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Rankings: Now you see ’em, now you don’t  August 21st, 2009

OSU has been ranked in the third tier of the U.S. News & World Report undergraduate rankings of “America’s Best Colleges” report for years, and is once again this year. But exactly where we’re ranked is a bit of a mystery because U.S. News has traditionally only supplied numerical rankings for their top tier (really, a combination of the top 50 with a second tier that oddly has never been identified as such). Given the ubiquitous nature of the rankings and the obsessive way that media and those who work in higher education follow them, it’s always been frustrating not to know where our university stands.

Until now. Kind of.

In making the new rankings publicly available on its Web site yesterday,the magazine apparently unintentionally made numerical rankings and overall scores available for schools beyond the top tier. OSU ranked no. 137 out of 262 “national universities” in the report; OSU’s overall score was 31 (no easy way to explain that — for more information, visit

Other Pac 10 campus rankings ranged from Stanford (no. 4) to Arizona State (no. 121). Oregon tied for 115, down from 108 in last year’s report.

When we revisited the U.S. News site this morning, however, OSU’s rank and overall score had vanished. This put us in an awkward position, given that several media had already published stories on the ranking that now could no longer be corroborated on the U.S. News site.

A query to the magazine yielded this response from Robert J. Morse, director of data research: “The ‘compare report’ functionality was changed  this morning so a school’s numerical rank only shows up if it’s the top half of its category, otherwise only its tier shows up.” This apparently applies to overall scores, as well.

Not the answer we were hoping for, but, thankfully, we printed out yesterday’s results. For the record, all of the top 20 institutions in the U.S. News rankings are private, as are the bulk of the top 50. If one removes all private universities from the list, which have not suffered the deterioration in public funding that state universities have over the past three decades, OSU comes in at a much more respectable — and arguably more appropriately comparable — no. 71.

Tires made out of wood  July 21st, 2009

No, we’re not talking about an episode of The Flintstones, but actual OSU Forestry research on mycrocrystalline cellulose — “a product that can be made easily from almost any type of plant fibers,” including trees, “to partially replace silica as a reinforcing filler in the manufacture of rubber tires.”

Yes, you read right: Tires made (in part, anyway) from wood.

A study from Associate Professor of Wood Science Kaichang Li suggests such tires might require less energy to produce, reduce costs, better resist heat buildup, have comparable traction on cold or wet pavement, be just as strong and provide higher fuel efficiency than traditional tires.

“We were surprised at how favorable the results were for the use of this material,” said Kaichang Li of  OSU’s College of Forestry, ranked No. 1 in North America. He conducted this research with graduate student Wen Bai. “This could lead to a new generation of automotive tire technology, one of the first fundamental changes to come around in a long time.”

Careful readers will recall that Li is the same guy who invented a type of wood adhesive modeled on the clinging power of ocean mussels that has none of the formaldehydes that make traditional adhesive so noxious. That innovation turned segments of the wood industry on their ear, as manufacturers scrambled to come up with a similarly environmentally friendly adhesive to compete with the company that smartly licensed Li’s work.

Read the whole fascinating story at Or via our friends at The Oregonian:

Single-celled organisms, solar energy and the Science Channel  July 16th, 2009

We taped this morning for “Brink,” the Science Channel’s hip/edgy/cool program on new and emerging scientific innovations. The subject: OSU chemical engineering Prof. Greg Rorrer’s research on diatoms — ancient, single-cell organisms that Rorrer is now using, incredibly, to dramatically increase the electrical output of solar cells.

Rorre’s novel use of biology rather than conventional semiconductor manufacturing processes caught the attention of the savvy producers at Brink, where host Josh Zepps (former host of Australian Idol Backstage, people!) guides “viewers through the unusual mix of science information and eureka moments” that make up the weekly program.

Look for the show on Aug. 3, and check your local cable listings for times to catch Brink both on the air date and in replays throughout the week.

Drugs in the water  July 15th, 2009

New research being released today by OSU and University of Washington faculty focuses on the first “statewide drug test,” performed by an examination of wastewater samples from 96 municipalities around Oregon. Scientists looked at prevalence of methamphetamine, MDMA or ecstasy and cocaine and found great variation from area to area.

