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Active Ingredients

OSU's Global Impact - Wed, 05/28/2014 - 10:30am

Professor Rich G. Carter (left), co-founder and CEO of Valliscor LLC, confers with Rajinikanth Lingampally, a research associate at Oregon State. (Photo: Chris Becerra)

A good recipe depends on high-quality ingredients. That’s as true in industry (electronics, food products, chemical manufacturing) as it is in our kitchens. So when two Willamette Valley chemists developed methods for producing industrial chemicals with exceptional purity, they saw a business opportunity. The result is a new company: Valliscor. Co-founded in 2012 by Rich G. Carter, professor and chair of the Oregon State University Department of Chemistry, and industrial chemist Michael Standen, Valliscor produces organic building blocks for the pharmaceutical, electronics and biotech sectors. Its first product is a compound known as bromofluoromethane (BFM). BFM is a critical ingredient in the synthesis of fluticasone propionate, the active component in two popular medications: Flonase, a nasal spray; and Advair, an asthma inhaler. “The company was created to exploit the synergy between industrial know-how and academic innovation,” says Carter. “Valliscor harnesses licensed technology from Oregon State and from industrial partners to provide unique and cost-effective solutions for producing high-value chemicals. We can provide ultra-high purity materials that are superior to those offered by our competitors.” Before founding Valliscor, Carter and Standen had collaborated on numerous projects over the past 10 years, including the commercialization of an “organocatalyst” called Hua Cat, an advance in environmentally friendly chemical manufacturing. The OSU Research Office and the Advantage Accelerator program have been key to the company’s growth, Carter adds. “We’ve had great mentorship and guidance from the Advantage Accelerator leadership: Mark Lieberman, John Turner and Betty Nickerson. When we get stuck on a problem, they are just a phone call away.” The Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI) supported the company in 2012 with proof-of-concept funding and guidance from commercialization specialists Jay Lindquist and Michael Tippie and from Skip Rung, ONAMI executive director.

Categories: OSU's Global Impact

Wanted: A Strong Work Ethic

OSU's Global Impact - Wed, 05/28/2014 - 10:20am

You might think the No. 1 quality professors seek in an undergraduate researcher is braininess. Yes, brains matter. But there’s another valued trait, perhaps less obvious but at least as important: a strong work ethic. In the labs in Oregon State’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics, work ethic is often the deciding factor in hiring research assistants.

Take professor David Hamby, for example. He hired Andrew Child to work on projects funded by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other agencies. “He came to me after his sophomore year asking to work with me, and now I pay him quite well because he has shown what a good work ethic he has — as well as being very bright,” says Hamby.

Assistant professor Wade Marcum echoes Hamby. “The students I seek to fill undergraduate research assistantships tend to have sound work ethics,” says Marcum, who employs undergraduate students with funding from the Idaho National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy and other sponsors. “They are very reliable and provide feedback if they run into issues that may prevent timely progress on a project.”

These highly motivated, dependable undergrads do basic science and tackle projects with advanced applications for nuclear energy technology. One of Andrew Child’s projects, for example, was to design a “graphical user interface” for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization’s international data center. “The interface will ultimately display critical information on radiation monitoring systems from around the world,” says Hamby.

Marcum’s projects on fluid interactions employ students to run computer simulations and conduct experiments on properties such as convection and flow in nuclear power plants. These issues are important unknowns as nuclear technology moves away from active fluid pumping toward natural or “passive” convection.

“Undergraduates who are research assistants become insightfully knowledgeable about the subject they are researching,” Marcum says. “They also gain an appreciation of the level of rigor required in a sound research study. Plus, they can better determine whether research aligns with their ambitions as they look ahead to graduate school and employment.

Categories: OSU's Global Impact

Spirituality, Religion and Health

OSU's Global Impact - Wed, 05/28/2014 - 10:19am

Religious practices and spiritual behaviors have distinct but complementary health benefits. That was the conclusion of a study led by Carolyn Aldwin, professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. She and her colleagues (Crystal Park of the University of Connecticut and Yu-Jin Jeong and Ritwik Nath of OSU) reviewed previously published reports and evaluated evidence in the scientific literature.

