OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

scientific research and advances

Gift establishes professorship in “humanitarian engineering” at Oregon State

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University’s humanitarian engineering program has received a major boost with a $1.5 million gift creating one of the nation’s only endowed professorships in this emerging field.

OSU alumni Richard and Gretchen Evans, of Northern California, made prior gifts that helped to launch OSU’s program two years ago, responding to growing interest among engineering students in making a lasting, positive impact on the world.

Humanitarian engineering seeks science- and engineering-based solutions to improve the human condition by increasing access to basic human needs such clean water or renewable energy, enhancing quality of life, and improving community resilience, whether in face of natural disasters or economic turmoil. Although the greatest needs often lie in developing countries, needs also exist locally.

Oregon State’s program is focused on disadvantaged communities in the Pacific Northwest as well as around the world.

“The technical skills of engineering are essential, but so are abilities we might call human skills – such as communication, problem-solving, leadership and the ability to work across cultures,” said Richard Evans, an OSU College of Engineering alumnus who was president and CEO of Alcan, a Fortune-100 mining company and aluminum manufacturer based in Montreal. “The humanitarian engineering curriculum is a structured way for engineers to practice those human skills in challenging, real world settings.”

Drawing on the humanities also encourages creative solutions by “thinking outside the box,” added Gretchen Evans, an artist and interior designer who graduated from OSU’s College of Education and subsequently completed master’s courses at Legon University in Ghana, West Africa. “Listening is so important – not just believing that we know all of the answers going into every situation.”

The first Richard and Gretchen Evans Professor in Humanitarian Engineering is mechanical engineering professor Kendra Sharp, who directs the program.

“One of the things that’s most exciting about humanitarian engineering is that it captures the interest of a more diverse group of prospective students than we typically see in engineering, including a significant number of women,” Sharp said. “We are thrilled that the Evans’ gift will help us channel students’ passion for making a better world. The stability provided by this endowment will make a huge difference as we move forward.”

Oregon State’s humanitarian engineering program is grounded in a campus-wide emphasis on engaged service that springs from the university’s historic land grant mission. Multiple student organizations, including OSU’s award-winning Engineers Without Borders chapter and the American Society of Civil Engineering student chapter, have been working on water, energy and other projects in under-served Oregon communities and the developing world.

Yet in contrast to humanitarian engineering programs that are primarily an extracurricular activity, Oregon State’s is one of a handful nationwide rooted in an academic curriculum. Exemplifying OSU’s commitment to collaborative, transdisciplinary research and education, the curriculum was put together by a diverse group of faculty led by the College of Engineering but also involving the humanities, public health and education. A new undergraduate minor in humanitarian engineering will be open for enrollment in the coming year.

OSU’s humanitarian engineering program is further differentiated by residing in a university that also offers a Peace Corps Master’s International program in engineering. OSU was the first university in Oregon to join this program, which allows a graduate student to get a master’s degree while doing a full 27-month term of service in the Peace Corps. In addition to PCMI degrees in other fields, Oregon State remains one of just 10 universities nationwide to offer this degree in engineering.

College of Engineering Dean and Kearney Professor of Engineering Scott Ashford said that the humanitarian engineering professorship positions Oregon State for national leadership in this area while supporting one the college’s highest goals.

“We are dedicated to purposefully and thoughtfully increasing the diversity of our students and faculty, building a community that is inclusive, collaborative and centered on student success,” Ashford said. “This is the community that will produce locally conscious, globally aware engineers equipped to solve seemingly intractable problems and contribute to a better world. That’s the Oregon State engineer.”

Richard Evans is a senior international business adviser and director of companies including non-executive chairman of both Constellium, producer of advanced aluminum engineered products, and Noranda Aluminum Holdings, a U.S. regional aluminum producer. He is an independent director of CGI, Canada’s largest IT consulting and outsourcing company. In addition to her art, primarily in acrylics and mixed media, Gretchen Evans volunteers as an art teacher in a low-income Oakland, California, school.

Over the last decade, donors have established 81 endowed faculty positions at Oregon State, an increase of 170 percent, through gifts to the OSU Foundation. These prestigious positions help the university recruit and retain world-class leaders in teaching and research, with earnings from the endowments providing support for the faculty and creating opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students in the programs as well.

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Molly Brown, 541-737-3602

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Kendra Sharp, 541-737-5246

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Sharp with the Evanses

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Sharp in India

Researchers conclude popular rockfish is actually two distinct species

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new analysis confirms that the Blue Rockfish (Sebastes mystinus), a popular and commercially significant rockfish sought by anglers primarily off the California and Oregon coasts, is actually two separate and distinct species.

