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Pollutants can be undetectable to our senses, but an Oregon State researcher has come up with a simple way to monitor chemicals in the environment. A team led by Kim Anderson, professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences, has created a silicone wristband that absorbs chemicals in the air 24/7.
“The wristbands show us the broad range of chemicals we encounter but often don’t know about and may be harming us,” says Anderson. “Eventually, these bracelets may help us link possible health effects to chemicals in our environment.”
In a recent study with 30 volunteers at Oregon State, wristbands picked up nearly 50 compounds, including flame retardants, pesticides and pet flea medicines as well as personal care products.
Anderson’s lab is using the wristbands in a New York City study with pregnant women to measure chemical exposure in their last trimester and how that affects their children after birth.
Citizen scientists can propose projects to Anderson’s lab at citizen.science.oregonstate.edu. (For more on Anderson’s research, see “Down to the Gulf,” Terra, winter 2011.)
Corinne Fargo (Photo: Hannah O’Leary)
Junior in Biochemistry and Biophysics and the University Honors College from Woodinville, Washington
Accomplishment: She is developing standard laboratory Fusarium strains that are defective in specific genes. These strains will be used to aid in genetic analyses of Fusarium gene silencing mutants.
Career goal: To become a medical doctor
Most important thing she learned: “You have to think 10 steps ahead of your goal. I’m creating complete new genomes. No big deal. It’s really exciting and fun.”
Phuong Pham (Photo: Hannah O’Leary)
Senior in Biochemistry and Biophysics from Portland
Accomplishment: He is testing the influence of the kmt6 protein complex on gene expression in Fusarium.
Career goal: To become a medical doctor and an Army medic
Most important thing he learned: Understanding how gene silencing helps us get new antibiotics and could help cure diseases. “I was very glad to get to work here. This lab helped me through difficult times. Michael is an awesome professor. I can’t stress that enough.”
Xiao Lan Chang (Photo: Hannah O’Leary)
Senior in Biochemistry and Biophysics from Portland
Accomplishment: Created transformed and mutant Fusarium strains in studying proteins that exert control over gene expression.
Career goal: To be a medical doctor
Most important thing she learned: “Retracing your steps and really understanding them. In class, things happen that you expect. In lab, surprises happen and you have to work backwards to figure them out.”
What if the Wright Brothers had tested their flying machine on a computer before launching it on a North Carolina beach? They could have drastically shortened the time from idea to working prototype.
As part of a $320 million U.S. government initiative, researchers in Oregon State’s Design Engineering Laboratory will apply the time-saving benefits of computer design and testing to new manufacturing products and processes.
“In design, the idea is to fail early and often, so that we succeed sooner,” says Matt Campbell, professor of mechanical engineering and a leader in the initiative. “Our digital tools will predict performance and where failure will occur, and reduce or eliminate the need for costly prototypes. Then we’ll use 3-D printers and other tools to automate and streamline actual manufacturing.”
Advances have already been made at OSU in failure propagation analysis, verification tools, automated machining and assembly planning.
The initiative is led by UI Labs of Chicago. Industrial partners include General Electric, Rolls-Royce and Microsoft. Through the Oregon State University Advantage program, OSU will continue to apply results with companies such as PCC Structurals, Blount International, Daimler Trucks, Intel and HP.
The news media were in a frenzy over the NSA surveillance story last fall when Pendleton history major Matthew Schuck was poring over documents about government surveillance during World War II. In the Valley Library Archives, he found a letter from Secretary of War Henry Stimson directing Carl Milam, executive secretary of the American Library Association, to place all books on “explosives, secret inks and cyphers” to restricted shelves. Patrons had to fill out a form to borrow such books. In 1943, OSU Assistant Librarian Lucia Haley forwarded at least one patron’s name to FBI agent R.P. Kramer in Portland. “All the NSA stuff was coming to light when I was working on this project,” says Schuck. “It was like the past was repeating itself.”
1.9 billion. That’s the number of results turned up by a Google search on the term “big data.”
However you measure it — in gigabytes, search results or truckloads — the data deluge is growing every minute. It comes at us nonstop in statistics, pictures, texts, videos, tweets, clicks and posts. Understanding what big data is, how it is transforming the world and what to do with it is essential for tomorrow’s leaders. Those with expertise in analyzing large datasets will drive advances in productivity, innovation and global collaboration.
