college of engineering

OSU names Sandra Woods dean of College of Engineering

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Sandra Woods, a former Oregon State University environmental engineer who has led the engineering program at Colorado State University for the past seven years, was today named dean of the OSU College of Engineering.

Woods replaces Ron Adams, who stepped down as dean to lead a new initiative at OSU on industry relations as executive associate vice president for research. She will begin her new duties as dean of OSU’s College of Engineering on July 30.

Woods has been dean of Colorado State’s College of Engineering since July 1, 2006, after a one-year appointment as interim dean. She previously was on the engineering faculty at Oregon State, where she also helped launch the university’s distance and continuing education programs. Woods was on the OSU faculty from 1984 to 2001.

“Sandra Woods is an experienced and visionary leader, who directed Colorado State’s engineering program through an impressive period of growth in enrollment, research and impact,” said Sabah Randhawa, OSU’s provost and executive vice president. “She also has led numerous initiatives with distance learning and graduate education and she has been an advocate for women pursuing engineering as a career. We’re delighted to bring her back to our campus.”

After graduating from Michigan State University, Woods earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in civil engineering from the University of Washington and joined the OSU faculty in 1984. She is an environmental engineer who specializes in the bioremediation and biotransformation of environmental contaminants, for which she received a National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award in 1985.

While at OSU, Woods was honored for her teaching and also served in a variety of administrative roles, both in the College of Engineering and throughout the university. She helped launch Oregon State’s distance and continuing education programs and served as interim dean of the program in 1998-99.

In 2001, Woods was appointed head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Colorado State University. She served as department head until her appointment as interim dean in 2005.

As dean, she led a college with more than 2,500 students and annual research expenditures of about $63 million. Under her leadership, the college is building a $71 million interdisciplinary teaching and research facility. Other key projects have included construction of a new residence hall to house an engineering living/learning community, a new co-op program, new interdisciplinary majors, options and minors, and a novel freshman retention program.

The college received the Women in Engineering Program Advocates Network “Women in Engineering Initiative Award” for its success in improving gender diversity within the engineering program. In 2010, the Colorado section of the American Council of Engineering Companies awarded Woods the General Palmer Award as the “Outstanding Engineer in Industry” for her leadership and contributions.

As dean of OSU’s College of Engineering, Woods will take over the leadership of a college with an annual budget of $73 million, a total of 253 faculty and staff, and more than 5,200 students.

Scott Ashford has served as interim dean of OSU’s College of Engineering since Adams’ left the position.

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Sabah Randhawa, 541-737-2111

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Sandra Woods

Ocean wave energy to be explored at Corvallis Science Pub

CORVALLIS, Ore. – These are the formative years of a West Coast wave energy industry, and scientists are working with businesses, communities and policymakers to gather environmental data, test new technologies and consider options — all of which will be explored June 11 at the Corvallis Science Pub.

Belinda Batten, director of the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center, will describe projects under way, including one that will be visible from Newport this summer.

The presentation will begin at 6 p.m. at the Old World Deli, 341 S.W. Second St., in Corvallis. It is free and open to the public.

“We’ve got the technical side, the environmental side and the outreach to communities through Oregon Sea Grant,” Batten said. “You don’t have that everywhere.”

Wave-energy systems, she said, will need to survive extreme ocean conditions and minimize impact on the environment and traditional ocean uses.

OSU engineers are testing wave-energy devices and working with AXYS Technologies, Inc., of Vancouver, B.C., to deploy a new offshore moored test buoy this summer. Developers will be able to attach their prototypes to the buoy and monitor power production and other functions. A search is also under way for an additional ocean test site that can be connected to the nation’s power grid.

Companies such as Columbia Power Technologies of Corvallis, Neptune Wave Power and Northwest Wave Energy Innovations have been discussing plans for testing prototypes. A fourth company, Ocean Power Technologies, has already received permits for a small commercial-scale device near Reedsport, Ore.

To add a new wrinkle to ocean energy, scientists are also investigating the potential to capture energy from sea winds. With a U.S. Department of Energy grant, Rob Suryan, a sea bird expert at OSU, will lead a team to develop remote monitoring technologies that can assess potential wind turbine impacts on sea birds and bats.

Since its establishment in 2008, NNMREC has attracted nearly $20 million in private, state and federal support. It’s a collaboration between Oregon State University and the University of Washington.

Sponsors of Science Pub include Terra magazine at OSU, the Downtown Corvallis Association and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

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Belinda Batten, 541-737-3441

OSU wins third consecutive national championship in Formula SAE

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The Global Formula Racing team at Oregon State University recently won for the third consecutive year at Michigan International Speedway, considered the national championship of Formula SAE racing – the only time this has ever happened.

