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[Editor's note: Terra Associate Editor Lee Sherman is reporting from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw, Poland, on research by Gregg Walker, Oregon State professor of speech communications.]
I’m sitting at a laptop that’s locked onto a long table of laptops in the vast IT space in Warsaw’s national stadium. Hunched at row after row of computer tables are a couple hundred people from all over the world. Side by side, we’re sending emails and reading the latest updates on the mega-conference in which we are participating: COP19, the 19th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Gregg Walker, the Oregon State University speech professor I’m shadowing, calls it a “climate change city.” That’s exactly how it feels. Just like in a city, the energy here is driven, determined. These 10,000 representatives of nations from the mightiest to the tiniest, along with the scientists and activists with non-governmental organizations, university students and academics like Walker, are here for nothing less than saving the planet and its inhabitants from climate devastation. The mission couldn’t be more urgent. As one delegate said today, “Climate change isn’t waiting.”
Ironically, averting the biggest global crisis ever to face humanity sometimes means parsing the minutia of language. Yesterday I sat through a meeting on an adaptation report in which the delegates debated the merits of the verb “urge” versus “encourage” in Paragraph 10 and critiqued the appropriateness of the adjective “serious” to modify the noun “shortfall.” It was excruciating.
Meanwhile, a stunning photo exhibition in the halls of the plenary sessions literally looks you in the eye, like the conscience of the convention. Titled Arbores Vitae, the photos of Jan Walencik document the “last Ëuropean primeval forest”–the Bialowieza. The photographer brings the viewer into the untouched and teeming swamp where bison, wolves, pygmy owls, black storks and wolves live as if the world were brand new.
The delegates hurry down the hallway to their meetings as the images look on silently.
Oregon State University students increasingly use the globe as their campus. They might live with a family in the Amazon rainforest, go scuba diving in the Caribbean and hear life-changing stories in health clinics in South Africa and India. They witness wildlife management on an African safari ranch and in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal.
These are just a few of the experiences that have expanded their horizons in recent years. And with a helping hand from the International Degree and Education Abroad (IDEA) program, students are successfully navigating the logistics (everything from visas to vaccinations) and securing academic credit for their studies. IDEA staff also assist students in managing their finances and identifying scholarship opportunities to cover the costs.
“We help students go through the steps to apply and also work with their departments to make sure the experiences meet academic standards for course credit,” says LeAnn Adam, education abroad adviser with IDEA.
Students interested in adding an international experience to their resume can talk with students who have already spent time abroad. “We have student ambassadors who have gone overseas and know what it’s like to be away from home,” adds Adam. “They are available Monday through Friday to mentor students.”
IDEA partners with organizations that coordinate more than 200 international experiences as diverse as formal internships and term-long student exchanges. They specialize in areas such as social justice, natural resources and health care. See an interactive Google map of Oregon State study-abroad and IE3 Global Internships sites.
Students can call IDEA at 541-737-7006 or visit the office in the University Plaza, 1600 SW Western Ave., suite 130.
Last February, when Lisa Baldinger arrived in Belém, a city of 2 million people on Brazil’s north coast, she didn’t speak a word of Portuguese. “I didn’t even know how to say ‘hello,’” she says. Baldinger had gone to Brazil to learn about grassroots environmental management in the Amazon rainforest. She came home with a deeper, more personal view of the people whose lives are at stake in those threatened ecosystems.
The senior in Oregon State University’s Natural Resources Program took intensive language lessons, lived with a host family and planned a research project with Leonardo Sena, a professor at the Federal University of Pará in Belém. She even journeyed to a remote rainforest village, Vila Gorete, on the Arapiuns River, which flows into an Amazon tributary. There, she learned how women earn a living by weaving colorful baskets, purses, hats and other items from native reeds. More importantly, she saw how they carefully tend plants, roots and seed pods in the forest to maintain a livelihood that they will hand down to their daughters.
“These crafts have been in their community for ages,” says Baldinger, “but now they are learning how to do them sustainably and for economic gain.”
Baldinger was the only Oregon college student who participated last spring in a Brazilian expedition organized by Student International Training (SIT), a nonprofit foundation in Brattleboro, Vermont. She learned about the organization through OSU’s International Degree and Education Abroad (IDEA) program, which links Oregon State students with more than 200 approved study-abroad groups.
“SIT is special because they include directed research in their program,” says LeAnn Adam, education abroad adviser with IDEA. “That’s a great help for students in the University Honors College or International Degree program and for graduate school applications.”
Up a Lazy River
Once in Brazil, Baldinger connected with a nonprofit community development group, Saude e Alegria (Health and Happiness). The group made arrangements for her to visit Artisans of the Forest, the women’s craft cooperative in Vila Gorete. Getting there, however, meant an eight-hour adventure by riverboat from Santarém, a city at the confluence of the Amazon and the Tapajós rivers.Great IDEA
The International Degree and Education Abroad program assists students in finding a great fit for an international experience.
“I took a plane to Santarém and walked down to the river. I looked at the big boats and then at the medium sized boats. I’m still not finding the name,” says Baldinger. “And then I came to these little family boats and finally see the name. I walked on, and the caption smiled at me. And I asked in Portuguese if this is the boat to Vila Gorete, and he says ‘Yes, yes, I’ve been expecting you, American.’”
The boat looked like it could hold about 10 people, she says, but during the journey, as many as 30 were onboard, some swaying in hammocks hung along the sides as the vessel worked its way up the broad, tree-lined reaches of the Tapajós. It also picked up and dropped off cargo such as food, appliances and local crafts bound for urban markets.
Life in Vila Gorete
Few Americans visit Vila Gorete, Baldinger learned. One day, as she and a group of kids were motoring upstream, one boy stroked her arm. “He asked me why I am so white,” she says. “Then another boy chimed in: ‘Most of the Americans are white, but they have a black president.’”
When she first arrived, members of the women’s cooperative, the weavers whose practices she wanted to study, were hesitant to talk to her. But she soon found a way into their hearts.
Baldinger is adept at doing handstands, a skill that is particularly useful in a popular Brazilian game known as capoeira. It didn’t take long for Baldinger to be playing and laughing with the kids. And it didn’t hurt that she had a stash of candy to share. When the weavers saw that the American had been accepted by their children, they welcomed her as well.
One morning, the artisans invited Baldinger for a breakfast of coffee and deep-fried tapioca donuts and then taught her their weaving techniques. That afternoon, one of the women took Baldinger to meet the weavers in their homes. They showed her the tall bamboo-like plants from which they split the reeds, the plant whose roots they dig to create their brilliant yellow dye and the seed pods that yield red dye.
“Their technique is a simple weave,” she says, “but they have the most amazing dyes, and they do really intricate designs.”
With help from Saude e Alegria, Artisans of the Forest sells weavings in the cities (Santarém, Belém and São Paolo), but they don’t want to expand. They prefer, she says, to sell their products locally, within the limits of their resources.
“Saving” the Amazon
As a student in the College of Forestry’s Natural Resources Program, Baldinger has chosen to focus on the human dimensions option. “I think of it as the sociology of the environment,” she says. So during her experience in Brazil, she thought hard about how the women and children in this small village used the forest. She also saw that community was struggling to survive. The young adults had left for the cities, and the men were away working in the mines. And she saw how the artisans were using their natural resources to make a living for their families.
Meeting people and understanding their lives are prerequisites, she says, to developing policies for natural resource conservation. Although biodiversity is important, there’s more to forest management than just preserving habitat.
