OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

scientific research and advances

Technology to improve rockfall analysis on cliffs could save money, lives

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers in the Pacific Northwest have developed a new, automated technology to analyze the potential for rockfalls from cliffs onto roads and areas below, which should speed and improve this type of risk evaluation, help protect public safety and ultimately save money and lives.

Called a “rockfall activity index,” the system is based on the powerful abilities of light detection and ranging, or LIDAR technology. It should expedite and add precision to what’s now a somewhat subjective, time-consuming process to determine just how dangerous a cliff is to the people, vehicles, roads or structures below it.

This is a multi-million dollar global problem, experts say, of significant concern to transportation planners.

It’s a particular concern in the Pacific Northwest with its many mountain ranges, heavy precipitation, erosion of steep cliffs and unstable slopes, and thousands of roads that thread their way through that terrain. The evaluation system now most widely used around the world, in fact, was developed by the Oregon Department of Transportation more than 25 years ago.

The new technology should improve on that approach, according to scientists who developed it from the University of Washington, Oregon State University and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Findings on it were just published in Engineering Geology.

“Rockfalls are a huge road maintenance issue,” said Michael Olsen, an associate professor of geomatics in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, and co-author of the report.

“Pacific Northwest and Alaskan highways, in particular, are facing serious concerns for these hazards. A lot of our highways in mountainous regions were built in the 1950s and 60s, and the cliffs above them have been facing decades of erosion that in many places cause at least small rockfalls almost daily. At the same time traffic is getting heavier, along with increasing danger to the public and even people who monitor the problem.”

The new approach could replace the need to personally analyze small portions of a cliff at a time, looking for cracks and hazards, with analysts sometimes even rappelling down it to assess risks. LIDAR analysis can map large areas in a short period, and allow data to be analyzed by a computer.

“Transportation agencies and infrastructure providers are increasingly seeking ways to improve the reliability and safety of their systems, while at the same time reducing costs,” said Joe Wartman, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington, and corresponding author of the study.

“As a low-cost, high-resolution landslide hazard assessment system, our rockfall activity index methodology makes a significant step toward improving both protection and efficiency.”

The study, based on some examples in southern Alaska, showed the new system could evaluate rockfalls in ways that very closely matched the dangers actually experienced. It produces data on the “energy release” to be expected from a given cliff, per year, that can be used to identify the cliffs and roads at highest risk and prioritize available mitigation budgets to most cost-effectively protect public safety.

“This should improve and speed assessments, reduce the risks to people doing them, and hopefully identify the most serious problems before we have a catastrophic failure,” Olsen said.

The technology is now complete and ready for use, researchers said, although they are continuing to develop its potential, possibly with the use of flying drones to expand the data that can be obtained.

Tens of millions of dollars are spent each year in the U.S. on rock slope maintenance and mitigation.

This research was supported by the Pacific Northwest Transportation Consortium, the National Science Foundation and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. Co-authors included Lisa Dunham, former civil and environmental engineering graduate student at the University of Washington; graduate assistant Matthew O’Banion at OSU; and Keith Cunningham, research assistant professor of remote sensing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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Michael Olsen, 541-737-9327

michael.olsen@oregonstate.edu

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Social media tools can reinforce stigma and stereotypes

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have developed new software to analyze social media comments, and used this tool in a recent study to better understand attitudes that can cause emotional pain, stigmatize people and reinforce stereotypes.

In particular, the scientists studied comments and sentiments expressed about Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. It found that 51 percent of tweets by private users of Twitter accounts contained stigma, when making reference to this condition and the people who deal with it.

The new system may be applicable to a range of other social science research questions, the researchers said, and already shows that many people may not adequately appreciate the power of social media to greatly transcend the type of interpersonal, face-to-face communication humans are most accustomed to.

“As a society it’s like we’re learning a new skill of text communication, and we don’t fully understand or reflect on its power to affect so many people in ways that we may not have intended,” said Nels Oscar, an OSU graduate student in the College of Engineering and lead author on the study.

“Social media is instant, in some cases can reach millions of people at once, and can even instigate behaviors. We often don’t even know who might eventually read it and how it will affect them.”

What’s clear, the study showed, is that when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, thoughtless or demeaning comments on a broad level via social media can take an already-serious problem and make it worse.

The particular topic studied, the scientists said, is of growing importance. A global tripling of individuals with some form of dementia is projected in coming decades, from 43 million today to 131 million by 2050.