So what exactly is big data? The more accurate term might be “bigger data.” We’ve been analyzing data for years. It’s the speed, variety and volume that are novel. In our digital world, data are no longer contained in databases. They’re generated instantly every time we make a purchase, click “like” on Facebook or make a phone call.
Researchers generate data with machines that sequence genes, analyze molecules, observe the Earth and run computer models. At Oregon State, data analysis yields insights into subjects from the environment and human health to the humanities and manufacturing.
I recently talked about the implications of big data with University Honors College students. They debated whether big data was good or bad but came to realize that it is not so clear cut. They were outraged at how business schools cheat by massaging data to improve rankings and by how companies buy and manipulate extensive personal data on their customers.
Students see that statistical analysis of big data can be like a knife. In the hands of a crook, it can be used to rob a bank or even take a life. In the hands of a surgeon, it can save a life. To maintain trust and integrity in science, we need to avoid the distortions that stem from unethical uses of data and separate the data “crooks” from the data scientists.
The sheer volume of big data is overwhelming. It is absolutely useless unless we convert it into practical knowledge in a timely fashion. A recent Bain & Company report of 400 large companies revealed that those that had already adopted an advanced data-analytics approach are outperforming competitors by wide margins. Proper uses of big data are helping to discover new drugs, mentor students, provide better services, help farmers, develop better public policies and advance security and sustainability.
What’s next? People who can apply value and meaning to real-time data are in increasingly high demand. Tomorrow’s leaders will need to analyze large datasets to generate insights and to apply them to predict behavior, trends and patterns. A recent McKinsey & Company study predicted a workforce gap of 1.5 million managers and analysts with the skills to decipher and translate data patterns for decision-making.
Oregon State University is well-positioned to be a leader in data science by blending diverse disciplines, including applied mathematics, statistics, computer science, genomics and business. And the College of Science is committed to preparing the next generation of leaders in data science and to creating a statistically literate public.
Editor’s note: Before becoming dean of the Oregon State College of Science in 2013, Sastry Pantula served in leadership roles at the American Statistical Association and at the National Science Foundation. He contributed to the International Year of Statistics 2013 and is on the steering committee of its successor, the World of Statistics. It aims to increase public awareness of the power and impact of statistics on all aspects of society.
Soon after the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine, nuclear energy in neighboring Poland ground to a halt. As the disaster and its aftermath fueled fears of fallout around the world, Poland’s first nuclear plant, then half-built, was scrapped. For the next three decades, Poland remained wedded to coal.
Now, that’s about to change.
In January, Poland revived its nuclear-energy ambitions when the government pledged to build two nuclear reactors, bringing the first one online as soon as 2024. Oregon State University is a partner in realizing Poland’s new nuclear energy initiative. Since 2010, OSU’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and the Warsaw University of Technology (WUT) have been exchanging faculty, students, computer power and expertise across the continents. A joint-degree program is in the works.
Scaling New Heights
Like an acrobat in a hardhat, a young woman nimbly scales a narrow ladder to the top of OSU’s High Temperature Test Facility, an electrically powered reactor model for testing safety without using live nuclear fuel. “We’re stacking the core,” she explains as she steps out onto the scaffolding two stories above ground. At this construction site, her shiny blue hardhat is mandatory. Mandatory too, are the safety rope and harness she buckles herself into before venturing onto the towering platform where 1,000-pound ceramic plates, or “slices,” are being lifted by a crane, one atop another, like a stack of pancakes. When she’s not climbing up ladders or balancing on girders, she’s driving a forklift, grinding metal rods or operating the crane that hefts the giant, custom-made plates into place.
Harnesses and hardhats are not every student’s dream gear. But for Malwina Gradecka, an engineering student from WUT, working on the nuts and bolts of nuclear power was exactly what she was looking for when she first visited OSU with a delegation from her university, known for its deep expertise in mathematical modeling and computational problem solving. So when Gradecka laid eyes on OSU’s scale-model, light-water test reactor, she knew Oregon State was the place for her doctoral work. “You can actually stand on top of the model reactor and look down,” she marvels in fluent English. “Here in the U.S., students have this opportunity for hands-on experience. In Poland, this is not available to us.”
