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Methane-powered engines. Autonomous helicopters. Online shopping assistants. Electricity from wastewater. These new products and the business opportunities they generate are in the pipeline at Oregon State University’s Advantage Accelerator.
They are among 14 research concepts or spinoff companies selected to participate in a program that spurs the creation of new companies from university-based research. Five of them were started by Oregon State students.
The results could lead to automotive innovation, improved heating systems, more efficient solar cells or safe and efficient cesarean delivery of a baby in small, rural hospitals.
“These concepts and companies are emerging from Oregon State or the Corvallis community, and we feel good about the commercial potential of all of them,” says John Turner, co-director of the Advantage Accelerator.
Turner and co-director Mark Lieberman identify innovation and research findings that might form the basis for profitable companies. By tapping into the skills of Oregon State students who are trained venture interns, Turner and Lieberman facilitate each company’s development with legal, marketing, financial and mentoring expertise. Their goal is to turn good ideas into real-world businesses.
The Advantage Accelerator is a component of the Oregon State University Advantage, an educational, research and commercialization initiative of the Research Office. Officials expect it to increase industry investment in Oregon State research by 50 percent and to lead to the creation of 20 new businesses within five years.
The program is also affiliated with the South Willamette Valley Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network, or RAIN, which received $3.75 million in funding from the state Legislature in 2013.
Advantage Accelerator Companies
The Advantage program connects businesses with Oregon State faculty and students, research facilities and startup companies emerging from OSU research.
When Andrew Thurber started his journey in marine biology at Hawaii Pacific University, he got a surprise. “I thought I wanted to work with fish,” he says. “Turns out I don’t.”
Instead, in an Antarctic research lab, he 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.”
After getting his bachelor’s, Thurber conducted graduate work in Antarctic ecology at the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory near Monterey, California. He worked with veteran Antarctic seafloor ecologist Stacy Kim to understand how sea stars and microorganisms decompose sewage waste in the Ross Sea. He received his Ph.D. at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, working on deep-sea habitats fueled by bacteria and archaea.
Thurber’s research has taken him to soft sediments, hydrothermal vents and methane seeps from Costa Rica to New Zealand and Antarctica.
Now a post-doctoral scientist in the Oregon State University College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, he studies the role of a family of worms (Ampharetidae) in the release of methane from the seafloor and the boom-and-bust cycle of productivity in deep-sea ecosystems.
His research in the Antarctic has been supported by the Office of Polar Programs of the National Science Foundation.
Co-authors: Dudley B. Chelton, Ricardo M. Letelier and P. Ted Strub
The College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS) at Oregon State University has a long history of research in satellite remote sensing of the ocean dating back to the early 1980s when most of the sensors were still in developmental stages. CEOAS faculty have been involved in every aspect of satellite remote sensing, including sensor and satellite mission design, development of algorithms for retrievals of the physical and biological variables of interest, and applications of satellite observations to study a host of oceanographic research questions.
Satellites are able to measure the sea surface temperature (SST), salinity and elevation, upper-ocean chlorophyll content, and surface wind speed and direction. The spatial resolution of these ocean properties depends on the electromagnetic wavelengths measured by the satellite sensor. For the short infrared and visible wavelengths at which SST and chlorophyll are measured from space, footprint sizes on the sea surface are a few kilometers (km) but the measurements can only be made in clear-sky conditions. In contrast, measurements at the much longer microwave wavelengths can be made through clouds, but the footprint size is 25 km or larger. SST, salinity, sea surface height and winds can all be measured with microwave sensors.
Professor Dudley Chelton has been working with microwave data since the earliest instruments were launched in the late 1970s. His analysis of microwave measurements of SST and radar measurements of surface winds has revealed a previously unappreciated strong relationship between the ocean and atmosphere on scales of 100-1000 km. Surface winds are modified by the underlying SST in a way that feeds back on the ocean and alters the currents and the SST itself. The ocean and atmosphere thus fluctuate as a fully coupled system. The analysis of satellite data is leading to improvements in the forecasts of surface winds, as well as to an improved understanding of oceanic variability.
This is analogous to being able to measure the thickness of a sheet of paper from the altitude of a commercial airliner.