“It was shocking to me how many people stigmatized Alzheimer’s disease and reinforced stereotypes that can further alienate people with this condition,” said Karen Hooker, holder of the Jo Anne Leonard Petersen Endowed Chair in Gerontology and Family Studies, in the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “This can create what we call ‘excess disability,’ when people with a stigmatized condition perform worse just because of the negative expectations that damaging stereotypes bring.

“This type of stigma can make it less likely that people will admit they have problems or seek treatment, when often they can still live satisfying, meaningful and productive lives. Our attitudes, the things we say affect others. And social media is now amplifying our ability to reach others with thoughtless or hurtful comments.”

The researchers noted a 2012 report which concluded that negative attitudes about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia can result in shame, guilt, hopelessness, and social exclusion among stigmatized individuals, leading to delay in diagnosis, inability to cope, and decreased quality of life. It also affects friends, family and caregivers of these individuals.

A comment a person might never make in a face-to-face conversation, Oscar said, is often transmitted via social media to dozens, hundreds or ultimately thousands of people that were not really intended. Some constraints that might reduce the impact, like clearly making a joke or using sarcasm in a personal conversation, can often get lost in translation to the printed word.

“A point many people don’t understand when using social media is that their intent is often irrelevant,” Oscar said. “All people eventually see is the comment, without any other context, and have to deal with the pain it can cause.”

This research was one part of a six-year, $2.3 million project funded by the National Science Foundation to train graduate students in aging sciences and to conduct cross-disciplinary studies on issues of importance to an aging society. The paper was recently published in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences. The software created for the project is now freely available for other scientists to use, at http://bit.ly/2p5GmDC

In the research, the software was designed to recognize and interpret the use of various keywords associated with Alzheimer’s disease, such as dementia, memory loss or senile. The system was improved by comparing results to the same comment evaluated by human researchers, and ultimately achieved an accuracy of about 90 percent in determining whether a comment was meant to be informative, a joke, a metaphor, ridicule, or fit other dimensions.

The system was then used to analyze 33,000 tweets that made some reference to Alzheimer’s disease.

People concerned about these issues, the OSU researchers suggested, might be more conscious of their own comments on social media, and also more willing to engage with others who are using language that is insensitive or potentially hurtful.

“We should also consider ways to combat stigma and negative stereotypes by tweeting about the positive experiences of persons with dementia and people in their social networks,” Hooker said.

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Karen Hooker, 541-737-4336

hookerk@oregonstate.edu

New function discovered for compound that may help slow aging

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have found that a compound called rapamycin has unusual properties that may help address neurologic damage such as Alzheimer’s disease.

A study just published in Aging Cell outlines a new understanding of how this compound works.

“It’s possible this could provide a new therapeutic approach to neurologic disease,” said Viviana Perez, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics in OSU’s College of Science, expert on the biological processes of aging and principal investigator in the Linus Pauling Institute.

Scientists have now identified two mechanisms of action of rapamycin. One was already known. The newly-discovered mechanism is what researchers say might help prevent neurologic damage and some related diseases.

“The value of rapamycin is clearly linked to the issue of cellular senescence, a stage cells reach where they get old, stop proliferating and begin to secrete damaging substances that lead to inflammation,” Perez said. “Rapamycin appears to help stop that process.”

This secretion of damaging compounds, researchers say, creates a toxic environment called senescence-associated secretory phenotype, or SASP. It’s believed this disrupts the cellular microenvironment and alters the ability of adjacent cells to function properly, compromising their tissue structure and function.

This broad process is ultimately linked to aging.

“The increase in cellular senescence associated with aging, and the inflammation associated with that, can help set the stage for a wide variety of degenerative disease, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and neurologic disease, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s,” Perez said. “In laboratory animals when we clear out senescent cells, they live longer and have fewer diseases. And rapamycin can have similar effects.”

Prior to this research, it had only been observed that there was one mechanism of action for rapamycin in this process. Scientists believed it helped to increase the action of Nrf2, a master regulator that can “turn on” up to 200 genes responsible for cell repair, detoxification of carcinogens, protein and lipid metabolism, antioxidant protection and other factors. In the process, it helped reduce levels of SASP.

The new study concluded that rapamycin could also affect levels of SASP directly, separately from the Nrf2 pathway and in a way that would have impacts on neurons as well as other types of cells.