Gradecka is among the first WUT students to earn a Ph.D. in Corvallis. Her studies in OSU’s Radiation Center — where she spent a year not only “stacking the core” in professor Brian Woods’ one-of-a-kind lab on high-temperature, gas-cooled nuclear technologies but also running computer simulations on fluid dynamics — now are being put to use in Warsaw. She’s back home helping to rebuild her university’s nuclear engineering program, mothballed in the 1980s along with Poland’s half-built reactor.
Poland’s historic strength in the field may not be instantly obvious, given its setback after Chernobyl. But it’s useful to rewind the story to the late-1800s, when a newfound radioactive element was named for its discoverer’s homeland, Poland. That discoverer of polonium — and also radium — grew up in Warsaw as Marie Skłodowska before moving to Paris, marrying a French physicist, and becoming known to the world as Madame Curie. Curie is one of only four scientists ever to win two Nobel prizes. (A second member of that exclusive club is OSU’s most famous alumnus, Linus Pauling.) Arguably, the field of nuclear energy was born of Polish DNA.
“Poland has a very rich history in the nuclear sciences,” observes OSU’s Kathryn Higley, chair of the nuclear engineering department. “After Chernobyl, that expertise emigrated to other places, like the UK. But now the Polish people want to develop their own nuclear energy capacity.”
In a big white tent on the WUT campus, little kids in parkas and colorful wool hats crowd together in rapt clusters, their eyes barely clearing the display tables where university students demonstrate research projects in cool fields like aerospace. Just across a busy boulevard called Nowoweijska stands the university’s Power Engineering School, where two faculty members sit at a small conference table recounting the history of their country’s nuclear energy story and positing its future.
Konrad Swirski, the plenipotentiary for nuclear energy at WUT, was one of the last students in Warsaw to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear energy before Chernobyl. From where he sits, he has seen global attitudes about nuclear energy undergo an evolution. In the three decades since Chernobyl, he has seen fossil fuels muscle out radiation as the most cataclysmic threats to life on Earth. Wind, solar and hydropower are essential to a “balanced approach” to energy, he says. But nuclear, too, must be part of the mix.
“There is almost no sun in Poland,” he says, gesturing toward the window where thick fog obscures the Warsaw skyline. “The wind is moderate, and we do not have big rivers. Looking toward the future, we have no choice than to diversify our power system and include nuclear power, which is a zero-emission technology.”
The European Union, to which Poland belongs, has set ambitious goals for swapping wind, sun and other renewables for heavy CO2 emitters like coal. Agreement on nuclear, however, has so far eluded the EU. France, for example, is 75 percent nuclear powered, while Germany is quickly phasing out its nuclear plants in reaction to Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster. Swirski argues that nuclear, while not rated as a renewable in the EU, should indeed count if “zero emissions” is the gold standard. “The Europeans may argue about nuclear and renewables,” Swirski says. “But everybody’s against coal.”
The second faculty member, Jan Alexander Blaszczyk, nods in agreement. The son of a Polish freedom fighter who sought asylum in the United States during the Solidarity movement, Blaszczyk grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. His comfort with America made him a natural to help spearhead the OSU-WUT partnership.
“A huge number of our coal plants are really old,” says Blaszczyk, noting that nearly 90 percent of Polish power is coal-generated. “We need to have nuclear power plants as soon as possible.”
Oregon State will be along for the transition.
In Antarctica, when you sedate a 1,000-pound Weddell seal, it can take a while for the animal to settle down. Before the drug takes effect, the seal might raise its head, flex its 9-foot-long body or even attempt an ungainly crawl toward an opening in the sea ice. Keeping it away from such holes is important. If it were to dive before drifting into unconsciousness, it could drown.
During a research trip to Antarctica last year, Mee-ya Monnin was concerned about seal movement for another reason. She was taking photographs for a research project and needed the animals to be still. When properly composed, her photos would become the basis for a physical check-up of sorts.