Religiousness, including formal religious affiliation and service attendance, is associated with lower smoking rates and reduced alcohol consumption. Spirituality, including meditation and private prayer, helps regulate emotions, which aids physiological effects such as blood pressure.

“No one has ever reviewed all of the different models of how religion affects health. We’re trying to impose a structure on a very messy field,” says Aldwin, the Jo Anne Leonard endowed director of OSU’s Center for Healthy Aging Research.

The John Templeton Foundation supported the research. (For more on Aldwin’s research, see “The Stress Paradox,” Terra, winter 2010.)

Categories: OSU's Global Impact

The Shining

OSU's Global Impact - Wed, 05/28/2014 - 10:17am

New types of materials that change their shape when exposed to light could lead to advances in hydrogen storage, solar energy, carbon dioxide capture and other fields critical to the nation’s economy. The W. M. Keck Foundation has awarded a $1 million research grant to OSU’s School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering and to Ohio University.

“We’re excited about the possible applications of these materials,” says Brady Gibbons, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. “They can absorb and store hydrogen like a sponge, but also squeeze themselves when light shines on them.”

One application is the hydrogen fuel cell, one of the most promising technologies for automobiles of the future. It produces only water as a byproduct when it generates electricity, but hydrogen storage is a primary challenge in meeting auto industry requirements.

Other collaborators include OSU professors Rob Stone, Alex Greaney and Irem Tumer and professor Jeffrey Rack at Ohio University.

Categories: OSU's Global Impact

Circle of Friends

OSU's Global Impact - Wed, 05/28/2014 - 10:09am

Rick Spinrad

In the 1960s, the Beatles sang about getting by with a little help from their friends. In the never-ending search for funding, scientists have sung the same tune, but their circle of acquaintances is expanding. They’re partnering with a wider variety of organizations and accommodating more diverse needs. So, as a result, Oregon State’s research enterprise is becoming more creative.

For the past half-century, researchers have relied largely on public funds from the federal government: the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Department of Defense (DoD), National Science Foundation (NSF) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to name a few. Plans to double the budgets of several federal funding agencies have suffered from overall reductions and sequestration, with the result that nowadays, the catchphrase is, “Flat budgets are the new doubling.”

These trends are likely to constrain public funding for the foreseeable future. For this and other reasons, Oregon State scientists are working more closely with private investors such as businesses and foundations. Because the goals of public and private organizations vary, we are becoming more flexible and responsive. That means moving at the speed of business instead of the speed of academia or government. It requires that we aim at multiple objectives, from basic science to commercial application. And we need to protect intellectual property rights, including the right to publish.

Private-sector organizations tend to be driven by commercial markets. The West Coast oyster industry, for example, needs confidence that production methods will meet the demand in restaurants and supermarkets. Wheat suppliers need grain with well-defined qualities for food processors. Flat-screen producers must maintain an edge in a highly competitive consumer-electronics market.

There are a lot of challenges to this new paradigm. Since so many private investors rely on the reputation of the researcher, it’s often harder for a new scientist to “break in.” And many foundations simply won’t pay the overhead that supports research infrastructure (see “The Hidden Costs of Research” in Terra, fall 2013).

And, most challenging (while being quite exciting), we are just learning how to deal with the emerging trend in grassroots appeals — aka, crowdsourcing — to fund research projects. Seasoned researchers and graduate students are considering the use of websites such as kickstarter.com and gofundme.com to raise money for science. With a few clicks, individuals are donating money for hopeful ideas ranging from a free vaccine against HIV to the search for near-Earth asteroids. This cottage industry even has its own Twitter hashtag, #crowdsource. Groups such as the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities are helping to address this phenomenon.

In the future, the most successful research programs will be those that adapt to a rapidly developing environment but maintain the heart of a principled, value-driven enterprise. And yes, with a little help from a lot of new friends.