“Any new approach to help protect neurons from damage could be valuable,” Perez said. “Other studies, for instance, have shown that astrocyte cells that help protect neuron function and health can be damaged by SASP. This may be one of the causes of some neurologic diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease.”

Through its ability to help prevent SASP-related cellular damage through two pathways – one involving Nrf2 and the other more directly – rapamycin will continue to generate significant interest in addressing issues related to aging, Perez said.

Rapamycin is a natural compound first discovered from the soils of Easter Island in the South Pacific Ocean. It has already been intensively studied because it can mimic the valuable effects of dietary restriction, which in some animals has been proven to extend their lifespan.

Laboratory mice that have received rapamycin have demonstrated more fitness, less decline in activity with age, improved cognition and cardiovascular health, less cancer, and a longer life.

The use of rapamycin for that purpose in humans has so far been constrained by an important side effect, an increase in insulin resistance that may raise the risk of diabetes. That concern still exists, limiting the use of rapamycin to help address degenerative disease until ways can be found to address that problem.

This may be possible. Scientists are searching for rapamycin analogs that may have similar biological impacts but don’t cause that unwanted side effect.

This research was supported by the American Federation for Aging Research.

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Viviana Perez, 541-737-9551

viviana.perez@oregonstate.edu

New drug delivery system shows promise for fighting solid tumors

PORTLAND, Ore. – A new cancer-drug delivery system shows the ability to exploit the oxygen-poor areas of solid tumors that make the growths resistant to standard chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Carcinomas that affect the breast, lung, prostate and colon are among the solid-tumor cancers, as are malignancies in the lymphatic system, known as lymphomas, and the much less common sarcomas that arise in connective tissue.

These solid masses often contain hypoxic regions, where the concentration of oxygen in the tissue is low. Hypoxic cancer cells grow slowly, and that makes them less susceptible to the drugs prescribed to kill or damage them.

Researchers at Oregon State University have found a way to turn the tables on those cells using a “prodrug” loaded into nanostructured platforms.

A prodrug is a pharmacologically inactive compound that the body metabolizes into an active drug, in this case the cancer drug vinblastine.

Provided with the prodrug vinblastine-N-oxide by research partners at Cascade Prodrug Inc. of Eugene, Ore., OSU scientists developed two different lipid-based platform formulations known as liposomes to carry the prodrug to the tumor’s hypoxic regions. There, the lack of oxygen triggers its metabolic conversion to vinblastine.

In both formulations – one with polyethylene glycol on its surface, one without – the prodrug proved both safe and much more effective against non-small cell lung cancer than when it was delivered without a liposome.

“One of the hallmarks of these solid tumors is their hypoxic regions,” said the study’s lead author, Adam Alani of the OSU College of Pharmacy. “One reason these cancers become very aggressive is the development of this hypoxia. Since the late 1990s, researchers have been trying to take advantage of the hypoxia. The tumor model we chose, lung cancer, is one of the very well established tumors and there’s a very strong hypoxia associated with that – as well as, lung cancer is one of these cancers that in its advanced stages, it’s a terminal disease, and there’s a need for new treatments.”

By itself, vinblastine-N-oxide had shown less than optimal efficacy in testing by Cascade Prodrug because of how fast the body clears it from the system – it has a half-life of less than half an hour.

“When it was tested in mice and dogs, it did not have a chance to assimilate in the cancer tissue to produce the desired pharmacological effect,” Alani said.

But the liposomes – both the “pegylated” one containing polyethylene glycol, and the non-pegylated one – increased the half-life dramatically: to 9.5 and 5.5 hours, respectively.

“The nano carriers performed much better than the prodrug itself,” Alani said. “We were able to literally cure the tumor.”

Alani’s research began with laboratory cultures and progressed to safety and efficacy testing in animals.

“We made sure the nanostructure platform worked properly against lung cancer in vitro, then looked at the safety of the formulation in healthy mice and looked at the maximum tolerated dose – the biggest dose you can use without producing side effects,” Alani said. “Then we determined how long the nano carriers could keep the drug in the blood compared to the drug without the nanostructures.”

When those data were “very encouraging,” Alani’s team assessed the efficacy of the formulations in mice that had tumors grafted into them.

Without any liposome, the drug showed some tumor suppression, but the mice that had received the drug alone had to be euthanized after 70 days because of tumors that were no longer being controlled.