Professor Chelton has also worked with microwave radar measurements of the sea surface elevation since the late 1970s. Present instruments are capable of measuring the sea surface height to an accuracy of better than 1 centimeter (cm) from an altitude of 1300 km. This is analogous to being able to measure the thickness of a sheet of paper from the altitude of a commercial airliner. Surprisingly, this accuracy is required for studies of ocean circulation since a change of only 1 cm over a distance of 10 km corresponds to a surface current speed of about 10 cm/s, which is large for ocean currents. The variability of surface currents throughout most of the ocean is dominated by swirling currents called eddies that are the oceanic analog of hurricanes in the atmosphere, though with much less devastating effects. The satellite data have revealed extensive new information about the dynamics of these eddies and their impacts on the mixing of water properties and upper-ocean biology.
Satellite data are also used by CEOAS faculty to improve the accuracies of computer model forecasts of ocean conditions along the coasts of Oregon and Washington. Prof. Ted Strub has developed special procedures for retrieving satellite data close to the coast, which is especially problematic for microwave sensors. Prof. Alexander Kurapov has developed a computer model of the coastal ocean circulation that assimilates these satellite observations to improve the accuracy of prediction of ocean currents and temperatures several days in the future. The model forecasts are available online and are used routinely by fishermen, Coast Guard search and rescue teams and public agencies that are monitoring the movement of marine debris, hazardous spills and harmful algal blooms.
CEOAS faculty have also developed a strong program in satellite studies of ocean biology. Beginning in the late 1980s with Dean Mark Abbott and later with Professors Ricardo Letelier, Pete Strutton, Michael Berhenfeld, Curt Davis and Anglicque White, CEOAS faculty have developed new procedures for measuring and interpreting satellite measurements of ocean color. In addition to improved estimates of upper-ocean chlorophyll content, key contributions of this work include advances in the study of algal fluorescence and its use to estimate phytoplankton biomass and productivity. Satellite measurements of ocean color are also leading to improvements in our understanding on how eddies and fronts affect open ocean productivity, which may help explain the development and propagation of harmful algal blooms along the Oregon/Washington coast.
CEOAS is also home to one of only two non-commercial satellite direct broadcast stations on the West Coast. This station serves local and regional communities by downloading data directly from satellite color sensors and providing regional ocean, land and atmospheric products in near-real time. This near real-time access to the data is valuable to a diverse range of users:
To influence policy, research on climate change must incorporate many disciplines and bridge the divide between the natural and social sciences. I see similarities and important differences in the way that research is done in the environmental sciences and in economics. One similarity is that, like climate science, economics research on climate change has been misrepresented in ways that resemble the arguments of “climate deniers.” For example, the public has heard claims that cap-and-trade (a program that combines emissions limits with permits that can be traded in an open market) will crash the economy and that a carbon tax would just grow the government. But a look at recent economic research on climate policy is instructive. Some highlights:
1) The power of a carbon tax stems from the way it permeates the entire economy: prices of energy-intensive goods rise in proportion to their carbon release, consumers and producers adjust their choices, new incentives spur technological innovations. By distributing the burden broadly, a carbon tax minimizes the cost. Indeed, estimates suggest carbon tax policies would slow growth by a mere 0.06 percent. Moreover, if the revenues are used to finance reductions in pre-existing income taxes, that additional benefit, or “double dividend,” would lower costs even more and prevent growth in government.
2) Cap-and-trade has the efficiency of a carbon tax but offers more certainty about emissions limits. Indeed, Europe’s Emissions Trading System (ETS) has locked-in mandatory reductions in the cap that will reduce emissions from 1990-levels by 70 percent in 2050. Economies around the world are implementing programs like the ETS, representing about one-third of global gross domestic product.
3) Less encouragingly, current U.S. policy promotes biofuels under the Renewable Fuel Standards. Research finds that these programs are extremely costly and would reduce net U.S. petroleum use by less than 2 percent. A carbon tax could achieve 20 times as much for the same cost. Moreover, the estimated indirect effect of biofuel production on land use actually suggests a net increase in global carbon emissions.