OSU’s racing team, which is a collaboration of OSU and Duale Hochschule Baden-Wurttemberg-Ravensburg in Germany, received the first place overall award as well as three first place titles in engineering design, endurance, and the SAE Spirit of Excellence.

There were 120 teams from around the world at this competition, entering 106 vehicles. Participants came from the United States, Canada, Austria, Germany, Finland, Singapore, South Korea, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

“This is the first time in the history of the Michigan race that a university has won for three consecutive years,” said Robert Stone, professor and interim head of the School of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at OSU. “It’s a great accomplishment.”

OSU’s team, composed mostly of students from the College of Engineering, has been extraordinarily successful in Formula SAE racing in recent years. This sport is extremely popular in Europe, where almost every university sponsors a team, and OSU has also dominated many universities with strong teams in the Midwest, the historic home of the nation’s automotive industry.

Cars in Formula SAE racing are judged on such factors as cost, innovation, acceleration, design and other aspects. Students spend thousands of hours working on the vehicles and in the process learn skills in aerodynamics, chassis construction and mechanical engineering as well as business development and fund raising.

Formula SAE racing is organized by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

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Three-time winner

Three-time winner

Technology to monitor bird sounds, impacts of environmental change

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have created a new computer technology to listen to multiple bird sounds at one time, to identify which species are present and how they may be changing as a result of habitat loss or climate change.

The system, one of the first of its type, should provide an automated approach to ecological monitoring of bird species that is much more practical than a human sitting in the field, hours on end.

“It’s difficult to hear and identify even one or two bird species at a time, and when you have many of them singing at once it’s even more difficult,” said Forrest Briggs, a doctoral student in computer science at OSU.

“Birds are important in themselves, but also an early warning system of larger changes taking place in the environment,” Briggs said. “Now we can tell down to the second when a bird arrives, leaves, when and where it’s choosing to nest, that type of information. It’s just not practical to do that with human monitoring.”

The “multi-instance multi-label” machine learning system developed at OSU, researchers said, could ultimately be used to identify not just bird sounds but many other forest noises – everything from wind to rain drops or a falling tree. It could also be used with other animal species, including grasshoppers, crickets, frogs, and marine mammals. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the OSU College of Engineering.

“It would not be reasonable for a person to count birds once per minute, 24 hours a day, for three months, but we aim to obtain similar results with acoustic surveys,” the researchers wrote in a recent study published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

The error rate of this technology is already similar to that achieved by human experts, Briggs said. In one day of testing, for instance, it produced 548 10-second recordings of sounds from 13 different bird species. It is also omni-directional, meaning the microphones do not have to be pointed right at the sound in question to function accurately, one of the limitations of some previous technology.

Researchers are still working out some issues, including interference caused by rain, not to mention people heard partying in the woods, and what appeared to be the bite mark of a bear on the microphone.

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Forest monitoring

Bird monitoring

Program announced to advance nuclear energy, new reactor technology

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The United States Department of Energy today announced recipients of $47 million in a major initiative under the Nuclear Energy University Program, an effort to support education, research and facilities that will lead toward a “re-invigorated” nuclear energy industry in the U.S.

Awards were made to 46 universities, including $1.1 million to Oregon State University, which has been a pioneer in the development and testing of “passive safety” nuclear energy concepts and new types of small “modular” reactors that hold great promise in the future of nuclear power.

Daniel Poneman, the deputy secretary of energy, said that President Obama has cited nuclear energy as “a part of his blueprint to build the economy.” He also pointed to the programs at OSU as being a key part of future systems of nuclear energy.

“Small modular reactors are exciting for a number of reasons,” Poneman said. “They have safety and non-proliferation advantages, could be used in smaller communities, and you could punch them out in a standardized manner.

“Only time will tell, but their flexibility in cost and deployment is very promising,” he said.

OSU has one of the nation’s leading programs in education and research in nuclear energy and radiation health physics. Some of the large “next-generation” reactors being built in the world today were developed in part by testing of passive safety concepts in OSU laboratories in the 1990s, in which the reactor is designed to shut down automatically, if necessary, using natural forces including gravity and convection.

Those same features were incorporated into even more innovative technology researched at OSU – small modular reactors. These reactors are designed to be built in a factory, standardized, and shipped via rail car or other means to a location where they could be used individually or in groups. They provide different and attractive options to “the business model developed over decades of reactors getting larger and larger, built as one-of-a-kind reactors,” Poneman said.