Mice that had received the drug with one of the liposomes were healthy and tumor-free for the nearly 100-day run of the experiment.

“The formulations clearly performed better than the unformulated drug as well as much better than Cisplatin, the standard-of-care drug for this research,” Alani said. “Now we’re collaborating with Cascade Prodrug and the College of Veterinary Medicine to assess safety and efficacy in dog models, and trying to look at other tumors, like bladder cancer, associated with dogs.”

One goal, Alani said, is to develop a new treatment for cancer in dogs, and another is to look at dogs as a model for drug development – “to get data Cascade can use to move the process forward for approval for use in dogs, as well as preliminary data for a new drug application with the FDA,” Alani said.

The Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute supported this research. Findings were recently published in the Journal of Controlled Release.

Co-authors on the paper were Alani’s colleagues in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Vidhi Shah, Duc Nguyen and Adel Alfatease, and Shay Bracha of the OSU veterinary college’s Department of Clinical Sciences.

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Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

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Even short-duration heat waves could lead to failure of coffee crops

CORVALLIS – “Hot coffee” is not a good thing for java enthusiasts when it refers to plants beset by the high-temperature stress that this century is likely to bring, research at Oregon State University suggests.

A study by OSU’s College of Forestry showed that when Coffea arabica plants were subjected to short-duration heat waves, they became unable to produce flowers and fruit.

That means no coffee beans, and no coffee to drink.

C. arabica is the globe’s dominant coffee-plant species, accounting for 65 percent of the commercial production of the nearly 20 billion pounds of coffee consumed globally each year.

Continually producing new flushes of leaves year-round, C. arabica grows on 80 countries in four continents in the tropics.

The OSU research investigated how leaf age and heat duration affected C. arabica’s recovery from heat stress during greenhouse testing. A major finding was that the younger, “expanding” leaves were particularly slow to recover compared to mature leaves, and that none of the plants that endured the simulated heat waves produced any flowers or fruit.

“This emphasizes how sensitive Coffea arabica is to temperature,” said lead author Danielle Marias, a plant physiologist with OSU’s Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. “No flowering means no reproduction which means no beans, and that could be devastating for a coffee farmer facing crop failure.

“Heat is very stressful to the plants and is often associated with drought. However, in regions where coffee is grown, it may not just be hotter and drier, it could be hotter and wetter, so in this research we wanted to isolate the effects of heat.”

In the OSU study, C. arabica plants were exposed to heat that produced leaf temperatures of a little over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, for either 45 or 90 minutes. That leaf temperature, Marias emphasizes, is a realistic result of global climate change and also more than the surrounding air temperature – think of how hot, for example, asphalt gets in the sunshine on a 90-degree day.

Expanding leaves subjected to the 90-minute treatment took the longest to recover physiologically as measured by photosynthesis; chlorophyll fluorescence, an indicator of photosynthetic energy conversion; and the presence of nonstructural carbohydrates, which include starch and free sugars involved in growth, reproduction and other functions.

“In both treatments, photosynthesis of expanding leaves recovered more slowly than in mature leaves, and stomatal conductance of expanding leaves was reduced in both heat treatments,” Marias said. “Based on the leaf energy balance model, the inhibited stomatal conductance reduces evaporative cooling of leaves, which could further increase leaf temperatures, exacerbating the aftereffects of heat stress under both full and partial sunlight conditions, where C. arabica is often grown.”

Regardless of leaf age, the longer heat treatment resulted in decreased water-use efficiency, which could also worsen the effects of heat stress, particularly during drought.

Results of the research were recently published in Ecology and Evolution. The National Science Foundation supported the study, co-authors of which were Frederick Meinzer of the U.S. Forest Service and Christopher Still of the OSU Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society.

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By Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

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Elevated blood pressure not a high mortality risk for elderly with weak grip

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A study of nearly 7,500 Americans age 65 or older suggests that elevated blood pressure is not related to high mortality risk among people in that age group with weak grip strength.

New research by Oregon State University builds on an earlier OSU study that showed the relationship between high blood pressure and risk of death is largely dependent on elders’ frailty status as measured by walking speed.

The findings are important because they suggest that treating high blood pressure in older patients should not follow a one-size-fits-all approach. When an older person is still functioning at a high level physically, high blood pressure indicates mortality risk; however, when the person is not physically robust, high blood pressure is not a marker for mortality risk.

