wit, accomplishments, slight awkwardness and even singing talent.

Five awards were also presented in life sciences, education, technology, services and a corporate award. The 2013 Pinnacle Awards celebrated its 15th anniversary with the theme “Create your destiny.”

Connie Matsui, board member and chair of the Compensation Committee for Halozyme Therapeutics (Nasdaq: HALO), won the individual in life sciences award. She previously served as executive vice president at Biogen Idec (Nasdaq: BIIB), and also worked for Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC). She has helped facilitate medical breakthroughs that have helped people around the world. She was inducted into the Stanford Alumni Hall of Fame, served in many leadership roles with the Girl Scouts and was recognized as an International Year of the Volunteer from the United Nations Association of the USA Council of Organizations.

Barbara Noerenberg, vice president of program management at Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM), won the individual in technology award. She joined Qualcomm in 1994 and manages all program aspects of the research and development organization with a $130 million budget and more than 500 employees. Noerenberg has developed initiatives that encourage and guide girls and women to advance in their careers. She has served as a Girl Scout leader for more than 10 years and has served on the boards of directors of Athena San Diego and Whispering Winds. She received the YMCA TWIN Award and the North County Chamber of Commerce Women in Business Award.

Saura Naderi won the individual in education award. Naderi is the University of California, San Diego outreach director for the NSF Variability Program and founded the myLab program in 2009. MyLab provides workshops for UCSD undergraduates and K-12 students in underserved areas of San Diego. At the beginning of every myLab program, about 20 percent of the women indicate interest in science, technology, engineering and mathmatics (STEM) fields. That number jumps to 80 percent after completing a workshop or class series.

Gaylene Xanthopoulos, president and founder at The Leadership Edge Inc., won the individual in services award. Her company’s program, From the Laboratory to Leadership, has enhanced the management skills of more than 3,500 scientific leaders from about 300 life science companies. She developed formal programs and one-on-one coaching that her company has used to help nearly 2,000 female managers and executives in life sciences define their personal leadership style, identify and leverage their strengths and build leadership and management skills.

Sanford Rose Associates – San Diego won the corporate Pinnacle Award. Sanford Rose Associates is an executive search firm with the goal of helping women in all stages of their careers build their professional network, share ideas and experiences, and gain insight on their personal and professional goals.

Barbara Bry, chief operating officer at Blackbird Ventures, received the founders award. Blackbird Ventures invests in early-stage technology companies. Bry played a central role in founding Athena San Diego and served as its first executive director. She serves on the Athena San Diego Foundation board, and mentors female entrepreneurs through Athena, UCSD and multicity networks such as Geek Girl and Women 2.0.

There were about 150 applications for the scholarship award, which were narrowed down to five finalists – Melodyanne Cheng, Teodora Dinescu, Ellen Douglass, Vaishnavi Rao and Claudia See. Each finalist was awarded a $5,000 scholarship, and each has to maintain a certain grade-point average and prove they are continuing studies in science, technology, engineering or math. Each finalst also received a Sony Vaio laptop.

The scholarship finalists allowed the audience to see that in addition to their many accomplishments, they also enjoy tennis, swimming, writing, playing musical instruments and watching “The Big Bang Theory.”

“Do you guys ever just do things without having to enter a competition? Oh, and win, by the way?” asked emcee Rory Devine.

Rao, a senior at Canyon Crest Academy, sang Indian classical songs for the Athena audience and asked for advice on whether she should attend Yale University or Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall. She said she submerged her teddy bear into a bucket of water when she was 2 years old to test its buoyancy -- and she reassured the audience that she was not just trying to drown it.

See, also a senior at Canyon Crest Academy, explained how her coach-less dive team used a coaching manual to imitate the stick-figure drawings to learn how to dive. She has also sung karaoke with the homeless on Los Angeles’s Skid Row.

Cheng, a senior at Torrey Pines High School, wrote that the Athena scholarship will not only help financially but will give her “solidarity with the women of Athena” and a chance to “refute social chauvinism.” She said a male classmate told her she only got into college because she’s a girl -- “I know, right? Burn,” she said. She’s going to Stanford this fall. Her response to him was, “Girl power.”

Dinescu, a senior at Santana High School, said her friends compare her to Sheldon Cooper from the television show “The Big Bang Theory.” She's also on her school's swim team, but said she never thought of herself as the best swimmer, so when others didn’t win, she’s able to relate to and support them.

Douglass, a senior at Ramona High School, started playing tennis in her freshman year and in her senior year the team won its first league championship. She won first place at the Del Mar Fair for a photograph she took of a butterfly at San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

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