Previous studies had discovered some genetic differences between two groups of Blue Rockfishes, but their status as distinct species had never been proven until researchers at Oregon State University, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the California State University, Los Angeles, demonstrated distinguishing differences in anatomy, coloration, geographic distribution and genetics.

Results of the study have been published in the Fishery Bulletin.

“Various researchers have written about the Blue Rockfish for years but it has never been morphologically described as two separate species,” said Ben Frable, an OSU graduate student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and lead author on the study.  “There are physical, genetic, and apparent behavioral differences between the two species.”

Frable and his team named the newly described species Deacon Rockfish (Sebastes diaconus) – a tribute to the nickname given Blue Rockfish by Portuguese fishermen around San Francisco in the 19th century. They called it the “priest fish” because the white bands around its head resembled a clerical collar.

D. Wolfe Wagman, a marine biologist with ODFW and co-author on the study, said the discovery may in the future alter how resource managers approach rockfish harvest regulations, which have been partially restricted in 2015.

Under a federally established management system, Blue Rockfish are counted as a single species belonging to the “minor near-shore rockfish complex,” which saw significant reductions in allowable harvest in 2015. In addition to Blue Rockfish, this complex of 11 species includes China, Quillback and Copper rockfishes – all three of which cannot be legally harvested by recreational fishers in Oregon this year – thus concentrating angling efforts on Black and Blue rockfishes, Wagman said.

“Black Rockfish are the major target of the complex and have a separate quota, set at 440 metric tons,” Wagman said. “But the Blue Rockfish quota is much lower and ODFW is concerned that if fishing efforts exceed that quota, then all groundfish fishing would have to stop in Oregon because even incidental catch and release of Blue Rockfish would exceed the quota.”

However, the discovery of the new Blue Rockfish species throws a different wrinkle into the equation. The original species, Sebastes mystinus, is more prevalent in California, while the newly identified Deacon Rockfish is found from northern California all the way to the Salish Sea near Vancouver, B.C.

Both groups are found off the Oregon coast.

“This may eventually lead to separate quotas, but as of now – as long as they are still categorized in the ‘minor near-shore rockfish complex’ – they have to be managed as one group with China, Quillback, Copper and other rockfishes in the complex,” Wagman said.

Brian Sidlauskas, an OSU ichthyologist and the university’s Curator of Fishes, said there is no reason to believe that either species of Blue Rockfish is endangered, but that population surveys need to be done.

“The original Blue Rockfish (Sebastes mystinus) is considered exploited in parts of California, but the Deacon Rockfish seems fairly robust from Oregon northward,” Sidlauskas said. “In some areas, you find the two species together, yet we haven’t seen any evidence of hybridization.”

Wagman approached Sidlauskas in 2012 and asked him to formally study the taxonomy of the Blue Rockfish. Andres Aguilar, a fish scientist from California State University, Los Angeles, who had participated in some of the earlier genetic analysis, joined the team as did Frable, who was tasked with examining the historical record, including preserved specimens housed in ichthyological collections throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Those records date back to the 1800s and Frable examined 130 museum specimens collected from Vancouver Island to northern Baja Mexico to look for differences and similarities in fish caught over the past century. To formally “describe” the two species, Frable and colleagues measured their spines, scales, eye width, dorsal fin length, tip-to-tail length, and other characteristics; and quantified differences in body shape, proportion and growth. Some of the 35 measurements were clearly distinct between the species.

“There are also some possible differences that may require more research,” Frable said. “In talking with port samplers, it seems like Deacon Rockfish are caught in slightly deeper waters, while the original Blue Rockfish is more often found closer to shore. That could prove to be helpful from a management standpoint.”

Sidlauskas said the research underscores the importance of preserving historical collections of fishes and other species.

“Ben had access to a network of ichthyology collections that provide a wealth of data over time and space,” he pointed out. “Some of these fish were preserved 120 to 130 years ago, and that historical perspective is invaluable in providing context for what we see today.”

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Ben Frable, 240-401-9858, bwfrable@gmail.com;

Brian Sidlauskas, 541-737-6789, brian.sidlauskas@oregonstate.edu;

Wolfe Wagman, 541-867-0300, ext. 289, david.w.wagman@state.or.us

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Original species of Blue Rockfish



 

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Newly identified Deacon Rockfish

Insect-killed forests pose no additional likelihood of wildfire

CORVALLIS, Ore. – As mountain pine beetles and other insects chew their way through Western forests, forest fires might not seem far behind. Lands covered by dead trees appear ready to burst into flame.

