January 14, 2010

Amy Cerato ’99 is Saluted at the White House

She receives the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers

President Barack Obama saluted Amy Cerato ’99 as one of the nation’s most outstanding young researchers Wednesday in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

In July, Cerato, a civil engineering graduate, was named a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. The award, which recognizes exceptional potential for leadership at the frontiers of scientific knowledge, as well as a commitment to community service, is the highest honor the government bestows on young professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

“These extraordinarily gifted young scientists and engineers represent the best in our country,” Obama said. “With their talent, creativity, and dedication, I am confident that they will lead their fields in new breakthroughs and discoveries and help us use science and technology to lift up our nation and our world.”

Cerato, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Oklahoma, was at home when she learned about the honor. “I read the email. I read it twice. Then I started going crazy,” she recalled.

Her research focuses on the design and construction of strong foundations for critical infrastructures, particularly in marginal soils.

“In the United States, about a quarter of our landmass is covered by expansive soils. Expansive soils are unsaturated soils in arid environments that, when it rains, the soil swells, and when it’s very dry, like in the summers here in Oklahoma, the soil shrinks,” Cerato said Monday in an interview with KGOU, National Public Radio’s affiliate in Norman, Okla. “This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on anything we build in the soil, such as homes, roadways, and bridges, and it can cause cracking and swelling.”

Cerato says the United States spends $15 billion a year repairing infrastructure built on expansive soils, more than the amount spent on damage caused by floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes combined.

Among other projects, Cerato is now working on predicting the behavior of expansive soils by studying their electrical properties. She aims to develop a device that contractors can use to test soil before building a home.

“We want to give contractors something that’s easy but accurate,” she told KGOU. “Right now they do very little testing of the soil. We want to give them some tools that they can use to test the soil and go back to the homeowner and say, ‘This is a problem spot, and we need to think about changing the foundation design.’ I think that’s going to save billions and billions of dollars over the long run. In 10 years I’d like to see something like this adopted across the country.”

While the presidential award sets her career on an even faster track, Cerato tempers the workload with an ample amount of diversions. She and husband Michael Leary ’99 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.

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