The public has heard claims that cap-and-trade will crash the economy and that a carbon tax would just grow the government.
Research in the natural sciences and in economics also differs in important ways. In particular, economics includes both “positive” (descriptive) and “normative” (value-based) analyses. Although this appears to contradict Robert Lackey’s warning that normative science is “a corruption of science and should not be tolerated” (Terra Blog January 23, 2013), we are talking about different things. Normative economics tries to represent society’s values based on established theory and methods – not researcher biases. These theories and methods, with underpinnings from philosophy and elsewhere, can be controversial and need careful qualification. But the aim is sound: to represent people’s values, including “non-use values,” concern for future generations, etc.
Understandably, natural scientists often seek ways to connect their research to important social and policy questions. At times, such efforts can lead to the temptations that Lackey warns about or, in some cases, to ad hoc substitutes that bypass prevailing social science research. In fact, economics can often provide ways to make connections between descriptive, positive science and public policy.
The climate policy research cited above required just this type of integration, as have the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments. Today’s research on “coupled natural-human systems” has the potential to integrate the relevant natural and social sciences in ways that produce output about costs, benefits, risk, equity and ecosystem impacts that can be used to develop effective public policies. Indeed, normative economics, in appropriate combination with other social and natural sciences, represents the most direct scholarly channel through which multidisciplinary research can speak to policymakers.
Governor Kitzhaber has announced that Oregon is joining with the state of California to establish a new panel to focus on the extent, causes, and effects of ocean acidification and hypoxia along the Pacific coastline. Five Oregon State University researchers will participate on the new panel.
The West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel will bring together scientists from Oregon, California, Washington and British Columbia to develop strategic recommendations for researching and monitoring ocean acidification and hypoxia in the Pacific Ocean.
“OSU scientists have been leading the way (see links to OSU research stories below) in monitoring and understanding the influence of changing acidity and oxygen levels on ocean and coastal health,” said Jack Barth, Ph.D., a professor and associate dean in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “We all know that ocean currents and habitats don’t stop at any one state’s borders, so we welcome this regional approach.”
Oceans have become more acidic globally, and rising acidity levels have been identified as a potential threat to shellfish and other marine life and to the thousands of jobs that depend upon them. Further, hypoxia, or low oxygen conditions, off the West Coast is a poorly understood phenomenon that also threatens marine resources. Better-coordinated science that identifies data gaps is critical to understanding and addressing possible impacts.
“Scientists are learning that ocean acidification is hitting waters off the West Coast earlier and harder than elsewhere on the planet,” said Governor Kitzhaber. “We need a comprehensive and collaborative approach to better understand what this may mean for West Coast fisheries, Oregon’s rich natural resources, and the people who live on and visit the Oregon coast.”
The newly formed panel includes experts from the fields of chemical and physical oceanography, biogeochemistry, marine biology, ecology and physiology. The multi-disciplinary collaboration will evaluate how ocean processes may contribute to regionally distinct reactions to changing pH levels and attempt to better understand the relationship between acidification and hypoxia.
The Institute for Natural Resources at Oregon State University and its counterpart California Ocean Science Trust will use their expertise in integrating science with management and decision-making to guide and staff the science panel. These institutions will serve as the link between the science panel and government decision-makers.
The science panel will convene periodically throughout 2014. The panel will build upon the work of the State of Washington’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification and consult with that panel’s members.
The peaks of the Wallowa Mountains in Eastern Oregon are still snow-capped in July. The lake is clear and still. The sun shines down hard, and writers at Summer Fishtrap chase shade even at breakfast. Guzzling coffee among them is Jon Ross, a creative writing graduate student at Oregon State University, who wears a tentative smile below his floppy hat.
The mountains, the lake and the rolling hills of the valley provide the perfect setting for writing about the West. That’s what Fishtrap is all about. The nonprofit literary organization based in Enterprise has been hosting its summer writing conference on Wallowa Lake for 25 years.
Fishtrap director Ann Powers takes pride in her setting.
“It’s beautiful to look up at the mountains every day,” she says. “Innovative thinkers and creative people can make this place flourish. We want to cultivate clear thinking and good writing in the West.”