However, an analysis of wildfire extent in Oregon and Washington over the past 30 years shows very little difference in the likelihood of fires in forests with and without insect damage. Indeed, other factors – drought, storms, and fuel accumulation from years of fire suppression – may be more important than insects in determining if fire is more or less likely from year to year.

Scientists reached this conclusion by mapping the locations of insect outbreaks and wildfires throughout Oregon and Washington beginning in 1970. Researchers discovered that the chances of fire in forests with extensive swaths of dead timber are neither higher nor lower than in forests without damage from mountain pine beetles.

The same comparison done on forests damaged by another insect – western spruce budworm – yields a different result. The chances of wildfire actually appear to be slightly lower where the budworm has defoliated and killed trees in the past. While the mechanics of such an association are unconfirmed, it’s possible that budworm outbreaks could reduce the risk of wildfire by consuming needles in the forest canopy.

“Our analysis suggests that wildfire likelihood does not increase following most insect outbreaks,” said Garrett Meigs, lead author of a paper published this week in the open-access journal Ecosphere. Meigs is a former Ph.D. student in the Oregon State University College of Forestry and now a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Vermont.

Across more than 49 million forested acres in both states, insects and fires typically affect less than 2 percent of the land in a given year. More forestland is usually disturbed by insects than by fire.

“Most forests have plenty of fuel already,” Meigs said. “Green trees burn, not always as readily as dead ones, but they burn. The effects of insects are trumped by other factors such as drought, wind and fire management.” For example, the 2002 Biscuit Fire, the region’s largest at nearly 500,000 acres, occurred in an area with little tree damage from insects.

“Even if mountain pine beetle outbreaks do alter fuels in a way that increases flammability, the windows of opportunity are too small – and fire is too rare – for those effects to manifest at landscape and regional scales.”

“In the case of the budworm, our findings suggest that there may be a natural thinning effect of insect-caused defoliation and mortality, and it is possible that insects are doing some ‘fuel reduction’ work that managers may not need to replicate,” said Meigs. That possibility needs more research, he added.

These results are consistent with other studies that have investigated the likelihood of fire across the West. For example, a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by University of Colorado scientists found that despite extensive outbreaks of mountain pine beetles in the Rockies and the Cascades, fires in recent years were no more likely to occur in beetle-killed forests than in forests not affected by the insects.

Public perception may reflect our experience with starting campfires, said John Bailey, Oregon State professor of forestry and co-author of the Ecosphere paper.

“We choose dead and dry wood for kindling, not green branches,” Bailey pointed out. “A dead branch with lots of red needles is ideal. At the scale of a forest, however, the burning process is different. Wildland fire during severe weather conditions burns less discriminately across mountainsides.”

For managers of forestlands, these results suggest that emphasis needs to be put on fuel reduction, forests near communities and on preserving ecosystem services such as biodiversity and water quality. “Forests will continue to burn whether or not there was prior insect activity,” Meigs and his co-authors write, “and known drivers like fuel accumulation and vegetation stress likely will play a more important role in a warmer, potentially drier future.”

The Ecosphere paper is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/ES15-00037.1.

In addition to Bailey, Meigs’ co-authors included John L. Campbell, Harold S. J. Zald, David C. Shaw and Robert E. Kennedy, all of Oregon State. Funding support was provided by the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship Program and the USDA Forest Service.

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Garrett Meigs, 541-602-8167; John Bailey. 541-737-1497

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System to boost levels of resveratrol, quercetin could provide new options for cancer therapy

PORTLAND, Ore. – Resveratrol and quercetin, two polyphenols that have been widely studied for their health properties, may soon become the basis of an important new advance in cancer treatment, primarily by improving the efficacy and potential use of an existing chemotherapeutic cancer drug.

Resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant found in red wine and other foods, has already received much attention as a possible explanation for the “French paradox,” a low incidence of cardiovascular disease despite a diet often high in fats.

The new research suggests it may soon have value far beyond that.

In laboratory experiments, researchers at Oregon State University have developed a system to increase the bioavailability of these compounds in the body by using “copolymers” that make them water soluble and allow their injection into the blood stream, creating levels that are far higher than could ever be obtained by diet or oral intake.

The resveratrol and quercetin then appear to reduce the cardiac toxicity of a very widely used cancer drug, Adriamycin. Although highly effective in the treatment of lymphomas, breast, ovarian and other cancers, Adriamycin can only be used for a limited time in humans because of its cardiotoxicity.

The co-administration of these polyphenols might allow much more extensive use of this drug, while at the same time improving its efficacy and demonstrating the polyphenols’ own anti-cancer properties, scientists said.