Editor’s note: Rick Spinrad received the Oceanology International Lifetime Achievement Award in March for his accomplishments in marine science and policy. In May, the White House announced the appointment of Spinrad as the chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He will take a leave of absence from his position as a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

Categories: OSU's Global Impact

Trial by Fire

OSU's Global Impact - Wed, 05/28/2014 - 10:04am

Few places are as hot as 6,000 degrees Centigrade: the surface of the sun, the center of the Earth, the heart of a laboratory device at Oregon State University. In the lab, this is the temperature of a kind of flame produced when argon gas flows through an intense electromagnetic field. Appropriately, the part of the device that holds the flowing gas is called a “torch.” As the gas ionizes — as it separates into positively and negatively charged particles — it becomes neither liquid nor solid nor gas. It becomes plasma, the fourth state of matter.

Plasma spectroscopy enables scientists to analyze chemical composition in a rock crystal from Mount Hood lava (right) and the ear bone (otolith) of a Dolly Varden fish, a salmon relative. The results reveal details about volcanic eruptions and Dolly Varden migration patterns. (Photos: rock crystal, Adam Kent; otolith, Jessica Miller)

Welcome to the W. M. Keck Collaboratory for Plasma Spectrometry. Researchers from as far away as Estonia and as close as down the hall use the lab’s analytical equipment — known in scientific jargon as an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer, or ICP-MS — to answer a variety of stubborn questions: Why do nerve cells die in the course of Lou Gehrig’s disease? What causes volcanoes to erupt? How does the Earth’s climate system operate? Where do fish spend their time as they navigate watersheds and the oceans?

The ICP-MS enables scientists to look for clues in the amounts and proportions of elements that are contained in river water, fish bones, ice cores, nanomaterials and cell cultures. With exquisite precision, the Keck Collaboratory identifies elements both rare (strontium, hafnium) and common (calcium, magnesium, copper) and enables scientists to find chemical patterns — what you might call elemental fingerprints — that point to answers.

DIY Science

As its name implies, the lab is about scientists working together. “We’re not a service lab,” says manager Andy Ungerer, who came to Oregon State in 1973 to do a master’s degree with nuclear chemist Walter Loveland. “There are places where you can send samples, and they’ll send back a spreadsheet. From the beginning, we’ve felt it is important for users to learn as much about the equipment as they could. You can only do that by running the samples yourself.”

Ungerer and Gary Klinkhammer, emeritus professor and Keck lab founder, took this DIY approach when they received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to install their first ICP-MS in 1992. With grants from the Keck Foundation in 2000 and from the NSF in 2011, the lab added more powerful mass spectrometers, the machines that separate and measure elements.

The analytical process can start when a liquid sample is sprayed into the torch. Or it can begin with a solid material, such as the fish otolith or rock crystal above. Scientists fire a laser beam at the material, and the collision sends molecules into the torch on a current of helium gas.

As molecules break apart in the plasma, the elements that comprise them are extracted and sent into a mass spectrometer that separates them by mass and ionic charge. Another device, an emission spectrometer, can add additional data based on the light emitted by the elements.

Plasma spectrometry is so sensitive that it can find one atom in a trillion — the equivalent of a drop of water in an Olympic swimming pool.

Over the last four years, more than 120 scientists and 50 Oregon State graduate students have used the lab for their research.

Categories: OSU's Global Impact

Bio Boost for Supercapacitors

OSU's Global Impact - Wed, 05/28/2014 - 10:01am

Ultracapacitors (Maxwell Technologies)

Oregon State chemists have discovered an inexpensive and rapid process for turning cellulose into the components of supercapacitors. These high-power energy devices have a wide range of industrial applications, from electronics to automobiles.

Cellulose, the primary ingredient in paper, is one of the most abundant organic polymers. By heating it in the presence of ammonia, Xiulei (David) Ji, an assistant professor of chemistry, created an extraordinarily thin carbon membrane. “It’s surprising that such a basic reaction was not reported before,” says Ji. “Not only are there industrial applications, but this opens a whole new scientific area, studying reducing gas agents for carbon activation.”

