Big Year in OSU Research Dollars, Accomplishments

OSU logoFederal funding is tight, and organizations looking to invest in new research have become more discerning, but it is in this highly competitive climate that Oregon State University distinguishes itself by having just achieved a record year for research funding of $26.7 million for the College of Science. In fact, the entire university had a record year as well: $309 million in research dollars.

Spend time in any industry facing these kinds of pressures to perform, and you realize how extraordinary it is to not only survive but excel in the current economy. Sastry Pantula, Dean of the College of Science, said that the record year speaks to the caliber of the faculty at Oregon State and the type of research being done. Looking at the past year of scientific accomplishments, it’s easy to see that he’s right.

OSU has stayed true to their mission: “To advance science and build global leaders for a healthy people, living on a healthy planet, in a healthy economy.” Their core values of striving for excellence, enhancing diversity, and fostering harmony has led to many collaborations across the campus and with other universities.

This has also been a big year in terms of national media attention for the College of Science, but there are 12 events that stand out as big funding or media draws, or in terms of scientific accomplishment.

Elisar Barbar is the proud new owner of a macromolecular nuclear magnetic resonance instrument (NMR). Okay, actually Oregon State is, but she and her team were awarded $1.3 million by NIH and another $504,000 from MJ Murdock Charitable Trust (OSU contributed the remaining $600,000). At 800 MHz, it is the only one of its kind in Oregon. Read that as most bada*s field instrument of its type in the state of Oregon and the region. While magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in medicine is the most familiar application of NMR, this extremely powerful research tool has many significant uses in chemistry, biochemistry, and other sciences and can be used to collect data from important biomolecules such as proteins, nucleic acids, and metabolites to study their physiological functions in the human body.

George Poinar, Jr., an entomology researcher in the College of Science at Oregon State University, recently discovered the oldest-ever evidence of the bubonic plague, in the form of tiny bacteria attached to a flea that became entombed in amber about 20 million years ago. This summer Poinar also discovered the first-ever salamander fossil, revealing that salamanders once lived on an island in the Caribbean Sea, something previously not known. This research adds more clues to the ecological and geological history of the islands of the Caribbean. The story garnered worldwide attention, and was listed as the most popular science story in the world on Aug. 18 on Google News.

Ryan Mehl, associate professor in the Biochemistry and Biophysics Department, has been awarded two prestigious grants totaling more than $1.83 million to further his work on using genetic code expansion to change how we can use and study proteins. At Oregon State, Mehl runs a research lab and is director of the Unnatural Protein Facility. The first of its kind in the world, the Unnatural Protein Facility employs a process called genetic code expansion to re-engineer proteins by incorporating non-canonical amino acids (ncAAs).

Mas Subramanian received two NSF grants for nearly $800,000. Subramanian and his research team were awarded a three-year $470,000 NSF grant for their project, “Exploratory Chemistry of Oxide-Based Compounds.” He also received a collaborative, three-year Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer Our Future grant for nearly $300,000. This is part of $1.5 million NSF funding involving five institutions. This award will support their research on “Discovering Insulating Topological Insulators,” which potentially will lead to room-temperature superconductors and other advanced semiconducting electronic materials that could revolutionize the computing, energy, and electronics industries.

Andrew Karplus, OSU Distinguished University Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics, and his graduate student Kelsey Kean are part of a team of Oregon State researchers who recently discovered that certain animals are able to produce the sunblock compound gadusol naturally. These discoveries were published by many major news outlets including Time, NPR, and Smithsonian Magazine. The research has important implications for humans and the researchers hope that it would one day be possible to produce a safe, ingestible sunscreen pill for humans as well as for use in lotions and cosmetics. Karplus was named 2015 OSU Distinguished Professor, the highest designation the university gives to its faculty.

Stephanie Green recently drew a lot of attention as coauthor of a new study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that suggests an outright ban on the common use of plastic microbeads from products that enter wastewater is the best way to protect water quality, wildlife, and resources used by people. The study was third in top science stories in the world on Sept. 18 on Google News with coverage from The Washington Post, Newsweek, Huffington Post, and others.

