Her finalist year: 1944
Her finalist project: Growing plants with chemicals rather than soil
What led to the project: Sister Julia Mary Deiters (born Rosemary Deiters) grew up in the 1930s in a family that liked to experiment. Though neither of her parents had been educated past eighth grade, her mother turned her kitchen into a culinary laboratory, testing recipe concepts on her kids before serving them to her bridge group. Her father redesigned his alarm clock to switch on their home's furnace before he got out of bed. Deiters grew particularly fascinated with science after her older brother started studying engineering at nearby Xavier University.
So, at the all-girls Mount Saint Joseph Academy outside Cincinnati, Ohio, she designed an experiment in hydroponics—growing plants in mineral solutions or chemicals rather than soil. "It had been used in some places then," she says, in the early 1940's, "but it wasn't nearly as widespread as it is now. I was trying to show if [plants] would grow well under those conditions." She doesn't remember the details of which solutions she used, but the project, combined with her scores on the test the Westinghouse Science Talent Search gave students at the time, earned her a 1944 finalist berth. "I was very surprised," she says, but also very excited to take an overnight train to Washington, D.C.
The effect on her career: Being a finalist was "very affirming," Deiters says. "I guess it convinced me that I did want to go into [the] sciences." But another experience in the nation's capital also had a profound effect on her. One of Deiters' fellow finalists, Nancy (Durant) Edmonds, was an African-American girl who lived near the city, which was still segregated at the time. One free evening, several of the girls planned to go off on their own for dinner. People suggested several restaurants, but Durant wasn't going to be allowed in any of them. "We ended up going to the YWCA," Deiters says. "I knew there was prejudice, and I'd experienced some of it and seen some of it in Cincinnati, but this brought it up right in front of me," and struck her as "ridiculous."
At the College of Mount Saint Joseph in Cincinnati, where she enrolled as a math and chemistry major, she continued to think about issues of social justice. She talked with many of the Sisters of Charity, the order of nuns who taught there, prayed a lot, and noticed things around her.