As a child growing up in Benicia, California, and even as a college student, Baldinger had viewed the Amazon rainforest as a place to be “saved.” By the time she was ready to fly home three months later, her views had changed. In Vila Gorete, she saw people using the forest with respect, and she met cattle ranchers who eked out livelihoods on land that had been cleared for crops and pasture.
One comment from a villager still haunts her. “I heard this person say, ‘You’re an American. You don’t own the Amazon.’ They see it as, we messed up our resources and now we want theirs. They want to harvest their resources. I think it’s important that we compare notes and listen to each other. I don’t things will change through bitter remarks.”
For Courtney Jackson, everything began when she saw a shark swim across a television screen. She was in second grade, and the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week took her underwater and face-to-face with fearsome predators. At the end of it, she came to one conclusion: She wanted to be the scientist swimming with the sharks. A decade earlier, the movie Jaws might have terrified the world with dramatic shark attacks, but Jackson was more inspired than frightened.
Now a senior at Oregon State University, Jackson is still pursuing that goal through her studies in marine biology. “Nothing else has interested me as much as the ocean and everything that lives in it,” she says. A native of Olympia, Washington, she chose OSU over the University of Hawaii and schools in Seattle because Oregon State allows her to enjoy life in a smaller city away from a bustling urban center. She was also attracted to nearby beaches, OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Fleet headquarters just over the Coast Range in Newport.
Shortly after Jackson’s arrival at OSU, a chance to do research came during a meeting with her adviser. After expressing a desire to do an internship, she was soon volunteering three hours a week in Bruce Menge’s lab. Menge, a Distinguished Professor of Marine Biology, is also one of the leaders of a West Coast marine research consortium known as PISCO, the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Study of Coastal Oceans. Its focus is the ecology of the coastal ocean and the intertidal zone. That summer, Jackson started a three-month internship with PISCO.
Jackson and a team of graduate students, research technicians and other undergraduate assistants split their time between the coast and a lab in Corvallis. Most days, Jackson can be found in the lab at a microscope, counting and cataloging young mussels, barnacles and the other tiny organisms that PISCO is monitoring in the intertidal zone. To collect them, scientists fasten pieces of boat decking and mesh sponges to the rocks where they will be washed and covered regularly by the tide. Species trying to eek out a living on the rocks attach to these small platforms.
Prepared for Rain
Days in the field are nothing like days in the lab. Instead of a typical nine-to-five routine, Jackson and her team are on the road before dawn, heading to a field site to catch the tide as it’s going out. Clad in “lots and lots of rain gear,” as she puts it, Jackson and her lab mates work to beat the clock — to collect samples before the tide comes back in. They scramble over the slick, jagged surface to reach the experimental devices installed among the anemones and mussels. They take water samples, count species and measure specimens. Their data help PISCO scientists understand these diverse marine ecosystems and contributes to decisions about the management of near-shore waters.
This mission is what drives Jackson. “I don’t care if it’s pouring rain; I have the rain gear,” she says. “I really like being able to be around the ocean and be involved in something that’s an actual experiment that’s going to better something out there.” The wind, the rain, the rocks covered in slippery algae and flooding her rain boots are just part of the experience.
She may not be swimming with sharks just yet, but for now, getting her feet wet will do just fine.
When David Noakes asks me if I want to go into the fish trap, I don’t hesitate. Of course! What science writer worth her salt wouldn’t? As I tug on a pair of waders and shrug into a rubberized jacket, I imagine myself getting a brief lesson in fisheries biology — how to net a few salmon, clip a few fins, scrape a few scales — a tranquil tutorial at the Oregon Hatchery Research Center’s annual Fall Festival.
Carefully, I descend the ladder into the concrete cavern that hatchery staff call “the pit,” scanning the surface for hints of fish. But the chilly green waters are opaque, revealing nothing. I can’t even see the bottom of the ladder. It vanishes into the water, which is diverted from Fall Creek. Tentatively, I feel for the last few rungs with my feet. The chill water presses the waders tight against my skin. Finally, I step onto solid concrete.
I’m waist-deep now, still clueless about what’s to come.
The trap is a barrier meant to stop hatchery fish that might aspire to spawn upstream. Only wild salmon and trout — Chinook, Coho, rainbow, cutthroat — are allowed to contribute their genes in the watershed above OHRC, where Noakes leads studies on Northwest fisheries along with scientists from all over the world.
The trap works like a corral. Hatchery manager Joseph O’Neil herds the still-unseen fish into one end of the pit with a moveable, gate-like barrier. After teaching me and fellow novice Doug Brusa of the OSU Foundation how to take fin samples with a paper punch and how to scrape scale samples into little white envelopes, he gives instructions on netting the fish and then climbs over the portable barrier into the trap. He readies himself with a massive net on a long metal pole.
Still, the fish are only hypothetical for me. I haven’t seen one even though I’m told that they’re swimming all around me. So far on this Saturday afternoon in the serenity of the Alsea River Watershed, I’ve eaten a piece of Fall Festival cake (baked at The Thyme Garden, owned by Janet and Rolf Hagen and their daughter, OSU fisheries alumna Bethany), built a birdhouse to take home, watched an American dipper ply the stream with fishlike prowess, and witnessed the glistening backs of several salmon spawning in a pool downstream from the trap. Those shimmering dorsal fins have been the only evidence that fish actually inhabit these waters.
So when O’Neil readies his net, I’m unprepared for what happens next. He scoops it deep beneath the water’s surface and he lifts. As it breaks the surface, a violent thrashing ensues. In the net, a silver-sided salmon the length of a super-cruiser longboard flails and thrashes with astounding power, writhing and flopping and contorting its massive body, water flying across the pit in great splashes into my face, drenching my hair. Reflexively, I back up, startled by the violence of the salmon’s protest.
When the Chinook settles down, O’Neil shows us the telltale blackish lips that distinguish its species. I can see the fish’s teeth, white and sharp. He shows us how to sex the fish by “milking” it for sperm. With his paper punch, he takes three samples from the caudal fin, which I collect from his glove into vials numbered for each fish. Back at the lab, scientists will analyze the samples, along with scales scraped from the fish’s sides, to determine what the fish has eaten and where it has traveled, as well as which genetic stock it originated from.
After the third or fourth fish gets sampled and measured, Noakes — who has been capturing the whole experience on his camera — tells O’Neil to hand me a Chinook. I hold out my arms and, as the 20-pounder settles against my chest, I look up at Noakes with a tentative smile. It’s dreamlike, holding this fish whose travels have taken it far out to sea and back to this place, at this moment.
After seven or eight massive fish have been sampled and released to spawn upstream, I’m getting chilled. I climb out and give my waders to an OSU student who wants a chance in the pit. By the time Doug Brusa finishes his stint, his hands are trembling with the cold. Turns out he had a leak in his waders and is soaked to the skin.
As I drive home along the creek, I think about the salmon that return to these waters in their urgent drive to survive another generation. I look at the late sun glinting on the surface and imagine the life struggling beneath, fighting to sustain itself yet another season, another year.
I’ve held it in my arms.
On a warm afternoon last summer in the hills west of Corvallis, three Oregon State University students went hiking in the McDonald-Dunn Forest when they became “lost.” A few scattered belongings — a backpack, shoes, a shirt — marked their trail in an emergency response exercise. Rather than send out a full-scale operation on foot in the steep terrain, a rescue team launched an unmanned aerial vehicle, the suitcase-sized Vapor made by Pulse Aerospace of Lakewood, Colorado. With all the whoosh and whir of an electric lawnmower, it hovered over the hills, took thermal-infrared and visible-light photos and sent back a video stream to a laptop in an SUV parked in a clearing.
