2016 Oregon State Science in Review

cindy_sagersAs the end users of all that scientific knowledge generated in those surprisingly not-so-imposing towers of academia, all the research around here is having real impacts on our local community. Technological and scientific advancements happening around Oregon State University make Corvallis one privileged place to call home. Faculty, staff, students, and even all the rest of us Advocate readers have unique opportunities for collaboration in scientific research, educational outreach, and community engagement that are hard to find in other parts of the planet.

Opportunities to find fellowships and work with different folks in different fields abound in this town. Oregon State is a big part of what creates those unique assemblages.

“Working with people outside one’s own field can lead to real advances in knowledge and innovation,” said Cynthia Sagers, Oregon State vice president for research. “We’re seeing progress in unmanned aerial systems for agriculture, forestry and infrastructure inspections, in genetic testing to understand disease and improve food security, and in software for environmental monitoring and crop improvements.”

Researchers all the while have also been responsible for bringing in ever more of their own funding—and 2016’s been another big year for the record books. “Our researchers deserve all the credit for this amazing accomplishment,” said Sagers. “They have stepped up to the challenge of securing research funds that support our programs and our students, and create an impact on Oregon, the nation, and the world.”

Corvallis’ own Oregon State University is this state’s Land, Sea, Space, and Sun Grant research institution—and that is indeed a singularly splendid thing. OSU receives more federal, state, and private-sector research funding than almost every other public university in the state put together. And by the numbers it was another record-breaking year for OSU. Scientists brought in an additional $27 million more in research funding in the 2016 fiscal year than they did in 2015 for a total of $336 million.

OSU Record-Breaking Year, in Review
Since 2006, Oregon State University has received more than $3 billion in research revenue thanks to the countless hours that researchers, graduate students, administrators, and the like spent writing grants and raising their own funds—just so they could do their day jobs of all that really important research and teaching stuff. That most certainly has had an impact on our economy.

“Through salaries, student stipends, and expenditures, Oregon State research generates an annual societal and economic impact of about $762 million in the state and globally, based on an assessment conducted in 2015 by ECONorthwest,” wrote Nick Houtman, OSU research communications assistant director.

Contributions OSU scientists have made this year in a wide range of intermingling fields are certainly making incredible impacts on things important to all of us Oregonians. “OSU researchers undertook projects to study and manage forests, coastal waters and other natural resources; to protect human health by identifying new treatments for infectious diseases; and to support communities and businesses by solving problems in food, energy and water systems,” wrote Houtman.

This year we could extol the many and notable scientific accomplishments of each of Oregon State University’s research and teaching laboratories, 15 agricultural experiment stations, every county extension office and their service to Oregon families, the Hatfield Marine Science Center, plus the other scientific goings-on in Newport, or the new OSU-Cascades campus in Bend, and all the other happenings across the whole region—but even just that list takes up a load of room on a newspaper page. Instead, here is just a fraction of the highlights from OSU’s scientific enterprise in 2016.

2016 Scientific Strides, in Tidbit
Groundbreaking occurred this fall for OSU’s new forest science complex that will feature a variety of local forest products, new technologies like cross-laminated-timber panels, and recycled old Peavy Hall parts. “The complex is crucial to the future of our working forest landscapes,” said Thomas Maness, dean of the College of Forestry. “The way we thought about forestry, natural resources, and wood science in the past is very different from how we think about them now. This complex will help prepare our students to tackle our most complex landscape challenges, improve rural economies, and establish a healthy forest landscape.”

New image analysis methods may soon be able to more closely monitor complex processes as genetically engineered plant cells develop into modified whole organisms, thanks to a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation that OSU scientists secured this year. Their goal is to better their ability to identify which genes in crop species could either encourage or inhibit genetic modification.

Oregon State researchers are busy finalizing the design and planning the construction and operation of the first of a new kind of regional class research vessel. RCRVs will support a broad range of scientific research in coastal waters that are growing increasingly sensitive to human alteration from resource extraction, water and air pollution, shipping traffic, and recreational activities. The first of the new 193-foot vessels will call the OSU dock in Newport its home. OSU issued a request for proposals to construct up to three of these advanced vessels in August.