Findings on this research have been published in the Journal of Controlled Release, by scientists from the College of Pharmacy at Oregon State University and the School of Pharmacy at Pacific University. Both institutions supported the research.

“This has great potential to improve chemotherapeutic cancer treatment,” said Adam Alani, an assistant professor in the Oregon State University/Oregon Health & Science University College of Pharmacy, and lead author on the research.

“The co-administration of high levels of resveratrol and quercetin, in both in vitro and in vivo studies, shows that it significantly reduces the cardiac toxicity of Adriamycin,” Alani said. “And these compounds have a synergistic effect that enhances the efficacy of the cancer drug, by sensitizing the cancer cells to the effects of the drug.”

It’s possible, Alani said, that after further research it could be demonstrated that use of these compounds can completely eliminate the cardiotoxicity of Adriamycin, as they scavenge the toxic free radicals produced by use of this drug. It’s also possible, he said, that administration of these natural polyphenols could have value in cancer therapy by themselves, or in combination with a wider range of other chemotherapeutic drugs.

Resveratrol is a natural compound found in foods such as grapes, red wine, green tea, some fruits, berries and dark chocolate, and has been the subject of dozens of scientific studies for its various health values. Quercetin, also a powerful antioxidant, reaches some of its highest natural levels in capers, some berries, fruits, vegetables and leafy greens.

Although they are still valuable nutrients, these polyphenol compounds when eaten as foods or taken as supplements reach only a tiny fraction of the level that’s possible with direct injection.

And such injection was not possible until the OSU and Pacific University researchers adapted the use of “polymeric micelles” to help make the polyphenols water soluble, so they could be directly inroduced into the body. Such systems have been used before with other compounds, but never these polyphenols.

“There are several advantages with this system,” Alani said. “We can finally reach clinical levels of these polyphenols in the body. We can load both the compounds at one time to help control the cardiotoxicity of the cancer drug, and we can help the polyphenols accumulate in cancer cells where they have their own anti-cancer properties.

“This is like hitting three birds with one stone,” Alani said. “It has great potential.”

Research has already shown that both resveratrol and quercetin appear to be safe at high concentrations in the body, Alani said, although continued research will study that issue, among others. And the fact that such delivery systems, as well as the cancer drugs, are already approved by the FDA should speed the clinical testing and possible medical use of this system, he said.

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Adam Alani, 503-346-4702

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Cancer therapy
Improved cancer therapy

Study: Global sea levels have risen six meters or more with just slight global warming

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new review analyzing three decades of research on the historic effects of melting polar ice sheets found that global sea levels have risen at least six meters, or about 20 feet, above present levels on multiple occasions over the past three million years.

What is most concerning, scientists say, is that amount of melting was caused by an increase of only 1-2 degrees (Celsius) in global mean temperatures.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal Science.

“Studies have shown that both the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets contributed significantly to this sea level rise above modern levels,” said Anders Carlson, an Oregon State University glacial geologist and paleoclimatologist, and co-author on the study. “Modern atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are today equivalent to those about three million years ago, when sea level was at least six meters higher because the ice sheets were greatly reduced.

“It takes time for the warming to whittle down the ice sheets,” added Carlson, who is in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, “but it doesn’t take forever. There is evidence that we are likely seeing that transformation begin to take place now.”

Co-author Peter Clark, an OSU paleoclimatologist, said that because current carbon dioxide, or CO2, levels are as high as they were 3 million years ago, “we are already committed to a certain amount of sea level rise.”

“The ominous aspect to this is that CO2 levels are continuing to rise, so we are entering uncharted territory,” Clark said. “What is not as certain is the time frame, which is less well-constrained. We could be talking many centuries to a few millennia to see the full impact of melting ice sheets.”

The review, which was led by Andrea Dutton of the University of Florida, summarized more than 30 years of research on past changes in ice sheets and sea level. It shows that changes in Earth’s climate and sea level are closely linked, with only small amounts of warming needed to have a significant effect on seal levels. Those impacts can be significant.

Six meters (or about 20 feet) of sea level rise does not sound like a lot. However, coastal cities worldwide have experienced enormous growth in population and infrastructure over the past couple of centuries – and a global mean sea level rise of 10 to 20 feet could be catastrophic to the hundreds of millions of people living in these coastal zones.