The results showed that aerial devices can effectively assist in an emergency. While concerns over privacy have driven much of the recent public debate in Oregon and elsewhere, such machines are proving their worth in fighting forest fires, managing farm fields and monitoring the environment. Most people call them drones. Insiders call them unmanned aerial systems (UAS). In any case, they are likely to transform our use of the skies in the near future.
Oregon has been recognized for more than a decade as a hotbed of UAS development, says Belinda Batten, Oregon State engineering professor and a former program officer for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. That reputation began with Insitu, a company in the Columbia River Gorge. “Insitu is one of the global leaders in these autonomous vehicles,” says Batten. “Because of them being where they are, there’s an entire supply chain in the Hood River area: component pieces, the avionics, cameras, autopilots. The motors are being made at Northwest UAV in McMinnville.” Additional UAS companies are located in Central Oregon, including Kawak Aviation Technologies and PARADIGM.
Commercial UAS flights are currently illegal, but the Federal Aviation Administration allows research testing with a permit, known as a Certificate of Authority. PARADIGM, a Bend startup, has arranged for FAA approvals and facilitated projects for OSU, including the search-and-rescue operation in the McDonald-Dunn Forest and a summer-long analysis of potato fields in Hermiston.
Now, as the federal government plans to open the nation’s airspace to planes without a live pilot onboard — whether operated by software or a person in a distant control station — Oregon State is partnering with businesses, economic development organizations and state government to create an Unmanned Vehicle System Research Consortium. OSU scientists, engineers and students are testing UAS over potato fields, vineyards, forests, beaches and ocean waters. Inspired by bat wings and butterflies, they are designing new aircraft with lightweight carbon composites, sensors and flexible membranes.
Researchers hope to grow an industry that developed largely for military applications and already employs more than 400 people in Oregon. It has an annual statewide economic impact estimated at $81 million, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, AUVSI.
Michael Wing, the appropriately named OSU coordinator of the research consortium, is developing cooperative UAS research projects with two Oregon companies: Portland-based HoneyComb Corp., which designs systems for agriculture and natural resource management; and VDOS LLC of Corvallis, which focuses on the environmental, military and humanitarian applications of UAS.
“For HoneyComb, partnering with OSU means that we have the support of research programs operating under authority of the FAA,” says Ryan Jenson, CEO and co-founder. VDOS conducts manned and unmanned aerial flights in Alaska and other parts of the Pacific Rim, says Seth Johnson, the company’s UAS manager who anticipates collaborating on technology and educational opportunities such as student internships.
Northwest UAV has already embarked on research with OSU aimed at increasing the fuel efficiency of its UAS motors, and at least one new business has emerged from the university through the Oregon State Advantage Accelerator program. Michael Williams, a junior in the College of Business, has created Multicopter Northwest to market his aerial platform to professional photographers and filmmakers.
While the technology grows in capabilities and cost, Oregon State’s Aerial Information Systems Lab aims to demonstrate that powerful robotic planes can be affordable. “Unmanned aerial systems are now becoming available at prices well below $2,000,” says Wing, the lab’s director, an expert in remote sensing and an assistant professor in the College of Forestry. “Coupled with light-weight sensors, UAS are capable of capturing high-resolution imagery that can support natural resource management, disaster response and search-and-rescue operations.
“What’s new and exciting is the flexibility of flights and the ability to get close to the ground with our higher-end sensors. If we have an object that is an inch-and-a-half across (about the size of a golf ball), we could tell its location. That’s a pretty fine level of detail.”
In the lab, Wing and a team of grad students assemble planes with off-the-shelf components: a Zephyr II delta-wing (a plane composed entirely of a wing-shaped structure) made of rigid foam, painted Beaver orange and measuring nearly five feet from wingtip to wingtip; a Canon point-and-shoot camera; an autopilot the size of a credit card; an 11.1-volt lithium-polymer battery. He has flown these machines over the Oregon State campus and even demonstrated one to a UAS conference in Turkey, hosted by an Oregon State alumnus, Abdullah Akay (‘98 master’s and ‘03 Ph.D. in Forest Engineering).
Last summer, concerns over privacy led the Legislature to establish new standards for UAS in Oregon. At the same time, it approved a $900,000 shot-in-the-arm to the Oregon Innovation Council for a new Unmanned Aerial Systems Enterprise center in Bend. Rick Spinrad, OSU vice president for research, chairs the board for the new center.
“This is going to be a billion dollar industry,” says Mitch Swecker, director of the Oregon Aviation Department. “One of the governor’s priorities is jobs and innovation, and as a state agency, one of our priorities is to help promote economic development.” To advance that goal, the state and OSU have joined with Alaska and Hawaii in a proposal to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to create a national UAS test site. In a related but separate effort, Oregon State has joined a national coalition of 12 universities to coordinate a multidisciplinary research program. OSU’s focus, says Wing, would be environmental monitoring.
If these initiatives succeed, UAS will routinely help manage farm fields, survey wildlife, provide up-to-the-minute progress reports on wildfires and enter disaster zones where humans would be at risk (think of the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant). They may also carry much of the nation’s airborne cargo.
Eyes on Potatoes
OSU researchers are already helping to lay the groundwork for this vision by testing commercial UAS across the state’s diverse terrain.Seeing the Planet
From satellites, balloons, high-altitude surveillance planes and even a two-seater Cessna, Oregon State scientists have been gathering data on the planet for nearly a half century.
In Eastern Oregon, at the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center (HAREC) and over nearby private farmland, agronomists are collecting data from two systems: the Unicorn, a delta-wing shaped plane from Procerus Technologies in Utah; and the Hawkeye made by California-based Tetracam, which uses a type of parachute known as a paraglider. These machines fly different kinds of aerial patterns and are equipped with infrared and visible-light cameras, enabling researchers to determine which arrangements collect field data most effectively.
Disease, moisture and growth problems can vary from plant to plant and across the field, says Phil Hamm, HAREC director. “The key is to pick up plants that are just beginning to show stress so you can find a solution quickly, so the grower doesn’t have any reduced yield or quality issues,” he said in an OSU news release last spring.
Farmers across the country have used aerial photos for crop management for many years, but UAS could provide more detail at lower cost. “If I’m farming, I’m not interested in the healthy plants,” adds Hamm. “I need to use that imagery to see where the problems are.”
Higher resolution is the key, says Don Horneck, OSU Extension agronomist. “You can fly the UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) low enough that you can get 1 millimeter resolution, and you can actually look at an individual leaf in the field,” he told the online magazine PrecisionAg.
Pests in the Vineyard
In late summer, as the days get cooler, wine grapes get sweeter, and the harvest in Oregon’s vineyards launches into high gear. But humans are not the only ones watching the crop with an eagle eye. In some years, birds (robins, starlings, crows) cause extensive damage as they feast on the ripening fruit.
Vineyard managers take a variety of countermeasures. They install nets, fire shotgun blasts and flash laser lights. Despite their efforts, about 65 percent of the state’s vineyards lost up to 11 percent of their crops in 2010 and 2011.
What if UAS could deter the birds, save grapes, reduce labor costs and lower the neighbors’ stress? In 2011, two OSU alumni, Dick Evans (‘69 Engineering) and Gretchen Evans (‘69 Elementary Education) sponsored an engineering project to answer that question. They own a vineyard in the hills west of Junction City. With guidance from John Parmigiani, OSU mechanical engineer, two student teams came up with different approaches. One designed an aircraft to deploy reflective streamers and laser lights. The other developed a plane inspired by the birds’ natural fear of predators. It mimics the look and behavior of a Cooper’s hawk, a skillful flier whose dark cap and long, thin, rounded tail distinguish it from other hawks.