Marjorie Sandor, former director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Oregon State, has a similar goal. A few years ago she was thrilled to learn that Powers, a former student of hers from the Rainier Writing Workshop, was the new director of Fishtrap. That’s when she began plotting an opportunity for OSU students: to add a third year to the typical two-year master of fine arts (MFA) program. By applying their writing skills in a professional environment, they would deepen their educational experience and test their creativity in practical circumstances. It’s an approach that is taking root in several writing programs at Oregon State and turning the university into a writer’s haven.
“The typical two years of an MFA program is a very brief time when you’re trying to make your way as a writer,” Sandor explains. She admits that the hard work of creating a body of publishable work while teaching and taking courses leaves MFA students with little time for networking and exploring writing-related careers outside the university.
This fall, that will change for two MFA students. Jon Ross and Sally Parrish will complete a third year of their program with help from Fishtrap. Ross will work as Powers’ assistant. Parrish will head the Fishtrap College Program and teach writing courses to high school students for Oregon State credit. She will also teach courses and workshops to younger students and to members of the community. Supporting their work financially are the Oregon State School of Writing, Literature and Film; private donors; and the Ford Family Foundation.
Both students will live in Wallowa County, working for Fishtrap and on their theses and personal writing projects.
Sandor hopes this new partnership with Fishtrap will be the beginning of myriad third-year options for OSU MFA students. Other Oregon State programs, such as the Spring Creek Project, have been inspiring writers for years. At OSU-Cascades in Bend, a new low-residency MFA degree will enable students to work off campus and draw inspiration from the details of their daily lives.A Sense of Place at Oregon State
Parrish is a poet. Before she came to Corvallis, she spent six weeks basking in the warm glow of the Costa Rican sunlight, touring the country and taking a break after earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina Asheville. She didn’t know it at the time, but the experience would provide inspiration for much of her written work at Oregon State.
“Place is a really important aspect of my writing,” she says, “I’m looking forward to experiencing the contrast between Corvallis, where I’ve spent the last two years, and the Wallowa County. I hope it’ll encourage reflection on both environments.”
Sense of place is also important for another Oregon State program, the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word. Director Charles Goodrich calls the project willfully and energetically interdisciplinary.
“At a university where people get into their own cubbies, we pull them out and have conversations around topics of how to create a sustainable world and how to become good citizens in it,” he says.
Spring Creek combines the talents of creative writers, environmental scientists and philosophers in discussions about how to envision our relationship to nature and how we should live. Goodrich hires writing students as interns and brought MFA student Maya Polan on board to coordinate the “Campus Creature Census.” Through short written pieces, artwork and photography by members of the Oregon State community, the “census” explored the flora and fauna on campus.
“The goal was to get people to pay attention to what is in their place,” Goodrich says. “We want people to think about this campus as a home and as a habitat.”
He also encourages MFA students to participate in the Spring Creek’s residential experiences. For example, writers can devote a week or more to the forest at two locations: the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Cascades and a cabin in the Oregon Coast Range. “There, we ask them to engage with the place,” Goodrich says. “In turn, they produce pieces that have been published in The Atlantic and other prestigious journals.”Among the Best in the Nation
The growth of Oregon State’s creative writing programs strengthens the university’s research-based, land grant mission. Creative expression and imagination, Sandor and Goodrich feel, are just as important for solving our world’s problems as are science and engineering. Others are paying attention. In 2012, Poets and Writers magazine tagged the MFA program as one of the 25 best in the nation.
This year, the MFA program received over 400 applications for only 14 spaces. Sandor is excited to be accepting students who turned down nationally-ranked programs at other institutions, including the University of Iowa. “You can’t have application numbers like these and not be recognized,” Sandor adds.
Adding a third-year option for MFA students is one of Sandor’s goals, and a new low-residency MFA program at OSU-Cascades may become a vehicle for that. Emily Carr directs that initiative and says the program will begin in November. Applications are open and will be reviewed throughout the month of August. Writers around the region are applying, and over time, Carr believes, the program will gain national recognition.
“The low residency MFA, I think, is the future for creative writing programs,” Carr says. “The format is a pragmatic response to what it means to be a writer in this economy in the 21st century.”