"This is a continuation of the Department of Energy’s support for our research and educational programs, and it’s very important to what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Kathryn Higley, professor and head of the OSU Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics. “It supports our students, our infrastructure and the research that leads to commercialization of new technologies.”

One of the commercial leaders in the development of small modular reactors is a spinoff company that evolved from OSU research, NuScale Power.

Other features of the new program announced today include $5 million for undergraduate student scholarships, including several at OSU. OSU’s educational programs and enrollment in nuclear engineering and radiation health physics have expanded rapidly in recent years, and programs such as this will be important “to create the next generation experts, fresh thinking to jump start America’s nuclear energy industry,” Poneman said.

The four priorities outlined today included fuel cycle research and development; reactor concepts and designs; advanced modeling and simulation; and transformative research. Federal officials said today that significant progress is needed on three fronts for nuclear power to move forward – economic efficiency, non-proliferation issues and waste disposal. A panel has been appointed to explore the waste disposal issue and work towards a national consensus, they said.

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Kathryn Higley, 541-737-0675

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NuScale module in pool

Modular reactor

New degree concept opens computer science career opportunities

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University is beginning one of the only programs of its type in the nation, an online bachelor’s degree in computer science that will allow a student who already has any type of accredited bachelor’s degree to gain a second, more highly sought degree in only 12 months.

The program, to be offered as an extended education degree through OSU’s Ecampus, is meant to address a pressing need for more computer science software experts in Oregon and around the world – jobs which are readily available and usually pay $60,000 or more as a starting salary.

Conceptually, the degree will also allow students to build on their existing degree and previous career interests – whether those are in the sciences, liberal arts or other fields – and pair them with an undergraduate computer science degree to create graduates who have specialized abilities of particular value in a competitive job market.

“The need for expertise in computer science has now become so pervasive that these skills can be paired with almost any type of other college degree to create something more valued than either one would be separately,” said Terri Fiez, head of the OSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “Industry experts we’re working with are thrilled with this idea. We call it ‘one plus one equals three’.”

The course of study will be demanding, Fiez said, in part because the computer science training being offered is equivalent to that found in a normal, four-year undergraduate degree. But no existing computer science background is required and it can be completed in just 12 months – or stretched out if necessary – and done through online education by students anywhere in the world.

The degree program will begin June 25. More details on the coursework, registration and costs are available online, at http://bit.ly/HqYWcH

The focus of the degree is software engineering and web programming, OSU officials say. Courses will be taught by the university’s leading computer science educators.

“There’s a misconception that all of our computer science jobs are being outsourced to foreign countries,” Fiez said. “That simply isn’t true. What employers are looking for are people with special computer training in a variety of fields, and that’s what getting this degree will offer graduates.”

An existing undergraduate degree in art could be paired with a new computer science degree to get a job, for example, in scientific imaging or multi-media systems. Finance and computer science could merge to create a financial information systems specialist. Similar opportunities are available in almost any science, business, engineering or liberal arts field, educators say.

OSU officials hope the program will be of particular help to Oregon, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation but many job openings in computer science.

Nationally, according to data from the Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative, there are almost two million people in the U.S. who have either undergraduate or graduate degrees and are unemployed.

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Terri Fiez, 541-737-3118

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OSU student

OSU student

The “twilight zone” of traffic costs lives at stoplight intersections

The study this story is based on is available online: http://bit.ly/A2THta

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Hundreds of lives are being lost each year in the United States because of mistakes made in what engineers call the “dilemma zone” – that area before a stoplight intersection where the traffic light turns yellow and the driver isn’t sure whether to stop or go ahead.

New research at Oregon State University will help to more precisely identify that danger zone. Traffic engineers can then use than information, along with advanced technology that can monitor the speed and location of oncoming traffic, to improve yellow-light timing and help address this problem.

When more widely implemented, this approach should help reduce driver confusion, add certainty to how intersections should be managed, and save lives.

 “There are more than 30,000 traffic fatalities each year in the U.S., and about 2,000 of them occur in stoplight intersections,” said David Hurwitz, an OSU assistant professor of transportation engineering. “We think those crashes can be reduced with a better understanding of exactly where the dilemma zone is and how traffic lights and other technology can be adjusted to help manage it.”

Factors that lead to the problems in the dilemma zone include driving speed, distance to the stop light, driver skills, laws that vary by state, occasional scofflaws who are trying to “beat the red light,” and simple confusion by drivers who want to do the right thing but aren’t sure what it is.

There are many variables involved, Hurwitz said, such as vehicle speed and position. To help address that, researchers in one recent study used a tool called “fuzzy logic.” This provides a way to produce more exact decisions with inexact data, which in this case can include everything from drivers with very different skill sets and reaction times to automobile speeds and road variability.