Much of the state of Florida, for example, has an elevation of 50 feet or less, and the city of Miami has an average elevation of six feet. Parts of New Orleans and other areas of Louisiana were overcome by Hurricane Katrina – by a surging Gulf of Mexico that could be 10 to 20 feet higher in the future. Dhaka in Bangladesh is one of the world’s 10 most populous cities with 14.4 million inhabitants, all living in low-lying areas. Tokyo and Singapore also have been singled out as extremely vulnerable to sea level rise.

“The influence of rising oceans is even greater than the overall amount of sea level rise because of storm surge, erosion and inundation,” said Carlson, who studies the interaction of ice sheets, oceans and the climate system on centennial time scales. “The impact could be enormous.”

The Science review is part of the larger Past Global Changes, or PAGES, international science team. A working group known as PALSEA2 (Paleo constraints on sea level rise) used past records of local change in sea level and converted them to a global mean sea level by predicting how the surface of the Earth deforms due to changes in ice-ocean loading of the crust, along with changes in gravitational attraction on the ocean surface.

Independently, Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet volumes were estimated by observations from adjacent ocean sediment records and by ice sheet models.

“The two approaches are independent of one another, giving us high confidence in the estimates of past changes in sea level,” Carlson said.  The past climates that forced these changes in ice volume and sea level were reconstructed mainly from temperature-sensitive measurements in ocean cores from around the globe, and from ice cores.

The National Science Foundation supported the research.

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Anders Carlson, 541-737-3625, acarlson@coas.oregonstate.edu;

Peter Clark, 541-737-1247, clarkp@geo.oregonstate.edu

Legislature approves bonding for the Oregon Forest Science Complex

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The Oregon Legislature has approved $29.7 million in state bonding to help fund the Oregon Forest Science Complex at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

The project includes construction of a new classroom and laboratory building and a state-of-the-art advanced wood products laboratory designed to support Oregon’s manufactured wood products industry and wood building design companies. Public funds will be matched by private donations to support the $60 million initiative to modernize and expand research and teaching facilities for the OSU College of Forestry.

The centerpiece is a new 85,000 square-foot classroom and research center to support professional forestry, wood science, renewable materials and interdisciplinary natural-resource education programs. The building will replace Peavy Hall on the Corvallis campus.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown will need to sign the legislation before it becomes official.

The complex also encompasses a new 20,000 square-foot research facility dedicated to developing and testing new wood building products that could be manufactured in Oregon. The Advanced Wood Building Products Laboratory will feature a high-bay lab, computer-controlled and robotic manufacturing systems and a unique strong floor for full-scale product testing.

The project will demonstrate innovative uses of engineered wood products, such as cross-laminated timber panels that can be up to 80 feet long and a foot thick and are part of a world-wide trend in building design.

“We are transforming the educational experience for undergraduate and graduate students,” said Thomas Maness, the Cheryl Ramberg Ford and Allyn C. Ford Dean of the College of Forestry. “Our expanded research and degree programs will give students and our partners a real-life glimpse into the future of forestry and the wood products industry. We are educating a workforce to advance the competitiveness of innovative wood products manufactured in Oregon.”

Through strategic partnerships, the complex will boost applied research efforts by combining the expertise necessary to develop new wood products and materials from initial concept to design, testing and commercial application.

Students and faculty at the Oregon State College of Forestry and College of Engineering and the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts will use the new facilities.

“With this project investment, the State of Oregon is doubling down to lead a new national effort to advance the science and technology of environmentally friendly wood construction,” Maness said. “We are partnering with companies in our forest products industry to bring new jobs to rural communities.”

Among the innovations already under development at Oregon State are cross-laminated timber panels, environmentally friendly adhesives, innovative connection systems that shorten construction time, and new applications of wood-based composites.

In addition to benefits for sustainability and economic development, new wood construction techniques are attracting attention from engineers and architects.

“The spaces being designed with next-generation wood building products are beautiful, inviting, and healthy places to live and work,” Maness said. “Our new home for the College of Forestry will show what can be done with wood, while creating a place that will be exciting and inspiring to our students and all Oregonians who care deeply for the future of our working forest landscapes.”

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Thomas Maness, 541-737-1585, thomas.maness@oregonstate.edu;

Geoff Huntington, 503-881-6225, geoff.huntington@oregonstate.edu

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The new building will replace the College of Forestry's Peavy Hall

OSU makes plans for expansion at Hatfield Marine Science Center

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The Oregon Legislature has approved $24.8 million in state bonding to help fund a new building at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport that will be a centerpiece for research and education on critical issues facing coastal communities.

The $50 million, 100,000-square-foot facility is an integral part of OSU’s ambitious Marine Studies Initiative, designed to educate students and conduct research on marine-related issues, from rising sea levels and ocean acidification to sustainable fisheries and economic stability.