This Oregon State University undergraduate from Snohomish, Washington, has developed a method for turning seal pictures into a computer model that calculates the surface area and volume of the animal. By combining those measurements with other information — weight, age, internal and external temperatures, reproductive status and thickness of the seal’s blubber layer — an Oregon State research team is establishing a reliable baseline for monitoring seal health in the future. Leading the project are OSU marine mammal scientist Markus Horning, Jo-Ann Mellish of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Allyson Hindle of the Harvard Medical School. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation.
For Monnin, a senior in OSU’s Fisheries and Wildlife Department and University Honors College, the chance to do science in Antarctica was about more than traveling to a beautiful place and pursuing a lifelong passion for marine mammals. It was a test. It was a chance for this self-described “strong, independent individual” to see what she was made of.
“Everybody knows why you’re there in terms of being passionate,” she says. “That’s pretty common. The important thing isn’t just the desire. It’s to prove that you’ve tested that desire and you’re still interested.”
Fear of Freezing
Her first real hurdle came during a survival training session known optimistically as Happy Camper. The goal is to help scientists prepare for the possibility of being caught out on the ice during a life-threatening storm. Even though she knew it was an exercise, Monnin feared she might freeze to death. “I really believed that I wasn’t going to make it. I thought I was going to die. The instructors leave you alone your first night. You know it’s going to be cold down there, but do you really know? Can you really conceptualize how cold it’s going to be? I was sure I was going to be a popsicle. I’d be dead. There was just no way.”
It wasn’t the first endurance test she had passed. As an intern with the U.S. Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in San Diego, she had chopped frozen fish to feed dolphins and sea lions and scrubbed docks on her hands and knees. Her favorite, though, was pressure-washing the sea lion pens. “The only thing that smells worse than wet, liquid sea lion feces is evaporated particles at 120 degrees Fahrenheit floating in the air and in your face,” she laughs.
Monnin attributes her determination to several sources: her scuba-diving father who brought brilliant underwater photos from the world’s oceans back to his family; her three years in a South Korean middle school (her mom grew up in South Korea) where she gained hard-won study habits; her independent streak, which she has learned to dampen in the interests of teamwork.
“Yes, I have the desire, but I’ve tested it with every single internship and opportunity I’ve gotten, and I’m still just as dedicated now as I was in the beginning,” she adds.
Oregon State’s breadth in marine sciences made the university a natural fit for her. Now, as she prepares to graduate in June, Monnin is writing a technical paper about her modeling methods (described in her blog and shown briefly in a video).
She also thinks about what’s at stake for Weddell seals. Like penguins and whales, this southernmost member of the seal family is a mainstay of the Antarctic ecosystem. Climate changes already impinge on the continent’s ice and precipitation patterns, and as habitats respond, scientists need an accurate way to evaluate the impacts on wildlife.
“We are creating the actual baseline (for seal health),” Monnin explains. “The baseline tells us how much energy they are expending. In the future, we’ll be able to see if those animals are under stress.” Since energy expenditure is a health indicator, measuring it may tell scientists if seals are struggling to survive in a changing environment.
“The assumption has been that if you adapted to life on the ice, it’s not really challenging for you to survive there,” she says. That may not be true any longer.
After spending six months on the ice in 2012, Monnin returned for a second season with Horning’s team in 2013. She learned to make her process more efficient by taking photos more quickly. Instead of hurrying just after a seal had been sedated, when it might still be active, she waited for other researchers to complete their tests of the animal’s status. Monnin positioned four cameras outside the clear plastic tent (affectionately called “the onion”) in which the research team worked. At a signal from the team, the sides of the tent were peeled away, and Monnin started taking photos. She reduced photography time from more than 15 minutes on average to less than two.
“Being down on the ice, you are physically and mentally challenged in every possible aspect,” she says. “You learn to work as part of the group. When I’m coming up on a deadline, it’s a hard deadline. There are bigger consequences for other people on the line, not just for me.”
After graduation, Monnin plans to take time to consider her next steps. Now that she has received the Antarctic Service Medal (give by Congress to people who spend 10 to 30 days below 60 degrees south latitude), another test on the southern continent isn’t out of the question.
Editor’s note: All work presented here was conducted in accordance with all applicable animal welfare guidelines. All research presented on this website was conducted under permit # 15748, 1034-1854 issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service, Antarctic Conservation Act 2012-003, 2007-007, and all required institutional permits from participating institutions.