Meet Amy Cerato: Geotechnical EngineerApril 14, 2010
The summer before her junior year of high school, Amy Cerato spent six weeks revegetating trails and building bridges in the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park as part of a summer program through the Student Conservation Association. Amy and her team members lived in tents six miles in the back country, in a place so remote that food had to be delivered by helicopter. To provide purified water for her team, Amy was tasked with creating a gravitational filtration system. Upon seeing her handiwork, the team leader told Amy she would make a good engineer. Although at the time Amy had never really thought about the engineering field, those words have since taken her far.
In fact, on January 13, 2010, those words took her all the way to the East Room of the White House, where she received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), along with 99 other young scientists and researchers. Amy, a 2004–05 AAUW Selected Professions Fellow, was the only civil engineer in the group. The award is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to outstanding scientists and engineers starting their independent careers. According to Amy, President Obama told recipients he was excited about the awards because the recipients symbolize the promise of nascent careers and the value of research to come.
Amy was awarded the PECASE for a research project in her field of geotechnical engineering, the application of geology to engineering. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the study analyzes expansive soils, commonly found in the Midwest and Western states, that swell when it rains and shrink when the weather is warm—putting stress on anything built into the soil. In the United States, approximately $15 billion is spent each year on fixing problems related to expansive soil. In fact, Amy notes that in an average year more money is spent mitigating issues caused by expansive soil than on damage related to landslides, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods combined.
This project is only one of the many in which Amy is currently involved. Her research team, consisting of a few faculty members and students, has over $2 million worth of external research currently taking place. Other projects include a helical anchor, which can be screwed into the ground and used to support a 10-kilowatt wind turbine, and a Department of Transportation project to develop better roadways by improving the subgrade soil on which roadways are often built. One of the most rewarding aspects of Amy’s research is that it is all applied: “The best part is coming up with better solutions for societal issues.”
It is the value of making society better that Amy feels should be emphasized more in promoting science, technology, engineering, and math careers to young girls. “We need to change the message to capture more of the talent,” said Amy. Who knows? With just the right words perhaps more can be done to direct girls interested in science and math down the same path Amy has traveled.