“If people are very frail, they typically don’t respond well to anti-hypertensive therapy and they are not benefiting from having a low blood pressure,” said lead author Chenkai Wu, a graduate student in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “The research is basically saying older adults are not one single group, they’re very different in terms of their health status, and drugs may not have the same benefits for everyone. This is consistent with the idea of precision medicine, where you don’t just look at age, you look at other things like functional status.”

Measured in millimeters of mercury, blood pressure is the force of blood against the vessel walls. Systolic blood pressure, the higher number, is the force during a heartbeat, and diastolic refers to when the heart is at rest.

Most people’s diastolic blood pressure goes down with age. Systolic blood pressure, though, tends to rise, and high blood pressure – hypertension – can put extra strain on the heart and arteries, causing greater risk of heart attack and stroke.

But as Wu’s research suggests, an elderly patient’s level of physical functionality should be considered in determining whether anti-hypertensive therapy is warranted.

Grip strength, easily measured by an inexpensive device known as a dynamometer, is a common way to gauge functionality in the elderly. Another often-used measuring stick is walking speed.

Wu looked at data from 7,492 people age 65 or older who had taken part in the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study. Six years after being surveyed, 25 percent of those people had died.

The study showed that elevated systolic blood pressure (150 or greater) and diastolic blood pressure (90 or greater) correlated with a substantially higher likelihood of dying for those with normal grip strength, which is 26 kilograms or more for men and 16 kilograms or more for women.

“We did three analyses,” Wu said. “One was to look at gait speed to separate people into two groups, normal and slow. The second part was grip strength – weak grip and normal grip. Third, we looked at the combinations, and the strongest inverse association between high blood pressure and mortality was for slow walkers with weak grip strength.

“Both measures are markers of functional status, a multidimensional concept. Considering both might be better than considering each measure alone for identifying subgroups of elders for whom high blood pressure is potentially beneficial.”

OSU public health epidemiologist Michelle Odden, senior author on the study and the lead author on the earlier gait-speed research, explained how high blood pressure might actually help in some cases.

“As we age, our blood vessels lose elasticity and become stiff,” said Odden, an assistant professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “Higher blood pressure could be a compensatory mechanism to overcome this loss of vascular elasticity and keep fresh blood pumping to the brain and heart.

“And everyone ages differently – there is a profound difference between the physiological age of an 80-year-old man who golfs every day and someone who needs a walker to get around. So with fast walkers, high blood pressure may be more indicative of underlying disease and not just a symptom of the aging process.”

In addition to the connection with weak grip strength, Wu said there was a “very clear” inverse association between high blood pressure and mortality among those who weren’t physically able to finish the gait-speed test in the latest study, measured over a 98.5-inch walk.

Put another way, among those who couldn’t walk a little over 8 feet, high blood pressure was associated with less mortality risk.

“It’s a small group but not negligible – 6 percent – of people who were not able to complete the test,” he said. “Compared to grip strength, it’s a harder test to complete, an integration of a lot of physiological systems: balance, vision, lower-extremity muscle strength, etc.”

The National Institute on Aging supported this research. Findings were recently published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Ellen Smit, associate professor of epidemiology in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, served as a co-author.

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By Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

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Oregon high schools lacking ‘best practices’ for athletic emergencies

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A survey of Oregon high school athletic directors on their school’s preparedness for a catastrophic injury or health event found that only 11 percent of those responding had implemented three primary “best-practice” recommendations for treating their student-athletes.

Multiple national sports safety organizations have defined institutional best practices, including having a plan in place for when emergencies occur and ensuring the training and accessibility to the proper equipment for those who respond. 

Results of the research have been published in Sports Health, a collaborative publication of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association and the Sports Physical Therapy Section.

“We launched the survey to gauge how prepared schools are to respond to athletic-related emergencies,” said Samuel Johnson, an athletic training and kinesiology specialist at Oregon State University and lead author on the study. “We also wanted to know if having an athletic trainer – a health care professional with expertise in sports medicine – available at the school was associated with better preparedness.” 

The researchers asked whether schools had venue-specific emergency action plans, had access to an automated external defibrillator (AED) for early defibrillation in the event of an emergency, and whether they required first responders – specifically coaches – to be trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and proper use of an AED.