In the fall of 2012, the students tested their planes in the Evans’ vineyard. Members of each team stood watch at the corners to record pest birds flying into and out of the vineyard. As they launched their airplanes, the students captured the scene on video to document how well their UAS worked.
As often happens in research, the results were inconclusive. “To make a long story short,” says Parmigiani, “it wasn’t a bad year for birds. We got some action but not nearly as much as the year before. Based on our data, you couldn’t conclude that firing off shotguns worked either. It appears that at a certain time in the morning, the birds just stopped being active.”
Not to be deterred, Parmigiani and the Evanses decided to give the students’ designs another chance. They are planning a broader study with more vineyards, contrasting the UAS and other approaches to reducing the loss of grapes.
Bat Wings and Butterflies
Light-as-a-feather, fiber-reinforced carbon composites give Roberto Albertani an edge in designing unusual aircraft: micro air vehicles that you can hold in the palm of your hand. Such fliers could respond to disasters inside buildings or collect data under tree canopies. To design them, the OSU mechanical engineer studies how they interact with the air. And for that, he relies on a common cooking ingredient: olive oil.
In a room the size of a walk-in closet, he sprays a fine oil mist into the air. At the same time, air blows out of a device that looks like a hair dryer and moves over and under a test aircraft anchored to a platform. The air may be invisible, but lasers illuminate the airborne olive oil particles, telling the researcher where the air speeds up or eddies as it moves across the wings. High-speed cameras capture the action at 500 frames per second.
“Ultimately we design something that we can build,” Albertani says, “something that can be manufactured in large numbers.”
Albertani, an expert in composite materials, co-holds two patents for micro air vehicles. He demonstrates one of them by taking a sleek, black airplane off the top of a filing cabinet and wrapping the wings under the fuselage into a package you could put in your coat pocket. Take it out, and the wings snap back into position, ready to fly.
Equipped with a video camera, such a plane could fly over nearby terrain and relay images back to the sender. “If you’re fighting a fire in the forest, you could throw this into the air and get a look at everything around you,” he says.
To understand how micro air vehicles should be designed, Albertani looks to nature — in this case, bat wings. He picks up another plane about the size of a coffee cup. In the middle of its slick carbon-fiber wing surface sits a thin latex skin like a patch over a hole. As air moves over the wing, he explains, the latex can flex to add lift and maneuverability. The idea came from Peter Ifju, a windsurfer and Albertani’s Ph.D. adviser at the University of Florida.
In a separate project, Oregon State students worked with Belinda Batten to understand how bats control flight through cells on their wings. With funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, they used engineering principles to show that some cells sense air-pressure changes. Moreover, the cells are linked to muscles that course through the wing. The result of this natural design — a system that engineers call “co-located actuators and sensors” — is familiar to anyone who has marveled at bats as they dart after insects at dusk. Without the familiar control structures we see on airplanes, bats’ flexible membrane wings demonstrate dramatic agility.
Albertani is also studying the flight behavior of butterflies. “Butterflies are incredibly interesting fliers,” he says. “They have low wing loading, which means they are very light and have a high wing surface. It makes the flier intrinsically slow. Nevertheless, they can dash fast and are very agile. They can maneuver in small spaces.”
Albertani continues to develop his designs and to test them in OSU’s wind tunnel. He also advises the student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, which competes in an annual DBF (design, build, fly) competition.
More Than Transportation
Barely a century after the Wright Brothers learned how to control flight, the technology that has given us access to the heavens is now becoming smaller, less expensive and combined with sensors and software that enable it to do more than transport people and cargo. UAS can lower risks to fire fighters, reduce the cost of collecting data on wildlife and natural resources and help find lost hikers in the woods.
OSU researchers are already using them to gather environmental data. Geophysicist Rob Holman has flown UAS for beach monitoring and measurement, and Christoph Thomas, a professor of atmospheric sciences, plans to use an “Oktocopter” (a UAV powered by eight rotor blades) in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica.
However, before UAS become more common in our skies, social and technical problems remain to be solved. “If there is one lesson that can be gleaned from this nation’s aeronautic history,” says Wing, “It is that these difficult challenges can only be answered by facilitating increased research and innovation in the burgeoning UAS industry.”
This story begins with an entrepreneur – a citizen scientist living in the timber town of Philomath, an outdoorsman, fisherman and organic farmer of Dutch and Blackfeet ancestry who’s hell-bent on healing an ailing Earth. A few years ago, his longtime quest for planetary remedies began to take form as a towering furnace built with castoff parts and a gasifier once owned by a Y2K doomsday cult. The 20-foot-tall furnace looks more like a tinker’s collection of rusty metal than an invention for the future of the planet. But in this Rube Goldberg contraption, John Miedema is turning forest and farm waste into promising new products – products that could help revive rural Oregon economies, keep contaminants out of rivers, store carbon in soils, and even save the fragile peat bogs of Canada.
To push that vision, he is collaborating with scientists and students just over the hill at Oregon State University – researchers with expertise in subjects ranging from horticulture and engineering to forestry, hydrology, soil science and natural resources. Together, the university researchers and the dogged entrepreneur are studying “biochar,” woody waste (such as tree bark or nutshells) that has been heated at very high temperatures in an oxygen-free furnace like the one Miedema built. Scientists call the process “pyrolysis.”
In essence, biochars are chunks or shards of solidified carbon full of tiny air pockets. Besides locking up carbon that would otherwise contribute to greenhouse gasses, they can serve as containers to hold beneficial things added to soils (like water and microbes) or remove harmful things from storm water and industrial sites (like heavy metals and other toxins). As a bonus, energy generated during the conversion can be captured and used onsite.
In the Northwest, where tons of biomass rots in forests or burns in slash piles, the conversion of waste into clean energy and marketable products is an environmental and economic win-win.
Miedema unscrews a giant mason jar and tips it up, pouring a pile of shiny black chunks into his hand. With the naked eye, it looks like the remnants of a campfire. But a closer view reveals the properties that have inspired a big biochar buzz across the Pacific Northwest and around the world. Under a powerful microscope, biochar sometimes resembles a honeycomb, other times bubble wrap or a sea sponge. Its internal structure differs, depending on whether it started out as Douglas fir bark, hazelnut shells, corncobs or some other “feedstock.” Temperature, too, alters its structure, contributing to biochar’s astounding porosity. Its millions of micro- and nano-pores form “an elegant matrix,” in the words of OSU forestry instructor David Smith, whose students have investigated storm water filtration markets for biochar.
“If you look under an electron microscope, what you see is the inherent structure of the plant – all the cell walls and all these internal galleries,” says Miedema, who founded the Pacific Northwest Biochar Initiative in 2009 – a “brain trust” of academics, researchers, engineers, foresters, farmers, policy experts and business leaders interested in moving biochar forward in the region.
Those “internal galleries” can take up and hold enormous amounts of water as well as minerals, nutrients, microbes and pollutants. Oregon State researchers are studying ways to make practical use of this super-porosity by creating “designer chars” – chars that are “artfully prepared” with special properties aimed at specific uses.
