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.
One summer before her junior year, she was vacationing in Michigan with her family when she met some migrant farmers who were picking strawberries. She started talking to one of their daughters, a nine-year-old who was sitting with her infant brother under a tree. The baby's face had been badly scarred in a recent car accident. Deiters asked the girl if she had taken the child to a hospital, and the girl replied that they didn't have any money. Deiters remembers thinking "this kind of poverty is not right." She also thought, "Maybe if I go into education I can help—I can help educate people so they don't have to live in poverty like that."
She hadn't planned to become a Sister of Charity, but after much more prayer, "that seemed to be the direction God was calling me." She took her vows to become a member of the order in 1947, shortly before finishing her bachelor’s degree in math and chemistry. She taught high school math and science in Michigan and Ohio for 25 years.
In 1975, though, she found her true calling. She was teaching high school girls in Cincinnati when someone asked her to help tutor adults from the inner city who had dropped out of school. "I found out there was not much available for adults who had not completed high school and later realized that they had made a mistake," she says. She began teaching math, science and other topics in GED (“general education development”) classes. Then she started founding GED programs, including the Terrace Guild Adult Education program and later the Literacy Network of Greater Cincinnati (LNGC). She estimates that she helped 400 to 500 students earn their GEDs over the years.
Nona Rhodes, the LNGC's executive director from 1988 to 2000, puts the number of students she's influenced in the "thousands". "She's a very brilliant lady," Rhodes says. "She's very compassionate and very understanding of what adult students are going through. She can always find the positive side of everyone." In recognition of her work, Rhodes (and others) nominated Deiters for The Cincinnati Enquirer's annual Woman of the Year award in 2001. She happened to have severe laryngitis on the day a reporter called to tell her she would be one of 10 winners. "I said 'I'm speechless in more ways than one,'" Deiters recalls.
What she's doing now: Deiters retired from active teaching and administration in 2002 after undergoing a heart valve replacement. She now spends her days reading, gardening, exercising—"I work out with weights," she says—and helping other Sisters of Charity get to doctors' appointments. She credits becoming a sister with helping her share her love of math, science and learning in general with so many people over the years. "Had I married, I would have been able to do some things for others outside the family," she says. But becoming a sister "gave me the opportunity to serve far more people."