More In This Article
Her finalist year: 1984
Her finalist project: Studying the effect of vacuum treatments on fiberglass resin composites
What led to the project: Although many girls spend their teen years obsessed with movie stars or rock bands, Carmela Amato-Wierda had a different love: materials science. Her high school chemistry teacher, Victor Brandalise, at Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Brighton, Mass., introduced her to the concept of studying the properties of materials (like metals, alloys and plastics), and helped arrange for her to work in a lab at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Getting there was a public transportation nightmare—a two-hour relay of buses and trains—but Amato-Wierda still made the trip at least three times a week.
At the lab, she studied how changes in the amount of air available in a given environment affected the strength of fiberglass resin composites (which can be used in automobiles and sports equipment); the idea, most likely, she says, was to see if vacuum environments could make the composites stronger. She changed the amount of vacuum in the test environment and took various measurements. She doesn't remember her results, but when she entered them in the 1984 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, she was named a finalist.
Her trip to Washington, D.C., was "very overwhelming," she says. Many of the other finalists "had parents that were scientists and doctors—they had been immersed in that their whole lives." Her father and mother, a mason and homemaker, didn't have the same background—though they were very supportive of their daughter's work.
The effect on her career: Amato-Wierda's Westinghouse experience cemented her desire to study materials science. She went to Harvard University and graduated in 1988 with a double major in chemistry and physics, then to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where she earned her PhD in chemistry. Her dissertation looked at chemical vapor depositions (that is, a gas-phase process often used in industry to coat materials with thin films), particularly studying the chemistry of the reaction involved in putting a film of aluminum nitride on silicon. (That reaction might have industrial applications, she says, but "we really didn't care what we made"—it was more to study the steps of the process).
She also had a lot of fun building a molecular beam mass spectrometer (a machine that could help her study the composition of the gas phase of her chemical vapor depositions) for the project. "I spent most of my time building equipment and collected data for the last six months," she says. She finished grad school in 1993, did her postdoc at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, then joined the faculty at the University of New Hampshire (U.N.H.), in Durham—first in the chemistry department and then, when it was created, the materials science department.