One of those uses is environmental cleanup. Biochar can absorb pollutants in storm water before dangerous metals like zinc (from roofs) and copper (from brake pads) flow into streams and rivers. “Copper is particularly troublesome because it’s been shown to be toxic to juvenile salmon,” says OSU’s Jeff Nason, a professor in Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering. “These are Endangered Species Act types of considerations.” Nason, who works with the Oregon Department of Transportation on ways to remove copper from storm water, is looking into biochar. His lab has hooked up with Miedema to begin testing char as a “low-cost alternative” to more expensive materials such as activated carbon. Cities, too, are taking notice. Corvallis, for instance, is experimenting with biochars in bioswales, which are shallow hollows in urban landscapes designed to capture and filter storm water.
Another use for biochar is in potting mixes. With funding from the national Sun Grant Initiative, Professor Markus Kleber in Crop and Soil Science is testing various biochars for their potential to replace peat moss as a potting medium in the greenhouse and nursery industry, Oregon’s top agricultural sector with sales of nearly $700 million. Peat, harvested from pristine bogs in Canada, the British Isles, Russia and other northern climes, is costly both in dollars and environmental damage. Biochars promise a cheaper, local alternative, says Kleber. He and his graduate student Myles Gray have analyzed the water-holding capacity of chars made of Doug fir (more porous) and filbert nuts (less porous) that have been heated to temperatures ranging from 300 to 700 degrees Celsius. They found that higher-temperature chars have more surface area and therefore hold more water.
Also, with funding from the OSU Agricultural Research Foundation, Kleber is designing a biochar to substitute for another horticultural standby, vermiculite, which is mined overseas and requires high-energy inputs during processing. “Vermiculite puts heavy loads on the environment,” says Kleber. Finally, researcher John Lambrinos in horticulture is investigating biochar as a lightweight water-retention medium for green roofs.
The grandson of a Dutch dairy farmer, John Miedema saw his favorite childhood fishing holes in Marysville, Washington, gradually turn green and gunky as the herd where his grandad worked grew from 50 head to 500. The blighted streams bothered him enough as a young man that he abandoned dairy farming and went to sea, purse-seining for salmon, long-lining for black cod and halibut. On the boat, he read a lot – Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. The same summer he read Isaac Asimov’s The Ends of the Earth about the melting icecaps and warming seas, he was fishing off southeast Alaska. One day, the crew hauled up something in the net that scared him. “We had a school of mackerel and a couple of sunfish,” he recalls. “I’d never seen those species in our nets before. I started asking around to the guys that had been fishing the longest, and nobody had seen those species before.” To him, it felt as if he had stared into the face of global warming.
Later on as he browsed the Internet, his mind awash with ideas about systems theory and his heart full of alarm over Earth’s peril, he Googled “carbon.” Up popped “biochar.” He had found his sustainability grail.
Starker Forests and Thompson Timber, where Miedema was by then the director of biomass energy, invested in his biochar venture, footing the bill for the furnace fabrication at a defunct mill in Philomath. It wasn’t long before he was charring 100 pounds of biomass an hour and reaching out to OSU scientists to test its structural and chemical properties.
Meanwhile, the community of char-minded folks around the region was growing faster than fireweed, everyone communicating through a burgeoning listserv. In 2009, biochar was a hot topic at a series of workshops on bio-based products held in Tillamook, Klamath Falls and Pendleton. Put on jointly by OSU’s Institute for Natural Resources and Oregon BEST (Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center) to catalyze new markets for Oregon’s sagging rural economies, the workshops brought together researchers, wood products companies, local governments, tribal representatives and others to brainstorm and strategize about new uses for woody biomass. “I came away with a concrete funding opportunity that could enable Douglas County to purchase a $350,000 piece of mobile equipment that converts biomass at logging sites into the right type of chips for biofuels and biochar,” reported Douglas County Commissioner Joseph Laurance. Other participants left the workshops eager to get more scientific findings on biochar, including data on carbon sequestration, soil amendments, pyrolysis technologies and the economics of transporting biomass versus processing it onsite.
“Designer biochar” might sound like the pinnacle of 21st-century eco-technology. But humans have known the potent properties of burnt wood for 2,000 years, since the indigenous people of the Amazon Basin discovered an incredible boost to fertility in soils enriched with char and other organic wastes. The Portuguese later called this engineered soil terra preta, “black earth.” In Japan and Korea, farmers have long enriched their soils with charcoal.“I’ve Never Been So Excited”
Meghana Rao, a senior at Jesuit High School in Portland, studied biochar with Oregon State Professor Markus Kleber. Last spring, she discussed her findings with President Barack Obama.
“Biochar is a new twist on an old concept,” notes David Smith. “It’s an opportunity for upgrading wood waste, for turning low-grade materials into high-value products that can boost rural economies. But before we can take it to market, there are a zillion performance questions to be answered – questions about feedstocks, particle size and so forth – along with standards and specifications to be developed.”
One question has to do with water flow. While scientists know that biochar captures pollutants along with storm water, they don’t yet know how well that water flows through those biochars.
“When storm water occurs, we get a whole lot of it all at once,” says OSU hydrologist Todd Jarvis. “If you can’t get the water through the medium efficiently, it’s not going to be worthwhile for storm water treatment.” So last year, he and chemical engineering professor Christine Kelly worked with student Perry Morrow to design hydraulic experiments based on Darcy’s Law, an equation for describing the flow of a fluid through a porous medium. “We were looking at the physical hydraulics – the flow rates – of biochar,” says Jarvis, who directs the Institute of Water and Watersheds at Oregon State. “How much water can go through it in gallons per minute, cubic feet per second? Is it laminar flow, or is it turbulent flow? Are flow rates a function of the size of the biochar? The shape? The compressibility?”
Miedema stands in the long shadow of his towering furnace when a van pulls up and several people pile out. A couple more cars straggle in, a few more people join the group. “I love biochar!” one man, a farmer, says during introductions. “I’ve never heard of it,” a woman admits. They’ve come to Philomath from Oregon Tilth in Corvallis, Organic Materials Review Institute in Eugene and the Corvallis Parks Department “peer learning group” for sustainable landscaping to hear Miedema talk about biochar and assess its suitability for gardening and organic farming.
Squinting in the summer sun, they watch and listen as Miedema tells the story of biochar while showing off his furnace. “I can produce a wicked amount of heat,” he says, pointing out the throttles and valves that control temperature. “It gets orange-hot in there.” When he comes to the part about biochar’s longevity in soils – it takes 500 to 1,000 years before microbes break it down and release the stored carbon – he brings the talk around to climate change, to Asimov’s prescient book from 1975 that first alerted him to the looming threat. The carbon in biochar, he says, lasts for centuries sequestered in the soil. In this way, biomass becomes a means of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere instead of letting it become a greenhouse gas during rotting or burning.
“Biochar,” he says, “has very good uses for humans and the environment, for bettering our health and for cleaning up the legacy of toxins we’ve left behind. We have a lot of work to do to clean up that legacy.”
“The margin between life and death in the forest can be rather small,” says Oregon State climate scientist Philip Mote. As wildfires widen, insects invade and drought deepens, the razor-thin margin for tree survival becomes ever thinner.
A five-year, $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will speed the search for answers — and solutions — to the ever-growing threats to forest health. Researchers at the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, which Mote directs, will use enhanced computer models to project forest vulnerability to fire and disease across Western forests. Their work will help inform forest management practices and minimize tree mortality as temperatures rise in coming decades.
What is the sound of an iceberg disintegrating? Would you believe it’s as loud as a hundred supertankers plying the open seas? OSU scientists were astounded recently when they listened to recordings of an iceberg that had formed in Antarctica, floated into the open ocean, and eventually melted and broke apart. Scientists have dubbed this phenomenon an “icequake.”
