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.

She continued to study chemical vapor deposition. One of her biggest projects over the years has been trying to develop a new way to coat solar panels with silicon nitride (an antireflective coating) at atmospheric pressure, rather than in the vacuum chambers the industry normally uses. In theory this could bring down the cost of manufacturing solar panels, which currently cost too much to make to compete successfully with oil and gas as energy sources. In 2005 she and a small company called GT Solar Technologies won a $100,000 Air Force grant to develop and commercialize the technology.

What she's doing now
: Amato-Wierda enjoyed working on solar technologies, but soon, GT Solar Technologies decided to focus on different research, and on manufacturing.

Eventually Amato-Wierda decided to move on as well, to study how people—children in particular—learn about the particulate nature of matter. U.N.H. research psychologist Michelle Leichtman has been working with Amato-Wierda over the past few months, studying how the students in her materials science classes retrieve information when answering exam questions or working out problems. "I sought out Carmela because I knew her outside the research arena as a devoted science teacher," Leichtman says, noting that Amato-Wierda's eight-year-old son's birthday party was an "unforgettable scene" in which a dozen children learned about the properties of dry ice.

"I've always been fascinated to understand how people learn science—chemistry in particular—because we spend a lot of time trying to teach and sometimes I feel like we don't get very far," Amato-Wierda says. She is convinced that "it has to do with how people interact with the material we're presenting. They're not a blank slate." So she's working with psychologists like Leichtman and behavioral scientists to figure out ways to do classroom testing and set up experiments to understand what makes some people grasp chemical concepts more readily than others. If kids learn very early on that there is a world that can be seen in a magnifying glass, a world of extremely small things all around us, will these children be more comfortable with the concept of an atom or molecule later on?

"Carmela is an ideal collaborator because she has an infectious passion for the physical sciences, years of careful observation of how students approach scientific material, and a profound interest in understanding how to improve their conceptual mastery," Leichtman says. "In her classrooms, she uses an unusual array of hands-on exercises to drive home the relevance of material to students"—for instance, stringing together chains of beads she purchased at Wal-Mart to represent the structure of polymers.

The idea is to help science educators do their jobs better. "What I'm hoping to do is figure out better ways that we can teach chemistry," Amato-Wierda says. "Everyone needs to understand science because it's so important to everyday living."