Oregon State officials plan to begin construction on the new building in 2016/17 and open as early as 2018. The OSU Foundation will raise an additional $40 million in private funding for the Marine Studies Initiative – $25 million to match state funds for the new building and another $15 million to support related programs. Donors have pledged more than 75 percent of the total to date.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown will need to sign the legislation before it becomes official.

“This is an investment that will benefit not only higher education, but the research needs and the economic vitality for the entire coast,” said OSU President Ed Ray. “The support and leadership of the coastal legislators has been invaluable.”

Coastal legislators include senators Betsy Johnson, Arnie Roblan, and Jeff Kruse; and representatives Wayne Krieger, Caddy McKeown, Deborah Boone and David Gomberg.

“This new building is essential to the university’s goals of expanding education and research on marine-related issues,” said Bob Cowen, director of the Hatfield Marine Science Center. “There are so many critical issues facing coastal communities today – from economic stress tied to variable fish stocks to concerns over tsunamis, ocean acidification, rising sea levels, erosion and others.”

“The expansion is long overdue,” added Cowen, who is co-leader of the Marine Studies Initiative. “Although we’ve added a couple of buildings earmarked for state or federal agencies, it’s been decades since Oregon State has added capacity at the Hatfield Marine Science Center campus.”

Cowen said one area of focus for expansion will the overarching theme of coastal resilience.

“Geology students may come here to study coastal erosion, oceanography students may explore sea level rise, engineers might look at options for coastal buildings that are resistant to tsunamis or tidal surge, and sociologists could lead the way on how communities respond to a disaster,” Cowen said.

The new facility will be located adjacent to the Guin Library on the HMSC campus, which is just east of the Highway 101 bridge over Yaquina Bay in Newport. The location places the facility in close proximity to critically important saltwater laboratories and other HMSC research facilities. It is within the tsunami inundation zone, OSU officials say, though careful consideration went into the siting.

“We are very much aware of the various geological hazards the Pacific Ocean presents and we choose to use the siting as an educational and design opportunity,” Cowen said. “Our focus is on life safety. We believe we can be a model for anticipating a seismic event, and for how to live safely and productively in a tsunami zone. We want to be a showcase for earthquake and tsunami preparedness.”

OSU’s Marine Studies Initiative has set a goal to teach 500 students at the Hatfield center by 2025, and expand research at the facility, which is run by Oregon State and shared by several agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The multiple agencies, along with Hatfield’s saltwater research laboratories and ship operations, make it one of the most important marine science facilities in the country – and the combination provides unique opportunities for OSU students.

“One of the goals of the Marine Studies Initiative is to really broaden various disciplines across the university,” said Jack Barth, associate dean of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and co-leader of the Marine Studies Initiative. “We’ll still focus on fisheries, marine biology, ocean processes and other science-related issues, but we see some exciting areas into which we could expand including economics, social and public policies, ocean engineering and others.

“In fact, the new marine studies degree will be housed in the College of Liberal Arts,” Barth added.

Cowen said the new facility will enable OSU to expand its teaching and research capacity at Hatfield by 20-25 faculty members. On the research side, principal investigators will work with graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and technicians, further expanding the center’s capacity. “Right now, OSU has about 12-14 research faculty on-site,” Cowen said, “so we’re talking about a significant increase.”

The new building will have several large spaces that will accommodate scientific talks and community workshops focused on marine issues.

The Hatfield Marine Science Center celebrates its 50th anniversary in August. More information on the event is available at http://hmsc.oregonstate.edu/main/50th-anniversary-hmsc

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Bob Cowen, 541-867-0211, robert.cowen@oregonstate.edu;

Jack Barth, 541-737-1607, barth@coas.oregonstate.edu

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OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. (click to open)

Tough tail of a seahorse may provide robotic solutions

CORVALLIS, Ore. – One of the ocean’s oddest little creatures, the seahorse, is providing inspiration for robotics researchers as they learn from nature how to build robots that have capabilities sometimes at odds with one another – flexible, but also tough and strong.

Their findings, published today in the journal Science, outline the virtues of the seahorse’s unusual skeletal structure, including a tail in which a vertebral column is surrounded by square bony plates. These systems may soon help create technology that offers new approaches to surgery, search and rescue missions or industrial applications.

Although technically a fish, the seahorse has a tail that through millions of years of evolution has largely lost the ability to assist the animal in swimming. Instead, it provides a strong, energy-efficient grasping mechanism to cling to things such as seaweed or coral reefs, waiting for food to float by that it can suck into its mouth.