The OSU-led study found that 29 percent of schools responding to the survey had implemented two of the three best-practice recommendations; 32 percent had implemented one recommendation; and 27 percent had not implemented any of them. The survey received 108 responses, or about 37 percent of all Oregon high schools. 

“There is definitely room for improvement in planning for medical emergencies,” he said. “We are doing some things well in the state, and there are things we need to do better. For example, having an AED available on campus is a great first step, but we need to make sure it is readily available at athletic events and that people are trained to use it.”

Only half of the schools in the study had an athletic trainer available, yet Johnson said having one was associated with better preparedness. 

“Athletic trainers are specifically trained to prevent and respond to emergencies,” Johnson noted. “We found that having an athletic trainer on staff was associated with better preparedness, particularly as it relates to emergency plans and having AEDs on hand. However, having an athletic trainer was not associated with whether schools required coaches to have training in CPR or with a defibrillator.”

Johnson pointed out that while athletic trainers likely are not in a position to mandate that coaches having training, they can take charge in making sure plans are in place and potentially life-saving equipment is available when needed. 

“We understand several of the challenges associated with implementing some of the recommendations,” Johnson said. “Buying AEDs, paying for coach training, or hiring an athletic trainer can be expensive. Budgets are tight and catastrophic medical situations are rare. But they do happen, and they have a devastating impact on the athlete, family and friends.”

The researchers are planning to explore the challenges schools face in implementing best practices. The Oregon School Activities’ Association, which governs high school sports in the state, has been proactive in promoting sports safety, Johnson said. 

“I am always impressed by how well the different groups in the state come together to make sports safer,” said Johnson, who along with several of the study’s co-authors are members of the OSAA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. “The OSAA has been a driving force in getting coaches, athletic directors, athletic trainers, physicians and other stakeholders talking about these issues and making changes to improve safety.

“For example, starting this year there is a requirement that schools have an emergency action plan for athletics. These collaborative efforts don’t happen in every state, though they probably should.” 

Johnson, who is in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at OSU, is taking the message outside of Oregon. He will address a worldwide audience of sports medicine professionals on preparedness at the International Olympic Committee’s World Conference on Prevention of Injury and Illness in Sport later this year.

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Sam Johnson, 541-737-6801, sam.johnson@oregonstate.edu

Oregon State part of new NSF research program in the Arctic

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University and five other universities this week received an award to initiate a new Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) project in the Arctic that will explore how relationships between the land and water affect coastal ecosystems along the northern Alaskan coast.

The project has been funded by a five-year, $5.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation and will join 25 existing and two recently awarded coastal LTER sites that form a network of terrestrial and aquatic biomes worldwide.

Two of the new coastal sites, the Northern Gulf of Alaska and the Northeastern U.S. Shelf, are in very productive regions for fisheries. The third site, The Beaufort Sea Lagoons, is the first marine ecosystem LTER in the Arctic Ocean. The project, “Beaufort Sea Lagoons: An Arctic Coastal Ecosystem in Transition,” is supported by NSF’s Office of Polar Programs.

 “It is a very rich, very important ecosystem and we don’t have a good understanding of how it works,” said Yvette Spitz, one of two OSU oceanographers who are principal investigators with the project. “There are chemicals, nutrients and other organic materials that are transported from the land to the ocean, passing through lagoons along the way.”

“One of the goals of the project is to understand how the transport of these materials is affected by changing precipitation, sea ice and melting permafrost – and what effect that has on biological productivity. These changes are presently occurring and are the most rapid in the Arctic”

Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin are leading the project, in collaboration with researchers at Oregon State, University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Texas El Paso, University of Massachusetts at Amherst and University of Toronto Mississauga.

Also participating will be young scientists from the native Iñupiat communities of Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) and Kaktovik, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“An important aspect of this LTER is the collaboration between scientists and the Iñupiat residents of the Beaufort Sea coast, which will greatly deepen our comprehensive understanding of these ecosystems,” said William Ambrose, director of the Arctic Observing Network in the NSF Office of Polar Programs.

The research will be based in Kaktovik, Utqiagvik, and Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. It will focus on a series of large, shallow (5-7 meters deep) lagoons that play a role in the transition of materials from land to sea.

Byron Crump, the other OSU oceanographer who is a principal investigator on the project, will focus on the smallest but most abundant organisms in the ecosystem – phytoplankton, bacteria, and other microbes.

