Georgetown Trailblazer Reflects on Her Experiences in the First Co-ed STEM Class

Carmen Ortiz Larsen (C’73) is the CEO and founder of AQUAS, Inc.—an engineering and technology business located in Kensington, Maryland.

Why did you choose Georgetown University?

Head shot of Carmen Ortiz Larsen holding a bouquet of flowers.
Carmen Ortiz Larsen (C’73)

I was born and raised in Rome, Italy. My parents were Ecuadorian immigrants who first came to the United States when my dad had received a Fulbright scholarship to Columbia University. When we moved to the U.S. in 1968, I wanted a school close to my parents that offered a physics program. Georgetown University seemed like a friendly campus. I had heard that they were keen on inclusion, and had a diverse student population, so when Georgetown accepted me, I was happy to accept in return.

What surprised you when you arrived at Georgetown?

Being new to the U.S., I did not know that American college students often attend a university away from home. That does not happen so much in Italy, nor in Ecuador, so I was surprised to find out that most students did not commute. Luckily, there was a D.C. Club at Georgetown for commuting students. I also did not know that the College had only accepted men until 1969.

What kind of challenges did you face that first year?

During the admission interview, the dean asked me if I wanted to attend this particular university to meet a suitable husband. Yes, during that time in history, this was not an unusual interview question; I was still put off by that suggestion. Indignant, I responded that my passion was to pursue my studies in physics. I guess he decided I was Georgetown material; I received my acceptance letter shortly thereafter.

In the fall of 1969, when I began, the College accepted 50 women and only 15 of these as science majors. It was not an easy adjustment period, with most men in the sciences looking at women as though we were from another planet. But eventually we became friends and got used to working side by side in lecture halls, labs, and study groups.

This was my first experience as a minority in the U.S., being female in a mostly male environment. I did not feel that my being Hispanic was an issue. Georgetown has always portrayed cultural and ethnic diversity in a positive light.

Which professor left the most lasting impression on you?

Jan Larsen, at left, in a suit, holds a piece of paper with Carmen Ortiz Larsen, center, in a wedding dress, and Rev. Thomas M. King, S.J., at right, during a wedding ceremony. All three people are smiling.
Jan Larsen (C’73) and Carmen Ortiz Larsen are wed in Dahlgren Chapel by Rev. Thomas M. King, S.J.

In the early ’70s, it was a requirement to take either a philosophy or a theology course each semester. Rev. Thomas M. King, S.J., was a favorite professor. He didn't miss a beat when I disrupted his class on Saint Augustine by stating that I thought that quite a few heroes in the Catholic Church seemed to be male chauvinists; he engaged me in debate, agreed with many of the points I made, and finally invited me to present my argument to a subsequent class. I loved that he listened and did not automatically dismiss my viewpoints. When I married Jan Larsen (C’73) in Dahlgren Chapel, we asked Father King to preside.

What changes did you create at Georgetown?

During my junior year, my classmates deliberated as to who should run for president of the Physics Club. A classmate approached me and suggested he ought to be president because he was the best suited for the role. I responded "What if I wanted to run for president?" to which he retorted, "We don't want a girl to be president, we want someone who knows what they're doing."

Of course, I just had to run for president of the Physics Club at that point. I was surprised when I was elected as the first woman president of the Physics Club. It was a good way to learn about elected office, and how to set up organizations.

Soon after that, a few of us got together to save the Francis J. Heyden Observatory, which was at risk of being sold or demolished. We collected signatures of support and pleaded our case with the school administration. To save it, we had to demonstrate its value to students, so we set off to clean it, paint it, and establish it as an important and living monument to the science students of Georgetown University. We also established an Astronomy Club and weekly star gazing nights as a part of the Club's activities.

How did Georgetown prepare you for a transition into the field of health care and technology?

Carmen Ortiz Larsen poses, sitting, for a picture with her collaborators. Two other men sit. Five men stand in the back, and one woman.
Carmen Ortiz Larsen established a technology business in 1980 with another Georgetown physics student, Keith King (C’73).

When I graduated from Georgetown as a physics/pre-med major, and entered graduate school courses at Georgetown in the fall, Dr. Paul Treado recommended that I join the team that was testing the CT scanner prior to its introduction in the market. With his support, I joined the research and engineering team and worked at the Georgetown University Hospital Nuclear Medicine Department supporting Drs. Ledley, Schillinger, and Ommaya in exploring how to best use this new equipment to identify issues primarily related to brain injuries. This opportunity gave me exposure to patients, neurologists, radiologists, computers and engineering equipment, and X-ray technology.

I enjoyed working with patients and learning their stories, and at the same time was fascinated to learn about the computer algorithms that extrapolated and converted X-ray data to images. In my later work in information systems and consulting, I used my knowledge of health care organizations, computerized capture of diagnostic testing, and data analytics to secure new opportunities in the health care and environmental science industries. My training in physics provides the foundation for communicating complex technical solutions to non-technical customers, while my early exposure to health care technology and patient care helps me feel at home in applying technology to clinical settings.

Tell us about the company you created and run, AQUAS.

I started AQUAS, Inc. in 1979 right after the birth of my daughter Michelle. Today, the company is 37 years old. We are still a small business, but our history is rich and rewarding. I never gave up, even when times were tough and answers seemed to evade me—another lesson from my physics days.

Where can we see the impacts of AQUAS' work in daily life?

I like to ride the passenger train at Dulles Airport, because AQUAS engineers tested and commissioned these Mitsubishi unmanned vehicles. At the grocery store, I smile when I see USDA inspected and quality graded poultry and eggs, because AQUAS nationwide computer applications process that information. At 150 Veteran Health Administration hospitals, clinical ethics referrals are being documented and tracked daily in a system that we architected and built. Knowing that we created solutions that are widely used today is very rewarding.

How do you follow the Georgetown tradition of women and men for others?

A man and a woman in black blazers, at left, pose smiling for a picture with Carmen Ortiz Larsen, in a red blazer, at right. The woman on the left shakes hands with Carmen in front of the Montgomery College seal and the American flag.
Carmen Ortiz Larsen delivers scholarships to students in Montgomery County, Maryland, in 2015.

About 12 years ago, I had the opportunity to provide some leadership to the Hispanic Business Foundation of Maryland (HBFMD), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit for which I am now a board chair. In working with Montgomery County in youth gang prevention efforts, I met community leaders, and learned about the graduation gap that exists for minority community youth with economic challenges.

I concluded that if we want a healthier community, we must insist on providing better learning opportunities for disenfranchised youth. There are some great kids who are smart and willing to learn, but are strangled by poverty and cannot see a good way out.

So I started a program called Partnership Youth Initiative within HBFMD that is still working today. It is a program to teach kids job skills; place them in mentored internships; expose them to entrepreneurial and organizational management opportunities; and provide them with a financial award for participation. It gets them out of their environment, connects them with adults who are successful and responsible, and teaches students about business in a unique and personal way.

How can Georgetown alumni help the Partnership Youth Initiative?

If readers are interested in mentoring local students, offering mentored internships, supporting entrepreneurial programs, or speaking at events regarding their trade or careers, they can call 301-332-2686 or email info@hbfmd.org. Let us know that you read this article! Donations are tax deductible and the results are very tangible.