At the same time, the square structure of its tail provides flexibility; it can bend and twist, and naturally returns to its former shape better than animals with cylindrical tails. This helps the seahorse hide, easily bide its time while food floats to it, and it provides excellent crushing resistance - making the animal difficult for predators to eat.

“Human engineers tend to build things that are stiff so they can be controlled easily,” said Ross Hatton, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, and a co-author on the study. “But nature makes things just strong enough not to break, and then flexible enough to do a wide range of tasks. That’s why we can learn a lot from animals that will inspire the next generations of robotics.”

Hatton said biological systems can combine both control and flexibility, and researchers gravitated to the seahorse simply because it was so unusual. They theorized that the square structure of its tail, so rare in nature, must serve a purpose.

“We found that this square architecture provides adequate dexterity and a tough resistance to predators, but also that it tends to snap naturally back into place once it’s been twisted and deformed,” Hatton said. “This could be very useful for robotics applications that need to be strong, but also energy-efficient and able to bend and twist in tight spaces.”

Such applications, he said, might include laparoscopic surgery, in which a robotic device could offer enhanced control and flexibility as it enters a body, moves around organs and bones, and then has the strength to accomplish a surgical task. It could find uses in industrial system, search and rescue robots, or anything that needs to be both resilient and flexible.

The researchers were able to study the comparative merits of cylindrical and square structures by using computer models and three-dimensional printed prototypes. They found that when a seahorse tail is crushed, the bony plates tend to slide past one another, act as an energy absorbing mechanism, and resist fracture of the vertebral column. They can then snap back to their normal position with little use of energy.

The square system also proved to be stiffer, stronger and more resilient than circular ones.

“Understanding the role of mechanics in these biologically inspired designs may help engineers to develop seahorse-inspired technologies for a wide variety of applications in robotics, defense systems or biomedicine,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion.

Collaborators on this study included corresponding author Michael Porter from Clemson University; Ghent University in Belgium; and the University of California at San Diego. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Agency for Innovation by Science and Technology.

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Scientists recruit public to help study “The Blob”

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A huge mass of unusually warm water that scientists have dubbed “The Blob” has lurked off the West Coast for much of the past two years and speculation is growing that it may be connected in some way with the drought plaguing West Coast states.

So researchers are planning a new study to see what role The Blob – as well as human-induced climate change – may have played in creating the parched conditions in California, Oregon and Washington.

And they are looking for your help.

The research team plans to run hundreds of variations of computer models to disentangle these causes. The amount of data such a process creates is staggering and could require as many as three supercomputers to generate. Instead, the team will rely on thousands of citizen science volunteers that will let the researchers run simulations during idle times on their personal computers.

This study is part of an umbrella project, climateprediction.net, originally launched by Oxford University in 2003, and joined by researchers at Oregon State University in 2010 to use the combined power of thousands of individual computers to run climate modeling simulations. This latest project is supported by Climate Central, a non-profit climate research and journalism organization.

Anyone interested in participating in the project – or just following the analysis in real-time – can go to http://www.climateprediction.net/weatherathome/western-us-drought

 “It’s a great way for the general public to help the scientific community investigate some of the climate variations we’re seeing,” said Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University. “It takes about a week to run a year-long unit of climate data and the program is set up to automatically feed the results back to the scientists.”

Scientists don’t yet know “what the answer will be at this point,” said Friederike Otto, who leads the study at Oxford University. “But anyone can go online and watch as the causes of the drought emerge.”

The West Coast drought has ranged from pesky to severe. In California, it has lasted four years and this is the most severe dry spell during the instrumental record, dating back to the late 1800s. Much of the state has suffered a double-whammy of near-record high temperatures and extremely low precipitation. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency in January.

Oregon is in its second year of drought, and in both years, the issue has been very low snowpack because of warm, mild winters. Almost every county in the state has had a governor-declared drought at some time during the two years.

“It’s been a one-two-three punch here,” Mote said. “We’re getting warm winters, followed by a dry February through April period, and fairly warm but unusually dry summers. In the past, when we’ve had droughts, things look bad initially from a snowpack standpoint, but cool, wet March and April months bailed us out. We’re haven’t gotten those the past two years.”

Washington is in its first year of drought – a result almost exclusively tied to warmer winter temperatures. Just last month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought.

This past period of December 2014 through February 2015 was the warmest on record in western Oregon and Washington. Mountain snowpack was at record low levels throughout much of the past six months in all three states.