“The old school of thinking was that bacteria were important in warmer ecosystems but not so much in colder regions like the Arctic,” Crump said. “We’re finding that isn’t true at all. Bacteria and other tiny organisms play critical roles in maintaining the food web that supports everything from krill to whales as well as important fisheries.”

Crump will look at the growth rates and genomic diversity of microbes, while Spitz will develop computer models that will evaluate how microbes, plankton and other small organisms influence the ecosystem and how they will be affected in the future under different scenarios of warming, increased precipitation and changes in groundwater.

Spitz and Crump are faculty members in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

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Yvette Spitz, 541-737-3227, yspitz@coas.oregonstate.edu;

Byron Crump, 541-737-4369, bcrump@coas.oregonstate.edu

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Photo of Beaufort lagoons (left): https://flic.kr/p/Sp3DZ5

 

 

 

Coastal erosion

Coastal erosion is one of the processes researchers will study.

Workers’ compensation claims offer insight into seafood processing injuries in Oregon

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A review of workers’ compensation claims indicates that workers in Oregon’s seafood processing industry are suffering serious injuries at higher rates than the statewide average, and the rate of injuries appears to be on the rise, researchers at Oregon State University have found.

Researchers examined 188 “disabling” claims, or claims from employees who missed work, were hospitalized overnight or whose injuries left them permanently impaired. They found that the average annual rate of claims was 24 per 1,000 workers, said Laura Syron, a doctoral student in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences and lead author of the study.

“Fortunately, Oregon’s seafood processing industry did not experience any fatalities during the study period, but the rate of injuries during that period is higher than Oregon’s all-industry average,” Syron said.

“This is an industry that merits more research and more support. Our goal is to use this information to assist seafood processing companies in the Pacific Northwest with protecting workers' safety and health.”

The study is believed to be the first to examine worker safety and health in Oregon’s seafood processing industry. The findings were published this month in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

OSU researchers collaborated with the Oregon Health Authority on the study. Co-authors of the paper are Laurel Kincl, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health; Ellen Smit, an associate professor of epidemiology; environmental and occupational health doctoral student Liu Yang; and Daniel Cain, with the state of Oregon.

The study is part of a broader effort at OSU to understand and address hazards in the maritime industry.

“This important work compliments injury prevention my colleagues and I are conducting with commercial fishing fleets in the region,” said co-author Kincl, who is Syron’s advisor.

Seafood is the most-traded food commodity internationally, and the value of processed seafood products in the U.S. topped $10 billion in 2015. The dangers of commercial fishing have drawn a lot of attention over the years through reality television programs and highly-publicized disasters and safety incidents.

But there is limited research on occupational health and safety in onshore seafood processing, a food-manufacturing industry that includes cleaning, canning, freezing and other packaging and preparation. In Oregon, employment in the seafood processing industry grew steadily between 2010 and 2013, with 1,240 workers employed in the industry in 2013.

“Processing is a critical component of the seafood supply chain, and it does not get as much attention as the fishing itself,” Syron said. “Processing adds value to the product and it is also demanding work that can lead to significant injuries.”

The researchers’ review of workers’ compensation disabling claims accepted for compensation between 2007 and 2013 showed the rate of injuries among workers in the industry was more than twice that of Oregon industries overall. The most common injuries included traumatic injuries to muscles, tendons, ligaments or joints. The most frequent events that resulted in injuries were overexertion and contact with equipment or objects.

“The workers’ compensation data gives us insight into the most severe incidents and those that cost employers the most money,” Syron said.

The workers’ compensation disabling data doesn’t provide enough detail about the circumstances of the workers at the time of their injuries, so that is one area that warrants further study before prevention recommendations could be made, she said.

For her doctoral dissertation, Syron plans to examine seafood processing in Alaska, where seafood is an economically and culturally important natural resource. In that research, Syron will continue to explore injury reports in both at-sea and on-shore facilities. With interviews, she hopes to learn from companies’ safety and health managers and directors, whose roles are dedicated to protecting workers’ well-being.

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Laura Syron, 541-513-1710, laura.syron@oregonstate.edu

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Commercial fishing port in Newport, Oregon. Photo by Pat Kight, Oregon Sea Grant.

Newport's commercial fishing port

Anomalous ocean conditions in 2015 may bode poorly for juvenile Chinook salmon survival

NEWPORT, Ore. – Fisheries managers have been predicting a slightly below-average run of spring Chinook salmon on the Columbia River this year but a newly published suggests that it may be worse.