The high surface area of carbon membranes (three grams can cover a football field) makes them useful in supercapacitors, energy storage devices that can be recharged much faster than a battery. They help power computers and consumer electronics. In industry, they can power anything from a crane to a forklift.

Categories: OSU's Global Impact

Honors and Recognitions

OSU's Global Impact - Wed, 05/28/2014 - 9:54am

Jane Lubchenco

Distinguished University Professor, Adviser in Marine Studies, College of Science

Award: Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Ecology & Conservation Biology

Organization: BBVA Foundation (Spain)

Her research established a scientific framework for defining the optimal locations, size and connectivity of marine reserve networks, effectively integrating her scientific expertise into science-based principles for public policy.

Kathryn Higley

Professor, College of Engineering

Appointment: Vice Chair of Committee 5 (Protection of the Environment)

Organization: International Commission on Radiological Protection

Higley has studied radiation cleanup activities in the United States and Japan. Her research focuses on radiation dose assessment, neutron activation analysis and the transport of radionuclides in  the environment.


Aaron Wolf

Professor, College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Award: Il Monito del Giardino (The Warning from the Garden) Award

Organization: Bardini and Peyron Monumental Parks Foundation (Italy)

Wolf has traveled worldwide as a scientist and a mediator of water conflicts. He directs OSU’s Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation.

Categories: OSU's Global Impact

Searching the Past

OSU's Global Impact - Wed, 05/28/2014 - 9:44am

Since 2009, students from Oregon State and around the country have come to the lower Salmon River canyon and lived in tents for eight hot summer weeks. When not cooling off in the river, they dig, sift, haul and record as they participate in the search for traces of some of the earliest human activity in the Northwest.

The Cooper’s Ferry Archaeological Field School enables undergraduates and graduate students to become proficient in the latest techniques for digging into the past. Surrounded by steep canyon walls, they learn to excavate with hand-held masonry trowels, record data and create maps.

“My favorite part is learning about the people and their experiences through looking at the tools and the features we’re finding,” says Stef Solisti, a student in biocultural anthropology from Portland and a participant in the 2013 field school.

The field school will run this year from June 23 to August 15.

Categories: OSU's Global Impact

Bioengineering Students Jump-start Their Careers

OSU's Global Impact - Wed, 05/28/2014 - 9:42am

Marsha Lampi

A team effort to find a new way to treat sepsis has provided myriad hands-on opportunities for undergraduate and graduate bioengineering students at Oregon State. They’ve made vital contributions to the research and advanced their careers.

“This is such a large project that we’ve probably had a couple dozen or more students involved in recent years,” says Joe McGuire, professor and head of the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering.

Research in McGuire’s lab led a graduate student to a doctoral program at the University of Delaware and an undergraduate to a job with a biomedical company in Bend. And it propelled Marsha Lampi, a Portland track star who received her OSU bachelor’s degree in 2012, to a doctoral program in biomedical engineering at Cornell University.

“I was awarded fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Sloan Foundation,” says Lampi. “My research with Dr. McGuire, particularly the opportunity to have a first-author publication from my undergraduate research, was pivotal in making me competitive for these fellowships.”

At OSU, Lampi helped define how peptides can remove toxins from blood. At Cornell, she studies the effect of arterial stiffening, which occurs naturally with aging, on the formation of fatty deposits on artery walls.

She isn’t sure yet where her career will end, but it’s clear where it began.

Categories: OSU's Global Impact

French Conversation Group

Upcoming Events - Tue, 05/27/2014 - 4:08pm
Tuesday, May 27, 2014 4:30 PM - 6:00 PM

What is Café-Rencontres Francophones?

An initiative of the OSU French Department, Café-Rencontres is a casual French conversation group open to members of the OSU and greater-Corvallis communities. We welcome all levels of French from beginner to native, and we enjoying speaking French in a laid-back atmosphere. It's not a class, but we help each other as we go along.

We meet upstairs at Nearly Normals - come by anytime between 4:30 and 6pm on Tuesdays.