Based on their speed and proximity to an intersection, when the traffic light turns yellow a driver has to make a decision whether to stop or proceed. A driver who is some distance away usually stops; and a driver who is extremely close to the intersection usually will go ahead. Those decisions are fairly easy. But the “dilemma zone” is the area where the choice isn’t so obvious, and the wrong decision can have serious, sometimes fatal consequences.

Complicating that, Hurwitz said, is that laws vary widely by state. In Oregon, for instance, the law requires that a car stop on a yellow light if it is safe to do so. In some other states, it’s legal to proceed on a yellow light, and even be in the intersection during a red light, if the front axle of the vehicle crosses the stop line before the light turns red.

Different laws can contribute to different driver behaviors, and national standards do not now exist.

Stop too suddenly, and you’re apt to have a rear-end collision with the vehicle behind you. Proceed or turn left when you shouldn’t, and even more serious crashes can occur, including head-on and side impacts. And based on the speed limit, the length of a yellow light at an intersection can vary greatly.

“In traffic engineering, consistency and uniformity is a critical concern,” Hurwitz said. “We want conscientious drivers to know what is the right thing to do. Given so many variables and differences in state law, that can be difficult.”

The findings have been published in two recent studies, in research that was supported by the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the Lilo and Richard Smith Transportation Fellowship.

“We want to help drivers know whether to stop or proceed, and do it in a manner that is safe,” Hurwitz said. “This approach should help accomplish that, prevent accidents and save lives.”

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David Hurwitz, 541-737-9242

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Yellow lights

The dilemma zone

OSU joins earthquake engineering research group

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University has joined the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center, or PEER, a research and educational consortium involving more than 20 universities, private companies and government agencies focused on performance-based earthquake engineering.

The center is based at the University of California, Berkeley, and does work in structural and geotechnical engineering, geology, seismology, lifelines, transportation, risk management and public policy.

OSU is the first university since PEER’s inception in 1997 to be added as a core institution, and will become a transitional member of the group’s institutional board. This includes nine of the leading universities on the West Coast working in these fields – the California Institute of Technology, Stanford University, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine; UCLA, UC San Diego, USC, and the University of Washington.

“PEER consists of the leading academic institutions in the West focused on earthquake engineering and preparedness, and being part of this group will be a significant asset to Oregon,” said Scott Ashford, professor and interim dean of the OSU College of Engineering. “Our region faces major earthquake and tsunami risks from the Cascadia Subduction Zone, and this collaboration will help provide the science and research needed to better address those risks.”

OSU has one of the nation’s most sophisticated tsunami research basins and extensive programs in earthquake engineering, seismic safety, the study of “liquefaction,” fault analysis, geophysics and other work relevant to earthquake hazards and mitigation.

“With their wide range of expertise, resources and connections in the state of Oregon, PEER anticipates that OSU researchers will make important contributions to a variety of activities, especially our tsunami and lifelines research programs,” said Stephen Mahin, director of the center.

Besides research, PEER also conducts professional workshops, conferences, educational programs and outreach to policy makers and the public. More information about the center can be found online at http://bit.ly/e5txsM

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Scott Ashford, 541-737-4934

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Testing tsunami shelter

Tsunami basin

Video of tsunami basin

“Negative refraction” opens avenue to new products and industries

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have discovered a way to make a low-cost material that might accomplish negative refraction of light and other radiation – a goal first theorized in 1861 by a giant of science, Scottish physicist James Maxwell, that has still eluded wide practical use.

Other materials can do this but they are based on costly, complex crystalline materials. A low-cost way that yields the same result will have extraordinary possibilities, experts say – ranging from a “super lens” to energy harvesting, machine vision or “stealth” coatings for seeming invisibility.

Entire new products and industries could be possible. The findings have just been published and a patent has been applied for on the technology.

The new approach uses ultra-thin, ultra-smooth, all-amorphous laminates, essentially a layered glass that has no crystal structure. It is, the researchers say, a “very high-tech sandwich.”

The goal is to make radiation bend opposite to the way it does when passing through any naturally occurring material. This is possible in theory, as Maxwell penciled out during the American Civil War. In reality, it’s been pretty difficult to do.

“To accomplish the task of negative refraction, these metamaterials have to be absolutely perfect, just flawless,” said Bill Cowell, a doctoral candidate in the OSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “Everyone thought the only way to do that was with perfectly crystalline materials, which are quite expensive to produce and aren’t very practical for large-area commercial application.

“We now know these materials may not need to be that exotic.”