“Scientists sometimes call this a ‘wet drought’ because the extremely low snowpack in the Northwest has been caused by unusually high temperatures, not abnormally low precipitation,” said Heidi Cullen, chief scientist with Climate Central and a former climate expert with the Weather Channel. “Winter rain has replaced snow during much of the past two winters.”

Is “The Blob” the culprit in the West Coast drought? No one seems to know for sure whether this warm-water mass, which is hundreds of miles long, is to blame. The Blob, which is about 4 degrees (F) warmer than normal, has appeared during the last two late winters/early springs and lingered for months.

“Four degrees may not sound like much, but that kind of anomaly in the ocean is huge,” said Mote, who is a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “It has many implications, from physical processes in the ocean to biological impacts.”

In mid-June, for example, thousands of red crabs washed ashore in southern California – a phenomenon attributed to The Blob. Oregon and Washington are in the throes of a shutdown on shellfish harvesting, due to domoic acid accumulation. Caused by toxic algal blooms, the spike in domoic acid is thought to be caused by some kind of physical stress to the plankton, though it is uncertain if it is related to The Blob.

To test the connection between climate change, The Blob, and the drought, the research team will compare computer simulations of possible weather from an 18-month stretch (Dec. 1, 2013 to May 31, 2015) – including observed sea surface temperatures – with other 18-month stretches from 1981 to 2010. By running hundreds of computer models with slight variations, they hope to be able to determine what impacts The Blob and its swath of warm water have had on West Coast climate.

“Since we began involving citizen science volunteers, we’ve been able to address a wide range of climate-related issues throughout the world,” noted Myles Allen of Oxford University. “The public has a great opportunity to help researchers find out if there is a connection between The Blob and the West Coast drought, to what extent climate change may have contributed, and whether other factors are behind it.”

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Phil Mote, 541-737-5694, (cell 541-913-2274)  pmote@coas.oregonstate.edu

Fat, sugar cause bacterial changes that may relate to loss of cognitive function

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A study at Oregon State University indicates that both a high-fat and a high-sugar diet, compared to a normal diet, cause changes in gut bacteria that appear related to a significant loss of “cognitive flexibility,” or the power to adapt and adjust to changing situations.

This effect was most serious on the high-sugar diet, which also showed an impairment of early learning for both long-term and short-term memory.

The findings are consistent with some other studies about the impact of fat and sugar on cognitive function and behavior, and suggest that some of these problems may be linked to alteration of the microbiome – a complex mixture in the digestive system of about 100 trillion microorganisms.

The research was done with laboratory mice that consumed different diets and then faced a variety of tests, such as water maze testing, to monitor changes in their mental and physical function, and associated impacts on various types of bacteria. The findings were published in the journal Neuroscience, in work supported by the Microbiology Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

“It’s increasingly clear that our gut bacteria, or microbiota, can communicate with the human brain,” said Kathy Magnusson, a professor in the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine and principal investigator with the Linus Pauling Institute.

“Bacteria can release compounds that act as neurotransmitters, stimulate sensory nerves or the immune system, and affect a wide range of biological functions,” she said. “We’re not sure just what messages are being sent, but we are tracking down the pathways and the effects.”

Mice have proven to be a particularly good model for studies relevant to humans, Magnusson said, on such topics as aging, spatial memory, obesity and other issues.

In this research, after just four weeks on a high-fat or a high-sugar diet, the performance of mice on various tests of mental and physical function began to drop, compared to animals on a normal diet. One of the most pronounced changes was in what researchers call cognitive flexibility.

“The impairment of cognitive flexibility in this study was pretty strong,” Magnusson said. “Think about driving home on a route that’s very familiar to you, something you’re used to doing. Then one day that road is closed and you suddenly have to find a new way home.”

A person with high levels of cognitive flexibility would immediately adapt to the change, determine the next best route home, and remember to use the same route the following morning, all with little problem. With impaired flexibility, it might be a long, slow, and stressful way home.

This study was done with young animals, Magnusson said, which ordinarily would have a healthier biological system that’s better able to resist pathological influences from their microbiota. The findings might be even more pronounced with older animals or humans with compromised intestinal systems, she said.

What’s often referred to as the “Western diet,” or foods that are high in fat, sugars and simple carbohydrates, has been linked to a range of chronic illnesses in the United States, including the obesity epidemic and an increased incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.

“We’ve known for a while that too much fat and sugar are not good for you,” Magnusson said. “This work suggests that fat and sugar are altering your healthy bacterial systems, and that’s one of the reasons those foods aren’t good for you. It’s not just the food that could be influencing your brain, but an interaction between the food and microbial changes.”

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Kathy Magnusson, 541-737-6923