“The process and ensuing sounds are much like those produced by earthquakes,” explains marine geologist Robert Dziak, who has monitored ocean sounds using hydrophones for nearly two decades. The researchers want to establish the natural sound levels in the world’s oceans to better understand how noise from drilling, shipping and other human activities fits in and how it affects marine life.
Bio-artist Sara Robinson works at intersections, at places where nature, ideas and emotions crisscross and often collide. She revels in the contrasts and contradictions inherent where growth meets decay, science meets art, reverence meets revulsion.
For Robinson, an assistant professor in Wood Science and Engineering, all these tensions come together in the wooden bowls she turns on a lathe: gleaming, satiny bowls that are both functional and ornamental, practical and beautiful. Made of hardwoods like curly soft maple, sugar maple, box elder and buckeye oak, the bowls are adorned with pigments made by fungi whose ecological role is, ironically, to decompose wood. For Robinson, it’s the quintessential contradiction.
“Wood is held in high esteem by humans, while fungus is disdained,” she says. “It’s an emotional conflict.”
Reminiscent of watercolor washes, shades of pink, blue and blue-green splash across bowls whose shapes echo the anatomy of the wood. Others have a bleached look after she treats them with white rot fungi. Still others are etched with lines of black and brown, “zone lines” that result from fungal antagonism — two species duking it out for territory. “It’s a war story,” Robinson likes to joke.
Dead Man’s Fingers
As Robinson explains, a bio-artist is one who creates art with living organisms. “Bio-art,” she says, “blurs the lines between science and art.” Her organisms of choice grow secreted in forests, the trees stretching toward the sky, the mushrooms skulking on the ground, their fruiting bodies popping up on the decaying logs they digest with enzymes. The mushrooms’ common names suggest their odd or whimsical shapes: dead man’s fingers (Xylaria polymorpha), green elf cup (Chlorociboria aeruginascens) turkey tail (Trametes versicolor). Machete in hand, Robinson has even hacked through a Peruvian rainforest and battled poisonous tangarana ants to hunt for fungi with fabulous tints. “We found some crazy colors!” she reports.
The “extracellular” pigments these fungal species produce, possibly to protect themselves from UV damage or incursions by other fungi, create a natural stain in contact with certain wood species. “Because of their role in the environment,” she says, “these colors are very stable, persisting in sun and rain.”
Since the Italian Renaissance, artists and woodworkers have used naturally tinted woods in panels and veneers. Violin and guitar makers have used them in musical instruments. Now, Robinson is helping to lead a resurgence of the art, called “spalting,” which adds value to wood that would otherwise bring little to the marketplace. She regularly advises woodworkers and is among a small group of artists and scientists who are taking spalting to new levels with support from the wood-products industry.
“Spalting is a value-added wood product that can be done to really low-value wood,” she says. “So you can spalt something like aspen, which has no real inherent value as a woodworking wood. Before, it was just firewood. Now, it’s a precious wood that can be sold to woodworkers and wood turners, who are mostly retired people who shop. There’s money to be had here.” Home improvement companies, too, are interested in mass-producing spalted wood for flooring and paneling, Robinson says.
Widely known in the woodworking blogosphere as “Dr. Spalting,” Robinson recently was dubbed by a blogger named Cody as “perhaps the foremost authority on spalted wood,” and by Tree Feller as “a bonafide expert on spalting (PhD).” At age 31, with some 25 peer-reviewed articles published in journals like Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology and Wood Science & Technology, she clearly has the academic creds as well as the crafter chops. Her research has ranged from seeking methods of minimizing strength loss while maximizing pigment production, to running experiments on the effects of wood pH and copper sulfate in stimulating pigments. There’s a lot more science that needs to happen, including toxicity testing, before spalting hits the mass market.
In her lab, Robinson opens drawer after drawer full of petri plates, stacked three or four deep. One by one, she holds the plates up to the light. The fungi growing inside create branching forms in colors from deep violet to bright yellow. On the shelves above are vials of pigments she has extracted from the plate cultures. On the counter sits a series of test strips in wool, cotton and acetate, revealing another direction for fungal pigments: spalted fabric.
“We collect the fungi, culture them in the lab and make pure cultures for inoculation into the wood,” she says. “Our process takes the guesswork out of spalting.” That precision is what will make fungal pigments commercially viable for industry.
Over in the College of Forestry woodshop, blocks called “rough blanks” taken from 22 species of native Northwest trees are being treated with fungal pigments in plastic bins. It takes about three months for the color to infuse the wood. Once the blanks have dried, Robinson will settle in at her lathe, turning bowls in a flurry of sawdust. Her finished bowls are represented by Michigamme Moonshine Art Gallery in Michigan. She exhibits her work worldwide.
Which brings us back to the question, is spalting a science, or is it an art? Robinson challenges the very question and the assumptions that underlie it. To her, science and art are one and the same, both driven by discovery and creativity. “The only difference I can see,” she says, “is that scientists have lab notebooks.”
See photos and information about spalting workshops on Sara Robinson’s website.
Andrew Thurber is a self-described “connoisseur of worms.” He finds these wriggling, sinuous creatures, many with jaws and enough legs to propel an army, to be “enticing.” In the Antarctic, where he dives through the ice in the name of science, a type of worm known as a nemertean can reach 7 feet long.
Giant worms aren’t the only extreme feature of the seafloor next to the Ross Ice Shelf. Voracious sea stars and sponges the size of a person dot a muddy, rock-strewn landscape. At nearly 2 degrees below zero Celsius, sea water in the Southern Ocean is as cold as it can get without freezing. And it’s stunningly clear. Although sunlight filters dimly through surface ice, visibility can reach 500 feet on a bad day. On a good day, a diver can see underwater mountain ranges in the distance.
What attracts scientists like Thurber to this eerie, forbidding place is a riddle. Here, where darkness prevails for much of the year, the density of some species is higher than anywhere else on the planet. Colonies of worms, Thurber’s favorite animals, have five times the number of individuals, up to 150,000 per square meter, as one would predict and twice more than any other known location. In attempting to understand what’s going on in this remote habitat, Thurber is revealing fundamental processes that fuel deep-sea ecosystems worldwide. His work could also refine estimates of how carbon is sequestered in the deep sea, a critical question in climate change.
Diving Through the Ice
Over the last decade, Thurber has made the often turbulent trip to the frozen continent four times. Near the United States base at McMurdo, he and his team drill a hole through as much as 10 to 15 feet of ice to reach the water. They place a warming hut over the opening, as though they were preparing for a day of ice fishing.
Not surprisingly, divers take extraordinary care in this harsh environment. They wear extra layers, including three hoods, and cover nearly every inch of skin. “The only thing that is exposed is my lips, and when you get in the water, they go numb immediately,” says Thurber.
Divers avoid breathing into their scuba apparatus until they’re submerged. In the frigid Antarctic air, moisture in the breath can freeze the regulator and cause the entire air supply to discharge at once. And if vapor accidentally hits the inside of a facemask, it can rapidly turn into a sheet of ice and obscure vision.
Nevertheless, for Thurber, the sea is actually a relief from the bitter Antarctic wind. “The water is so much more pleasant than the air; it’s wonderful,” he says.
Once underwater, Thurber spends time exploring his surroundings and collecting samples of seafloor sediment to take back to his lab. In 2012, he and Rory Welsh, an Oregon State graduate student in microbiology, investigated the 100-foot face of a glacier that ended in the Ross Sea. Streaming out from the bottom of the ice onto rocks were mysterious filaments of microorganisms. “We have no idea what it is,” says Thurber. “It’s one of the things we hope to study in upcoming years.”
