When he encounters people who are against his type of research, forest science professor Steven Strauss sometimes shows a photo of himself as a young man. In the picture, taken when he was about 17, Strauss’ long hair is tied into a ponytail, and he looks, he says, “like a stereotypical young environmentalist.”
It’s the kind of image he breaks out when he wants to help establish a bond, to show young activists that he can relate to them and their concerns. The picture helps Strauss explain that his research has taken him down a long, still evolving path. After all, Strauss’ professional life is bound to be contentious. He uses the tools of biotechnology to, among other things, turn poplar trees into more efficient wood and energy sources.
But he wants to show people more than his picture. Strauss wants to show them evidence that he has collected for more than 20 years — that biotechnology can work for society, and that the acronym “GMO” (genetically modified organism) doesn’t mean “villain.”
“It makes my work exciting,” he says. “You run into ethical, ecological and business issues that impinge on whether people accept or reject biotech. But the science is fascinating, diverse, and it’s changing fast.”
The science is also complex, which, Strauss says, creates an equally important mission to translate it for the public. “It’s going to be used in the environment,” Strauss says, “It’s not surprising there are people who have a hard time accepting it.”
His accomplishments at the intersection between research, outreach and mentoring have earned Strauss the title of “distinguished professor,” the highest honor a faculty member can receive at OSU.
“His scholarship is broad, spanning the molecular to the ecological, and technical to policy levels,” wrote Tom Adams, department head of Forest Science, and Steven Hobbs, Executive Associate Dean of Forestry, in nominating Strauss. “Dr. Strauss’ laboratory has trained more than 150 high school and undergraduate students, 21 postdoctoral scientists, 39 technical/professional employees and 23 graduate students. Most of his graduate students have earned leading positions in academia or industry,” they added.
In some ways Strauss sees himself as another kind of plant breeder, albeit on a microscopic level.
“What I do is a gene-centric approach to breeding,” says Strauss. “People are constantly modifying the plants we depend on for food, fiber, and energy. Knowing something about the plants’ DNA helps us answer the questions, ‘Can we do things other breeders can’t do, or can we do some of what they already do better?’”
In his research, Strauss has looked at poplars from many sides. Sometimes he tries to create trees that are more resistant to drought, or more tolerant of shade or salty soils. Sometimes he looks for ways to make trees generate better feedstocks for ethanol production. But one of Strauss’ major research goals has been creating trees that don’t flower at all — to minimize ecological concerns of genetically modified trees. In short, he’s one of the world’s foremost genetic architects of the arboreal world.
According to Strauss, it is crucial to pay attention to biotech.
“When you look at the future and identify all the things that make you insecure, like climate change and sustaining energy sources for a growing population,” he says, “we’re on a creek, about to go over a waterfall without a paddle, and I see genetic engineering as a major tool that can help.”