“Low residency” means that students will work from home and correspond with instructors online. In addition, they will attend classes at the OSU-Cascades campus during two intensive 10-day residencies per year. Mid-career professionals and parents of young children may benefit most from this arrangement.
Carr, who started at OSU-Cascades on May 1, has been developing the program from scratch. So far, faculty members include T. Geronimo Johnson, a fiction writer (Hold It ‘Till It Hurts), and Arielle Greenberg, a poet (My Kafka Century). “I wanted to find faculty who know what it means to be entrepreneurial as a writer and who do that in their own writing lives,” she says.
Carr hopes to inspire students in the low-residency program to be just as entrepreneurial, to engage with the Bend community during their short time on campus and learn how to market their writing skills.
Students need opportunities outside the classroom to use their writing experience in a professional environment, say Carr and Sandor. “You need to make mistakes as a student before you take on a real job or set out to write professionally,” Carr adds.
Ross and Parrish know they might be making some mistakes during their year at Fishtrap, but both say they feel prepared for the challenge. In Wallowa County the two students will be part of the small but vital writing community.
“Our program is about excellence,” Sandor says. “It’s about creating good writers and good teachers.”
On the rugged slopes of northern Ecuador, villagers in La Victoria run a thriving cottage industry in pottery. They craft bowls, teapots and cups from local clays, apply homemade glazes, stack the pots in backyard kilns about the size of wilderness dome tents and, finally, fire up the kilns. The colorful glazes fuse to the clay, forming a shiny, impervious finish, ready for sale at home-based shops.
The enterprise raises the villagers’ standard of living. But it could be harming their health, says Oregon State International Studies biology major Erik Dove. Lead poisoning from ceramics — especially among children — is a worry for health-care researchers and providers in Ecuador, explains Dove, a pre-med student in the University Honors College. La Victoria, in particular, has been identified as a lead-exposure “hotspot” by the Department of Environmental Health at Emory University. “Lead-glazed pottery is likely a major contributor to hotspot lead poisoning in Latin America,” Emory’s researchers recently reported.
That’s because the glazes are made with toxic fluids from castoff auto parts.
“High in the Andean mountains, the indigenous peoples of Ecuador cling to the old ways,” writes science journalist Michelle Pflumm in a recent blogpost. She describes the artisans “huddling around bubbling cauldrons of molten lead salvaged from old car batteries.”
To help Ecuadorians identify their risks, Dove is studying the effectiveness of do-it-yourself test kits found in retail stores. During his recent summer internship with Child Family Health International, he traveled from the city of Quito, where he was based, to the rural community of La Victoria, where he bought 20 pieces of pottery (at about $1 each) from various vendors. In an epidemiology lab run by College of Public Health and Human Sciences Assistant Professor Molly Kile, he scrapes glaze samples from each pot and then mixes the sample in a vial of solvent. A dark color means lead is present.
“Testing with the home lead tests showed that the majority of ceramic specimens — five of the six I’ve tested as of mid-August — contain elevated levels of lead,” says Dove, who grew up in Santa Rosa, California. “This means that they contain more than the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) approved concentration for lead in paints.”
Next, he will run the same samples through a mass spectrometry machine and compare the results against those of the home test kits.
While in the cities of Quito and Chone, shadowing physicians in clinics and studying medical Spanish, Dove’s biggest learning curve was the cultural divide between urban and rural communities. One day, for instance, a man came to the ER with his arm “swollen enormously” from snakebite. “His arm was jet black,” Dove recalls. “He was drifting in and out of consciousness.” It turned out that instead of going straight to the hospital after getting bit, the man had traveled several hours in the opposite direction to see a shaman. The shaman prescribed a dose of the man’s own urine. After the remedy failed, the man eventually arrived at the hospital. But it may have been too late to save his arm.
“In Ecuador, there can be a divide between Western-style medicine and traditional medicine or alternative healing. You have to be sensitive in order to, A, not offend and, B, to be able to treat. You do a lot of explaining while at the same time supporting their autonomy. It is so important to consider each patient’s values, beliefs and ideals during treatment.”