Thurber has set his sights on understanding the relationship between microorganisms and marine animals. In 2011, he reported on a type of crab that “farms” bacteria on its claws and lives off the harvest. “There’s an idea that bacteria don’t do well in the cold and play a minor role in these ecosystems compared to animals,” he says. “The general idea is that the worms bury their food in the mud and eat it throughout the year, sort of like putting their food in a refrigerator. This is called the ‘food bank hypothesis.’ I don’t know that I buy that, so that’s one of the things I’m testing.”
By “food,” Thurber means the algae that grow on the bottom and edges of the sea ice. For a brief period during the Antarctic summer, algae “rain down onto the seafloor” after they die, he says. Thurber is testing the possibility that worms and microorganisms feast on this abundance of organic matter. “By the end of the winter, the easily available food is gone, and the worms switch to eating their competitors. They are living off bacteria as a food source,” says Thurber.
To find out which idea — whether the worms store their food in the mud or dine on microorganisms — is closer to the truth, Thurber collects tubes of sediment during his dives. Within an hour, he can have them, complete with worms and other animals, back in a well-stocked biology lab. He analyzes some for microbial fingerprints to see how abundant the bacteria are and who’s eating whom. He conducts experiments on other tubes to see how the organisms process nutrients.
In one experiment on the seafloor, Thurber placed transparent tubes vertically into the sediment. He put some in the dark by covering them with black electrical tape. The next day, he took them back to the lab — including the muddy, wriggling contents — to see if organisms on the seafloor were actually producing food through photosynthesis. “It turned out that diatoms on the seafloor were producing about 25 percent of the daily energy for the community, the whole community, including the bacteria, worms and other animals,” Thurber says.
“That may be an additional food source during the light time of the year. Since there may be more food available than scientists thought, that means the worms have even a greater swing between feast and famine over the course of the year.”
Almost two-thirds of the planet is covered by a vast expanse of dark, muddy seafloor where life thrives despite extreme conditions. These mechanisms — how animals compete with and eat bacteria, how seasonal pulses of nutrients stimulate growth — may control the long-term productivity of the marine environment as well as long-term carbon sequestration, a critical step in the global carbon cycle. Since most of the seafloor is thousands of meters deep, well beyond the range of divers, the Antarctic happens to be the most easily accessible place to find out how these systems work.I thought I wanted to work with fish
In an Antarctic research lab, Andrew Thurber became enamored with worms. “Worms are incredibly diverse. That was one of the most amazing things to me,” he says. “They don’t all look like earthworms. They have feet and these crazy breathing structures. I found them kind of enticing.”
Ecologists, Thurber says, have spent a lot of time studying how large animals interact — wolves and moose, for example, or lions and gazelle. In contrast, science has largely ignored how animals compete with and prey on microorganisms. “Since bacteria and archaea perform most of the important chemical reactions on the planet, that’s a real shortcoming in our understanding of the globe,” he adds.
See Thurber’s blog for more photos and last winter’s reports from the field.
When dying people choose to hasten death with a doctor’s help, their caregivers often face a troubling dilemma. In particular, hospice — the final stop for many terminal patients — poses an overlooked problem, OSU researchers report. That’s because hospice objects to physician-assisted death, yet most patients who choose assisted death are in hospice care.
“The conventional approach to the question of legalized physician-assisted death… has missed the issue of how the requirements of a new law are carried out by the primary care-giving institution, hospice care,” says philosopher Courtney Campbell, an expert in medical ethics. “Balancing core beliefs, such as compassion and non-abandonment of a patient, with the new law has been difficult at best for hospice professionals.”
Campbell and his colleagues are encouraging informed dialogue around topics such as hospice’s mission, legal options, emotional and religious factors, family responsibilities and many other issues.
A half-ounce flying mammal, a tiny marsupial that glides from tree limb to tree limb, and a hairless, burrowing rodent with supersize front teeth all share a trait that makes them intriguing to researcher Viviana Perez: exceptional longevity.
The little brown bat (Myotis lucifungus), common across North America, has been known to live more than 30 years. So has the naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber) from East Africa. The sugar glider (Petaurus brevicepts), native to Australia, can live 15 years. In contrast, most similarly sized mammals, such as mice and “lab opossums,” have a lifespan of only three or four years.
Uncovering the secrets to these animals’ remarkable staying power could point the way to healthier aging for humans, says Perez, a biochemist in Oregon State’s Linus Pauling Institute. She is investigating the animals’ “cellular surveillance” abilities — that is, how well their bodies can find and repair damaged proteins before they cause harm.
You might imagine that she would need colonies of mole rats, bats and sugar gliders for her experiments. But maintaining such species in labs — especially the finicky mole rat, which demands ample space for burrowing plus a daily diet of fresh fruits and veggies — is too expensive and labor intensive, she says. To prove her point, she reports that only two labs in the United States maintain colonies of naked mole rats.
So instead of using live animals, she works with live cells. These she obtains from her collaborators at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, which maintains a cell bank representing at least 30 animal species. When she views those cells under her microscope, she’s looking for aggregations of malformed proteins and the mechanisms that resist, repair or recycle the damage.
Scientists call such protein malformation “misfolding.” You can think of protein formation as a kind of biological origami, in which a coil or strand of amino acids “folds” itself into a 3-D structure to become functional. Sometimes, helper molecules called “protein chaperones” assist in the folding and refolding. When the malformed proteins can’t be repaired, a properly functioning system will send in enzymes to break them down and carry them away. But if something goes wrong and the bad proteins don’t get cleaned up, they stick together to form aggregates that can lead to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other chronic illnesses associated with aging.
Naked mole rats hold special interest in aging research. While they live to ripe old ages eating tubers in their lightless warrens, the wrinkly rodents never develop cancer. Bats, too, rarely get cancer. Perez thinks these long-lived species may be more resistant to protein misfolding and aggregation because evolution has equipped them with better protein equilibrium or “homeostasis.” Her earlier studies with bats and mole rats have suggested that, compared with mice, “proteins from long-lived species are structurally more stable.” Her current study will test this hypothesis by comparing the three long-lived species against three short-lived species of rodent, bat and marsupial (lab mouse, evening bat and lab opossum). She adds a fluorescent protein associated with Huntington’s disease to the animal cells and then follows it to see whether it forms clumps.
“If all three of the long-lived species show better quality control for proteins,” she says, “my study would show for the first time that protein homeostasis might be an important mechanism in how species have evolved to have long lifespans.”
Known for their exceptional longevity, these three mammalian species — the little brown bat, the naked mole rat and the sugar glider — may hold clues to healthy human aging.
Despite the risks, only about a third of Americans will get vaccinated. Researchers now say the nation’s vaccination priorities need to shift. That’s because the groups least likely to get the shots — kids and young adults — are the most likely to spread the germs. “In most cases, the available flu vaccine could be used more effectively and save more lives by increasing the number of vaccinated children and young adults,” says Jan Medlock of OSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Historically, flu prevention efforts have targeted the elderly, the chronically ill, people with weak immunity, health-care workers — in other words, those most at-risk for death or severe illness. But a computer model shows that stopping flu bugs at schools and workplaces helps break the cycle of transmission to all populations, Medlock says.
Faster, cheaper, better. The conventional wisdom says you can’t get all three at the same time. But researchers at Oregon State say otherwise — at least when it comes to new materials for making solar cells. Engineers have found a less expensive, less toxic, better performing — and surprising — substance for solar cell manufacturing: antifreeze (ethylene glycol). Current technologies use rare and costly chemical elements like indium and gallium.