Newport will soon become home to OSU’s Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center. The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded Oregon State University up to $40 million to create the facility to test new wave energy converter designs, according to a late December press release.

“We anticipate this will be the world’s most advanced wave energy test facility,” said director Belinda Batten, OSU College of Engineering professor.

Cynthia Sagers, vice president for research at OSU, added, “This award is a major win for Dr. Batten and her team. It comes after years of collaboration among OSU researchers, state and federal agencies, and industry partners. With it, we are one step closer to a clean, affordable, and reliable energy future.”

Small scale hydropower also got a boost this year from free open source software developed and made available by OSU engineers. The software, field-tested at a 5-megawatt facility on Falls Creek in central Oregon, might soon help pick the best places for smaller-scale hydropower development around the world, and even examine the renewable energy-generating potential of streams in the face of future climate change.

The number of juvenile sea stars reached a record high in 2016 after sea star wasting disease in 2014 caused a 63 to 84 percent decline in populations along the Oregon Coast. This increase in population is due to the better survival of the young sea stars because of an abundance of their favorite food sources: juvenile mussels and barnacles.

The presence of these young sea stars is good news for the rocky intertidal communities. Earlier research had suggested that the sea star wasting disease could have been triggered by warmer sea temperatures. However as OSU researchers dig deeper into what caused the outbreak, it appears to be a more complex problem brought about by multiple different factors.

Scientists at OSU are creating transparent sensors on contact lenses that could one day help people living with Type 1 diabetes monitor their blood-glucose levels in their tears by transmitting real-time data to smartphones or other devices, like an insulin pump. But glucose isn’t all they hope these types of sensors can measure.

OSU chemical engineering professor Greg Herman said, “We can integrate an array of sensors into the lens and also test for other things: stress hormones, uric acid, pressure sensing for glaucoma, and things like that. We can monitor many compounds in tears—and since the sensor is transparent, it doesn’t obstruct vision; more real estate is available for sensing on the contact lens.”

AAAS Fellows from OSU
Three Oregon State University faculty members have been selected to become American Association for the Advancement of Science fellows by their scientific peers this year. Honorees from Oregon State University include Michael Osborne, professor of the history of science, technology, and medicine from the College of Liberal Arts; Alan Mix, professor of geological oceanography, and Peter Clark, professor of geosciences—both from the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

The AAAS Section on History and Philosophy of Science selected Osborne for his considerable contributions to the study of the history of science and medicine with attention to French colonialism and natural history—interests he initially discovered as an undergraduate at Oregon State. The broad range of his research career includes the history of modern biology, environmental issues, and medicine as well as interests in alpine environments, evolution, public health, and regenerative medicine.

Mix and Clark were both selected under the AAAS section on Geology and Geography for their significant contributions towards our understanding of the links between Earth’s climate, ice sheets, and the last 100,000 years or so of sea level change.

Mix is a paleoceanography, paleoclimatology, micropaleontology, and geochemistry researcher. He also serves as director of OSU’s Stable Isotope Laboratory at the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

Clark, OSU’s 2016 distinguished professor of earth, ocean, and atmospheric sciences—and an avid Corvallis pick-up soccer player—has been interested in glaciers and ice sheets since his first day of geology class.

The spectacular landscapes that had surrounded him through childhood he learned were the results of past Ice Ages. “I have since been extremely fortunate to make a career out of researching the history of the Ice Ages and given the opportunity to share that understanding with students at Oregon State University,” Clark wrote to the Advocate. “At the same time, climate change and its impacts on glaciers and ice sheets and global sea level has emerged as one of society’s greatest challenges, and I am proud to be one of the many scientific voices making the case that we need to address this challenge as quickly as possible.”

The AAAS News & Notes section of the popular peer-reviewed journal Science announced the OSU honorees in late November. Osborne, Mix, and Clark’s names were listed along with all 391 members awarded the honor of AAAS fellowship this year for their distinguished efforts to further their fields of science and technology. They’ll again be officially recognized for their scientific contributions at the fellows’ forum to be held in Boston, MA this February.

By Matthew Hunt