Xiulei (David) Ji, Assistant Professor of Chemistry in the College of Science at Oregon State University, is the lead author on a study that has overturned a scientific dogma that stood for decades. He showed that potassium can work with graphite in a potassium-ion battery—a discovery that could pose a challenge and sustainable alternative to the widely used lithium-ion battery. The last time this possibility was explored was in 1932. “For decades, people have assumed that potassium could not work with graphite or other bulk carbon anodes in a battery,” said Ji. “That assumption is incorrect. It’s really shocking that no one ever reported on this issue for 83 years.” The findings are of considerable importance because they open some new alternatives to batteries that can work with well-established and inexpensive graphite as the anode, or high-energy reservoir of electrons. Lithium can do that, as the charge carrier whose ions migrate into the graphite and create an electrical current.

May Nyman, Oregon State Associate Professor of Chemistry, and her team were able to capture an iron cluster known as the Keggin ion or 13-Fe. This atom cluster is a prototype of ferrihydrite, the most abundant form of iron in natural systems, including our water, soil, and the human body. Although scientists have long known the iron oxide cluster might exist, they could not study it because they could not isolate it. Due to its high negative charge and reactivity in water, it has proven extremely elusive in an isolated form until now. This accomplishment was published in Science Magazine.

Rebecca Terry made an important discovery by studying fossilized owl pellets. She and her team learned that when the Earth went through a period of rapid warming about 13,000 years ago, the small mammal community was stable and resilient, even as individual species changed along with the habitat and landscape. By contrast, human-caused changes to the environment since the late 1800s have caused an enormous drop in biomass and “energy flow” in this same community which shows that modern ecosystems are not adapting as well today as they once did in the past due to climate change as well as changes in land cover, particularly the introduction and expansion of invasive, non-native annual grasses at the expense of native shrub lands.

Timothy Otten, a postdoctoral scholar in Integrative Biology, was lead author on a new study that found blooms of toxic cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, are a poorly monitored and under-appreciated health risk to recreational and drinking water quality in the United States, and may increasingly pose a global health threat.

Janine Trempy and her team discovered, and helped patent and commercialize, a new type of dairy or food thickener, which may add probiotic characteristics to products in which it’s used. The thickener is now in commercial use, and it may have a significant impact in major industries. It is produced by a natural bacterium that was isolated in Oregon. It’s the result of decades of research, beginning in the early 1990s when a novel polymer with an ability to rapidly thicken milk was discovered by an OSU microbiologist. The polymer is known as Ropy 352 and is produced by a non-disease-causing bacterium. The global market for polymers such as this approaches $7 billion, and there are estimates the U.S. spends up to $120 billion a year on probiotic products such as yogurt, sour cream, and buttermilk.

Bruce Menge, Professor of Marine Biology in the College of Science, and his research team are able to continue their work on unexpected changes in the ecosystems of the West Coast thanks to additional funding from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. They awarded PISCO another five-year grant of $5 million. This support along with other funding will enable the scientists to investigate the effects of a marine pandemic with what may be the most extensive study of a marine disease ever conducted. Menge and PISCO gained a new ally in their efforts to study and address sea star wasting disease this year, too. The Rogue Ale brewers, who are concerned about this disease in Oregon coastal waters, created Wasted Sea Star Purple Pale Ale and pledged to donate a portion of the income from sales of this product to support research done by OSU and PISCO scientists.

 So, what’s in store for Oregon State University’s College of Science in 2016? Dean Sastry Pantula is very excited about their current strengths in environmental, marine, material, and bio-health sciences, as well as math education research and data sciences. They are really looking forward to moving the dial ahead on some key strategic opportunities and to continue their goal to enhance minorities in the STEM fields. They have also begun a process to acknowledge the importance that big data plays in science by working on an MS degree in Data Analytics and a certificate program to train the workforce in this area.

By Hannah Darling

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