“The global use of solar energy may be held back if the materials we use to produce solar cells are too expensive or require the use of toxic chemicals in production,” says researcher Greg Herman. “We need technologies that use abundant, inexpensive materials, preferably ones that can be mined in the U.S. This process offers that.”
Oregon is warming, and snow is waning. The clear, clean water that supplies many of Oregon’s cities and farms originates high in the Cascades. Stored on snowy peaks, the water feeds rivers and aquifers that supply some of the state’s most populous regions.
In one key watershed, the McKenzie, snowpack is predicted to drop more than half by mid-century, OSU researchers project. This determination, based on a temperature increase just over 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit, could hold dire implications for similar “low-elevation maritime snow packs” across the globe. That’s because even small increases in temperature can flip precipitation from snow to rain.
“This is not an issue that will just affect Oregon,” says OSU researcher Anne Nolin, who co-authored the study with Ph.D. student Eric Sproles. “You may see similar impacts almost anywhere around the world that has low-elevation snow in mountains, such as in Japan, New Zealand, Northern California, the Andes Mountains, a lot of Eastern Europe and the lower-elevation Alps.”
When a submersible dove into deep waters off Florida not long ago, the scientists aboard saw an alarming sight: big lionfish, lots of them. “This was kind of an ah-ha moment,” says OSU researcher Stephanie Green. “It was immediately clear that this is a new frontier in the lionfish crisis.”
Lionfish, native to the Pacific Ocean, are invaders threatening reef ecosystems in the Atlantic and Caribbean. But until scientists onboard the vessel Antipodes witnessed the extra-large, extra-fertile fish thriving at 300 feet deep, they didn’t realize just how extensive the invasion had become.
A lionfish, with its festive stripes, flowing fins and spiky rays, cuts a dramatic figure in a home aquarium. But in coral reefs outside its native waters, it is an ever-growing scourge, gobbling up smaller fish and reproducing at alarming rates. Accidentally or deliberately released from aquariums a decade or more ago, lionfish have no natural predators in their new environment. They have taken full advantage. “A lionfish,” says Green, “will eat almost any fish smaller than it is.”
Portland ninth-grader Meghana Rao was scouring the Web for information on biochar when she stumbled across an intriguing paper by a researcher named Markus Kleber. When she realized he was at Oregon State University, just 90 miles down the freeway from where she was a student at Jesuit High School, she emailed him with “a few ideas.”
Before long, she was conducting her own experiments in Kleber’s lab in Crop and Soil Sciences with guidance from the professor and graduate student Myles Gray.
By the end of the 2013 school year, Rao was standing on the White House lawn describing her experiments on the carbon-holding capacity of biochar to President Barack Obama. She was one of a handful of high school students nationwide selected to present their science projects at the third annual White House Science Fair. “I took my biochar stove with me — it’s a little at-home pyrolysis unit,” she says.
The White House honor came on the heals of Rao’s winning a Young Naturalists Award from the American Museum of Natural History for the same project in 2012. She is now a senior at Jesuit.
Read more about Oregon State research on biochar in An Elegant Matrix.
From satellites, balloons, high-altitude surveillance planes and even a two-seater Cessna, Oregon State scientists have been gathering data on the planet for nearly a half century. Their work has helped manage crops, detect threats to Western forests, track activity in Cascade volcanoes and reveal new details about ocean currents and how they interact with the atmosphere to affect global climate.
Researchers have a term for such long-distance observation: “remote sensing.” With funding from NASA, Professor Charles Poulton established OSU’s first center, the Environmental Remote Sensing Applications Laboratory (ERSAL), in 1972.
By repeatedly capturing images of forested and agricultural landscapes, scientists detect trends in plant stress, disease and forest composition, says Barry Schrumpf, former director of ERSAL.
“OSU was a pioneer partly because Oregon has such a wide range of terrain in a small area: rainforests, high desert, mountains, agricultural valleys,” says Chuck Rosenfeld, geoscientist and professor emeritus. Rosenfeld flew his Cessna to take thermal infrared and visible light photos of the Oregon coast and Cascade volcanoes, including Mount St. Helens after it erupted. Professors Bill Ripple and Michael Wing in the College of Forestry continue to manage ERSAL.
Scientists in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS) have helped to shape the global remote sensing enterprise. Since the early 1980s, they have designed satellite sensors and developed analytical techniques for interpreting ocean data. Their precise measurements of surface waters have identified currents that set the stage for fisheries, marine mammals and other aspects of near-shore ecosystems.
CEOAS is also home to one of only two non-commercial direct-broadcast satellite stations on the West Coast. It serves fishermen, the U.S. Coast Guard, search-and-rescue teams and other agencies by downloading data directly from satellite color sensors and providing regional ocean, land and atmospheric information in near-real time.
See A History of Satellite Remote Sensing Research at Oregon State University about the satellite remote sensing accomplishments of OSU oceanographers.
Researchers in the colleges of Forestry, Agricultural Sciences, Engineering and Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences are experimenting with unmanned aerial systems. See On a Wing and a Dare.
Imagine for just a moment that you: 1) are independently wealthy; 2) are a genius, and; 3) have a brilliant idea for a research project (for those readers who already satisfy all three criteria, please indulge me a bit of editorial whimsy). You begin your project with every intention of following the scientific method. You design the experiments, determine whom you need to hire, and start to build a budget. After accounting for the usual expenses (salaries, benefits, supplies, travel, equipment, etc.) you realize there are some other things you’re just taking for granted.
You’ll need a place to conduct the research. It will have lights, heat, water, sewer and so forth. You realize that the facility will be insured against unforeseen circumstances. And of course someone will do maintenance — mow the lawn, clean the windows, repair the stairs. You suddenly see that for every precious dollar that you’ve budgeted directly for research, you need another big chunk of change just to keep the operation running. Since you’re independently wealthy, however, you just bite the bullet and dig a bit deeper into your pocket.
Now imagine you’re a university researcher and also a genius with a brilliant idea. The situation is no different, except now you need to find a fair way to convince someone else to support your work and pay the costs of the project: the “overhead.” And those costs mount up. For example, consider one of our successful endeavors, the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry, led by Oregon State professors Doug Keszler and John Wager. It was recently awarded a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation. This research will provide new understanding and novel materials for use in a wide range of products, such as commercial electronics and health care equipment. But by standard negotiation with the federal government, no less than $2,479,359 will go to “overhead.”
Last year, Oregon State University spent $4.8 million on electricity alone! It’s virtually impossible to know exactly how much of that is directly attributable to research, but rest assured, it’s a very large number. The same is true for all of the other categories of administrative, maintenance and infrastructural costs needed to keep the research enterprise running.
Today, we have an officially negotiated federal overhead rate of 46 percent. That is, for every dollar of modified direct costs – salaries, benefits, supplies and equipment, minus major equipment purchases and agreements with other universities – we are required to charge the federal agency an additional 46 cents. And our rate is quite low. Some institutions charge more than 100 percent for overhead. These rates are renegotiated every few years and are based on how much was spent previously.
Just for reference, OSU’s rate 30 years ago was 31 percent. Some sponsors insist on lower overhead rates — a challenge, since those electric bills and maintenance charges still have to be paid by someone. It can get very complicated very quickly.
The costs of doing research are high and continue to increase. The supplemental costs of supporting that research are also rising. Download the 2013 Annual Report of Research to see a breakdown of our research operations. And keep in mind, that unless you are an independently wealthy genius, you need to know the true costs of supporting research.