The new study has explained how easy-to-produce laminate materials, created with technology similar to that used to produce a flat panel television, should work for this purpose. The findings outline the component materials and the theoretical behavior of the laminates, Cowell said. They were just published in Physica Status Solidi A, in work supported by the National Science Foundation.

“We haven’t yet used this approach to achieve negative refraction, but the findings suggest it should work for that,” he said. “That will be one goal of continuing research. No one had thought of using amorphous metals for this purpose. They didn’t think it could be that simple.”

Negative refraction, Cowell said, is a brilliant idea. It is based on the equations developed by the young physicist and mathematician Maxwell more than 150 years ago – work for which he is revered, along with Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, as one of the greatest physicists who ever lived. Einstein kept a photograph of Maxwell on his office wall.

But for generations, theory is about all that it was. Just in the past decade have researchers finally figured out how to create materials of any type that can achieve negative refraction. A way to accomplish that at low cost for the commercial marketplace could be of considerable importance, scientists say.

One application of particular interest is a “super lens,” a device that might provide light magnification at levels that dwarf any existing technology. Many applications are possible in electronics manufacturing, lithography, biomedicine, insulating coatings, heat transfer, space applications, and perhaps new approaches to optical computing and energy harvesting.

The discovery of amorphous metamaterials is an outgrowth of recent findings at OSU about ways to create a metal-insulator-metal, or MIM diode, also of commercial significance. The OSU research is one of the latest advances in “dispersion engineering,” or the control of electromagnetic radiation.

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William Cowell, 541-758-2895

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Dispersion engineering

Negative refraction

For disaster debris arriving from Japan, radiation least of the concerns

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The first anniversary is approaching of the March, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that devastated Fukushima, Japan, and later this year debris from that event should begin to wash up on U.S. shores – and one question many have asked is whether that will pose a radiation risk.

The simple answer is, no.

Nuclear radiation health experts from Oregon State University who have researched this issue following the meltdown of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant say the minor amounts of deposition on the debris field scattered in the ocean will have long since dissipated, decayed or been washed away by months of pounding in ocean waves.

However, that’s not to say that all of the debris that reaches Pacific Coast shores in the United States and Canada will be harmless.

“The tsunami impacted several industrial areas and no doubt swept out to sea many things like bottled chemicals or other compounds that could be toxic,” said Kathryn Higley, professor and head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at OSU.

“If you see something on the beach that looks like it may have come from this accident, you shouldn’t assume that it’s safe,” Higley said. “People should treat these debris with common sense; there could be some things mixed in there that are dangerous. But it will have nothing to do with radioactive contamination.”

Higley and other OSU experts have been active in studying the Fukushima accident since it occurred, and are now doing research to help scientists in Japan better understand such issues as uptake of radioactive contamination by plants growing near the site of the accident. They also studied marine and fishery impacts near Japan soon after the incident.

“In the city and fields near Fukushima, there are still areas with substantial contamination, and it may be a few years before all of this is dealt with,” Higley said. “But researchers from all over the world are contributing information on innovative ways to help this area recover, including some lessons learned from the much more serious Chernobyl accident in 1986 in the Ukraine.”

Some of the technology to deal with this is complex. Other approaches, she said, can be fairly low-tech – removal of leaf litter, washing, plowing the ground, collecting and concentrating water runoff.

The repercussions of the event in the ocean, however, and implications for distant shores are much more subdued. Most of the discharge that was of concern was radionuclides of iodine and cesium, which were deposited on widely dispersed, floating marine debris days after the tsunami. Most of the iodine by now will have disappeared due to radioactive decay, and the cesium washed off and diluted in the ocean.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about radioactivity,” Higley said. “Many people believe that if it can be measured, it’s harmful. But we live in a world of radiation coming to us from the sun, or naturally present in the earth, or even from our own bodies.

“There are higher natural levels of radiation found all around the Rocky Mountains, for instance,” she said. “And we can still measure radioactive contaminants in nature from old atmospheric nuclear weapons tests more than 50 years ago.”

Like most of those other forms of radiation, Higley said, any measurable radioactivity found on debris from Fukushima should be at very low levels and of no health concern – much less, for instance, than a person might receive in a single X-ray.

Debris from Japan should start to arrive in the U.S. and Canada late this year or in 2013 following normal ocean currents, say other OSU experts who are studying this issue. When they do, some aspects of them might be dangerous – a half-filled, floating, sealed bottle of a toxic chemical, for instance. So people should exercise caution.

But they don’t need to worry about radiation.


Kathryn Higley, 541-737-0675

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Radiation uptake

Kathryn Higley