Memorial Day

Upcoming Events - Mon, 05/26/2014 - 4:05pm
Monday, May 26, 2014 (all day event)

The office of International Degree & Education Aborad (IDEA) will be closed in accordance with the OSU holiday schedule.

If there is an emergency, please contact OSU Public Safety at  541.737.7000.

Cows Show Stress

OSU's Global Impact - Fri, 05/23/2014 - 5:05pm

The “ecology of fear” isn’t limited to wild animals. Livestock that have encountered wolves experience stress that may affect their health and productivity.

In experiments at Oregon State’s Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center (EOARC) in Burns, cows were exposed to the sounds of howling wolves and to German shepherds prowling outside an enclosure. Those cows that had previously encountered wolves on the range showed higher levels of stress than those that had not had such encounters.

“When wolves kill or injure livestock, ranchers can document the financial loss,” says Reinaldo Cooke, an animal scientist in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “But wolf attacks also create bad memories in the herd and cause a stress response known to result in decreased pregnancy rates, lighter calves and a greater likelihood of getting sick. It’s much like post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD – for cows.”

David Bohnert, an expert in animal nutrition at the EOARC, says that stress affects ranchers’ bottom line. “In a herd, if you are not raising calves, your cows are not making you money,” he says. “A wolf attack can have negative financial ripple effects for some time.” (For more on livestock well-being, see “Caring for Cows,” Terra, winter 2013.)

Categories: OSU's Global Impact

Wristbands for Health

OSU's Global Impact - Fri, 05/23/2014 - 4:40pm

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.)

Categories: OSU's Global Impact

Future Doctors

OSU's Global Impact - Fri, 05/23/2014 - 4:23pm







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.”







Categories: OSU's Global Impact

Designing Engineers

OSU's Global Impact - Fri, 05/23/2014 - 4:21pm

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.

Categories: OSU's Global Impact

Delving Into Censorship

OSU's Global Impact - Fri, 05/23/2014 - 3:21pm

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.”


Categories: OSU's Global Impact

Big Data Crunch

OSU's Global Impact - Fri, 05/23/2014 - 3:01pm

Sastry Pantula, Dean, College of Science

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.

Categories: OSU's Global Impact

A Nuclear Bond

OSU's Global Impact - Fri, 05/23/2014 - 9:26am

Malwina Gradecka (right) and Izabela Gutowska, Ph.D. students from Warsaw University of Technology, prepare the core block for installation at OSU’s High Temperature Test Facility. (Photo: Karl Maasdam)

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.

Izabela Gutowska attaches a ceramic block to a crane during core installation. (Photo: Karl Maasdam)

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.”

Renewables, Too

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, plenipotentiary for nuclear energy at Warsaw University of Technology, and WUT faculty member Jan Alexander Blaszczyk are spearheading the OSU-WUT partnership. (Photo: Lee Sherman)

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.

Categories: OSU's Global Impact

US Student Fulbright Program

Upcoming Events - Thu, 05/22/2014 - 4:06pm
Thursday, May 22, 2014 5:00 PM - 6:00 PM

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is the largest U.S. exchange program offering opportunities for students and  recent graduates to undertake international graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and primary and secondary school teaching worldwide. The program currently awards approximately 1,800 grants annually in all fields of study, and operates in more than 155 countries worldwide.

During their grants, Fulbright scholars will meet, work, live with and learn from the people of the host country, sharing daily experiences. The program facilitates cultural exchange through direct interaction on an individual basis in the classroom, field, home, and in routine tasks, allowing the grantee to gain an appreciation of others’ viewpoints and beliefs, the way they do things, and the way they think. Through engagement in the community, the individual will interact with their hosts on a one-to-one basis in an atmosphere of openness, academic integrity, and intellectual freedom, thereby promoting mutual understanding.

For more information about Fulbright, please visit:



The 2015-16 Fulbright competition opens on May 1, 2014.  Please join LeAnn Adam, OSU Fulbright Program Advisor for an information session.