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Serving Society by Studying Shifting Soil

University of Oklahoma geotechnical engineer Amy Cerato in her laboratory on campus. (Image credit: Chuck Zovko, Lafayette College)

Editor's Note: ScienceLives is an occasional series that puts scientists under the microscope to find out what makes them tick. The series is a cooperation between the National Science Foundation and LiveScience.

Amy Cerato, an engineer at the University of Oklahoma, investigates how the shrinking and swelling of certain soils impacts building foundations and other structures. The shrink-swell phenomenon, a result of changing levels of moisture, is widespread and creates problems in many areas of the country. The data she is gathering will help engineers design infrastructure that may withstand such stresses. Cerato was selected to receive one of this year's Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers. The awards, which include a research grant that can span up to five years, are intended to recognize some of the finest scientists and engineers who, early in their research careers, show exceptional potential for leadership at the frontiers of scientific knowledge. Cerato received the award during a ceremony at the White House on Jan. 13, 2010. The awards, created during the Clinton administration, have been granted since 1996 and are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees must have demonstrated that they pursue innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and show a commitment to community service.

Name: Amy B. Cerato    Age: 32 Institution: University of Oklahoma Field of Study: Geotechnical Engineering

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

I was always interested in the outdoors and was exposed by my family to all sorts of engineering-like activities growing up. I really wanted to choose a profession where I could help the most people. Civil Engineering is the oldest engineering profession and is all about serving society. I love the fact that I research interesting topics that can be directly applied to making a home, roadway or bridge safer for the public. 


What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

The best piece of advice I ever received was to love what you do and work won't feel like work. 


What was your first scientific experiment as a child?

The first scientific experiment-like experience that I can remember was when I was in 1st or 2nd grade. We wanted to see if fresh water clams and snails could clean my family's pond. We had an algae problem from the farmer's field runoff and we wanted to be able to swim in the pond without getting sick, so we threw in a bunch of clams and snails and low and behold, a few weeks later, the water was crystal clear!


What is your favorite thing about being a researcher?

I love thinking about new aspects of engineering everyday and what problems society needs solved. If I find something interesting, I am free to explore it. 


What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be effective?

As with most professions, a scientist or engineer must be hard-working to be effective. A person can be creative and intelligent, but if they don't couple that with hard-work and diligence, nothing will ever get done.

What are the societal benefits of your research? Every year, Americans spend almost $15 billion dollars on remediating damage caused by expansive soils. I am studying how better to predict expansive soil movement and build stronger and longer-lasting foundations for our critical infrastructure.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher?

I had a professor in my undergraduate soil mechanics course who really got me interested in soil mechanics and foundation engineering and stressed the societal importance of the profession. Her enthusiasm was contagious!

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most? Unlike engineers portrayed on TV as boring and nerdy, engineers are some of the most interesting and exciting people I know. We are the movers and shakers of the world and love to think big. No great invention or progress comes without taking great risks. 

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be?

I would rescue my computer's hard-drive. Everything else can be replaced!


What music do you play most often in your lab or car?

I love all types of music, including country, alternative rock, jazz, blues and classical.  It depends on what part of the country I'm in and the stations available.