According to researchers from Oregon State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, ocean conditions were historically bad in the spring of 2015, when migrating yearling fish that will comprise the bulk of this spring’s adult Chinook salmon run first went out to sea. In fact, Pacific Decadal Oscillation values – which reflect warm and cold sea surface temperatures – suggest it was one of the warmest nearshore oceans encountered by migrating Chinook salmon dating back to at least 1900.

The lack of food for the salmon in 2015 may have resulted in significant mortality that will show in this year’s run of Columbia River springers. One way or another, it will provide new information on fish survival and whether juvenile salmon prey data can help resource managers predict future returns.

Results of the research, which was funded by the Bonneville Power Administration and NOAA, have just been published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

About 80 percent of a typical spring Chinook run on the Columbia River come from fish that went out to sea as yearlings two years earlier, according to lead author Elizabeth Daly, a senior faculty research assistant with the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resource Studies, jointly operated by OSU and NOAA out of the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

“When juvenile salmon first enter the ocean, it is a critical time for them,” Daly said. “They are adjusting to a salt-water environment, they have to eat to survive, and they have to avoid becoming prey themselves. When we sampled juvenile salmon in May and June of 2015, the fish were much smaller and thinner than usual, and many of them had empty stomachs. There just wasn’t anything for them to eat.”

Two key statistics stand out from 2015, the researchers noted. The California Current system off the West Coast was more than 2.5 degrees Celsius (or 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than normal, and the juvenile Chinook were smaller and skinnier than during a cold-water year, weighing an average of 17.6 percent less.

When the oceanic waters off Oregon and Washington are cold, young salmon primarily feed on readily available fish prey such as Pacific sand lance and smelts, which triggers their growth spurt. When waters are warmer, there is less food available, and they primarily eat juvenile anchovies and rockfish, which are less-desirable prey than cold-water species.

Daly said 2015 began on a somewhat positive note. Although cold-water larval fish species were absent, the researchers found abundant amounts of other larval fish in January, February and March, the fourth highest biomass in the last 18 years. Thus even in the absence of preferred cold-water species, there was food in the California Current system – at least for a while.

However, by the time the juvenile Chinook salmon migrated to the ocean later that spring, these larval anchovies and rockfish had all but disappeared – making even backup food sources for the salmon scarce.

The researchers theorize that these larval fish died off because they themselves had little to eat. Long-time NOAA biologist Bill Peterson told Daly and her colleagues that the Pacific Ocean off the Northwest coast in early 2015 was devoid of cold-water, lipid-rich copepods, a key element in the food chain. In 2015, it was so warm offshore that virtually no lipid-rich copepods were to be found.

“We think the larval anchovies and rockfish had nothing to eat, so they died off,” Daly said. “So when the salmon entered the ocean later that spring of 2015, the cupboard was bare.”

“During warm years, there is typically less upwelling that brings cold, nutrient-rich water to the surface,” said Richard Brodeur, a biologist with the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center and co-author on the study. “Salmon populations may be able to handle one year of warm temperatures and sparse food. But two or three years in a row could be disastrous.”

“The young salmon may have to travel farther north to find food, and they become highly susceptible to becoming prey themselves because of their weakened condition.”

Preliminary results from 2016 by study co-author Toby Auth suggest that ichthyoplankton biomass was again high in late winter, but it was dominated once more by anchovies and sardines, which normally spawn off Oregon in summer. Juvenile salmon sampled in the spring were small and somewhat thinner than normal, Daly said.

“For the first time, we found that the salmon were eating juvenile sardines in 2016 – a new prey for them,” she noted. “Sardines were spawning off the central Oregon coast for one of the first times because of the warm water. We don’t know the long-term impact this will have on salmon. Hopefully, it can become a new food source for them if waters remain warm.”

As this year’s run of spring Chinook salmon unfolds on the Columbia River, Daly and her colleagues will be watching to see if the numbers of adult fish returning align with predictions of a poor return based on 2015 ocean conditions, prey availability, and juvenile fish size.

It could provide valuable information to resource managers in the future.

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Elizabeth Daly, 541-270-1370, elizabeth.daly@oregonstate.edu;

Ric Brodeur, 541-867-0335, Richard.Brodeur@noaa.gov

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