News

September 8, 2009

Presidential Praise

Amy Cerato ’99 is the only civil engineer to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers

By Megan Zaroda ’07

Amy Cerato ’99 and her parents were pulling on gardening gloves as they prepared for an afternoon of yard work at Cerato’s lake house. But not before she stole a quick glance at her inbox. And there in her kitchen — a far cry from soil test sites in Oklahoma or a California lab centrifuge — the University of Oklahoma assistant professor opened an email that signified the highlight of her burgeoning career. Cerato had been selected by President Obama as one of the country’s outstanding young engineers.

“I read the email. I read it twice,” recalls Cerato, recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. “Then I started going crazy. It’s just going to be a chance of a lifetime [to meet the president].”

Yard work didn’t get done that afternoon. Instead, the dog-loving water skier set off in her pontoon boat, spending the evening on the lake with her husband, Michael Leary ’99, parents, and three dogs. For Cerato, digging in the dirt wouldn’t quite be the same again.

As the California morning heat beat at her car window, Cerato drove off to a nearby lab to spin soil samples in the centrifuge. Her summer project was to test soft clay’s ability to support the state’s infrastructure under the duress of earthquakes. After three weeks of testing, it was back to Oklahoma where she resumed projects she left behind: testing the soil foundation beneath a large wind power company’s turbines, making recommendations to the Department of Transportation (DOT) on how to best build roads and bridges in expansive and marginal soils, and spending the remainder of the $400,000 grant she was awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The thrust of the NSF research falls in the field of geotechnical engineering, specifically, watching expansive and marginal soils. Cerato first predicts how these soils move — how they expand when saturated with water, how they contract when they later dry out, how wind distributes them, etc. — then how to build foundations that will work with these natural changes. “You have to build with Mother Nature rather than against her,” she says. “You can’t beat her. You need to still allow the soil to swell or chemically remediate it.”

Understanding the soil mechanics is the easy part. Convincing government officials or homeowners to properly build foundations that accommodate for marginal soils is the challenge.

“I’m trying to get homeowners and DOT officials to understand [soil mechanics] so they can build right the first time,” Cerato says. “Taxpayers don’t have the knowledge to be able to do that right now. That’s why I’m trying to do a lot of education and outreach to the public and DOT officials. It might be 45 grand extra now, but save millions of dollars in damages later.”

Millions is an understatement. The destruction related to expansive soils annually racks up $15 billion in damages in the United States, Cerato says, which is the costliest damage to date behind that associated with Hurricane Katrina. Yet problems related to expansive and marginal soils won’t show up on a list of FEMA’s worst natural disasters — nor will they be covered by the average insurance company.

“You have to realize that if a homeowner buys a house, the problems don’t show up for a few years,” Cerato says. “When they can’t open a door three years later, the contractor is no longer liable. Insurance doesn’t pay for ground problems. The homeowner is on the hook –  up to $150,000 to fix it enough to be usable. Sometimes you have to abandon the home. It’s not as catastrophic as a landslide or flood, but it’s more costly because there’s no insurance that covers it.”

Cerato is the only OU professor to have received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, and was the only civil engineer recipient nationally this year. Come November, she will attend two ceremonies: one at the NSF, but more exciting for her, one at the White House. “That’s when I get to bring along my husband,” she says. “Maybe [President Obama] even shakes my hand. It’s the chance of a lifetime. When else will I get to be in a room with the president?”

While the award sets her career on an even faster track, Cerato tempers the workload with an ample amount of diversions. “My motto is ‘work hard, play harder’,” she says. She and her civil engineer husband wrestle with their three dogs, camp at the Oklahoma lakes, and mountain bike yearlong. The self-confessed motorheads have refurbished a ’66 Mustang and a ’67 Chevy pickup, and they’ve gutted and rebuilt their home.

But digging in the dirt is still Cerato’s passion. She boasts an expansive garden and a collection of 75 tropical plants that she has to haul indoors come winter. “If I had another career, I think I’d probably own a nursery, I’d be a tropical plant grower. It’s so relaxing. In my next life, that’s what I’d do,” she says.

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