The idea behind the work is to put more information in the hands of public health officials to provide more focus to efforts to prevent drug abuse and addiction. So far, the methodology behind the water sampling and analysis works like a charm, researchers say. Says one of the scientists, “Sewage doesn’t lie.”

Read/hear Northwest Public Radio Reporter Tom Banse’s account here.

‘Dinosaur Plague’ and OSU’s Poinar on PBS’s NOVA  July 14th, 2009

OSU Professor George Poinar, who has found the strangest things in amber over a long and fascinating career, is front and center in the new NOVA program, “Dinosaur Plague,” premiering tonight on PBS affiliates nationwide.

Check out now for a preview of the show, as well as links to books, discussion groups, Web sites and other things that provide more detail and context for the program. You can also view a cool slide show, produced by George, of the plants, insects, seeds and other ancient stuff encased in amber. A moth fly caught in a spider web, for instance, looks like it might have been captured yesterday, not bajillions of years ago.  Personal favorite: Pseudoscorpion attacking ant in a prehistoric smackdown, frozen in time.

Professor Poinar is a treasure among scientists — genuinely enthusiastic and fascinated by his subject matter and an illuminating, pleasant interview. Check it out at

Portland’s best and brightest choose OSU  June 4th, 2009

Today’s Oregonian front page is led by a feature on challenges that the greater Portland metro area’s top high school grads face in paying for college (“Top grads have the brains, but lack the bucks”). Not much new here — college costs a lot, the economy is bad, some students can’t afford to attend, etc. — but there is a remarkable set of statistics uncovered by the O in its survey of “456 valedictorians and straight-A seniors at 97 metro-area public and private high schools.” Here’s what it revealed by way of “Top College Choices” for those students:

Oregon State (50)

University of Oregon (37)

University of Washington (22)

George Fox (16)

University of Portland (14)

To put this in context, one out of every nine top students in the PDX metro area chooses OSU, and 25 percent more choose OSU than our closest competitor. Just another reason why OSU is THE Oregon State University.

Ancient termite discovery reveals secrets of their success  May 14th, 2009

Oh, the wretched termite — bane of all homeowners, destructive and hated by everyone but the accounting office for Truly Nolan. And here’s why: The nasty varmints have been perfecting their wood-devouring tactics for millions of years. OSU’s internationally known amber expert, George Poinar, found one of the critters in a 100-million-year-old chunk of hardened tree sap, and has used it to unlock some of their crafty secrets, see below.


Discovery in amber reveals ancient biology of termites

By David Stauth, 541-737-0787
Contact: George Poinar, 541-737-5366 or

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The analysis of a termite entombed for 100 million years in an ancient piece of amber has revealed the oldest example of “mutualism” ever discovered between an animal and microorganism, and also shows the unusual biology that helped make this one of the most successful, although frequently despised insect groups in the world.

The findings were made by George Poinar, an Oregon State University researcher and international expert on life forms found in amber. It was published in Parasites and Vectors, a professional journal.

This particular termite was probably flying around while mating in a wet, humid tropical forest in what is now Myanmar during the Early Cretaceous period – the age of the dinosaurs. It may have been attacked by a bird or somehow torn open, and then it dropped into the sticky, oozing tree sap that would later become amber, providing an opportunity for the biology of this ancient insect to be revealed in a way that would otherwise have been impossible.

Read the rest at

Acid-spewing undersea volcano  May 8th, 2009

Now doesn’t that sound fun? Journalist colleagues at outlets ranging from National Geographic to U.S. News & World Report to MSNBC to Nature agreed, and have been all over Oregon State University volcanologist Bill Chadwick’s research and riveting underwater imagery. OSU News & Communication Services Asst. Director Mark Floyd did expert work in helping Chadwick translate his science for media who love a good, old-fashioned acid-spewing volcano every now and then. Check out a few of the coverage results:

National Geographic


(London) Daily Mail

U.S. News & World Report