Antarctic team attaches telemetry equipment to a seal while performing ultrasounds to determine blubber depth. (NMFS 15748 and ACA 2012-003)

After five hours on a 140-ton C-17 military aircraft that had taken off from Christchurch, New Zealand, Mee-ya Monnin, peering through one of the plane’s small circular windows, saw white ice covering the ocean. The members of her research team and military men on the plane with Monnin chuckled as she squealed and jumped up and down in her seat.

A few minutes later, the plane touched down on sea ice near the continent of Antarctica. Though she wore extreme cold weather gear, Monnin had left her puffy red parka unzipped and her gloves off. She felt the wind cut through her as she stepped onto the ice for the first time, and her hands were as cold as if they had just emerged from an ice bath. After a moment, Monnin realized her teeth were beginning to hurt from exposure to the cold air, but the pain couldn’t stop her from smiling in exhilaration.

“I had never seen so much white before,” Monnin says. “It was so flat, I felt as though I could see for miles without anything breaking my gaze. I felt absolute joy, excitement and the anticipation of extraordinary things to come. It was like my entire life had changed with those few steps.”

Monnin, an Oregon State University junior studying fisheries and wildlife science, arrived in Antarctica last October as part of a team of researchers including Oregon State fisheries and wildlife associate professor Markus Horning. As the team’s intern, she was assisting with the study of the heat regulation of Weddell seals. Monnin’s internship began in July 2011 at Hatfield Marine Science Center There, she spent four months helping to prepare for the team’s research in Antarctica, learning about the study and creating a blog and Facebook page to share information about the project.

While training at Hatfield allowed her to learn the skills she needed to fulfill her duties in the study, Monnin says nothing could have prepared her for the six weeks she spent chasing 1,000-pound seals on the ice.

“You’re in a totally different world and you’re completely at the disposal of your environment,” Monnin says. “Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest place on Earth. Coming back now and knowing that I did that, that I can survive in Antarctica, and feeling like I thrived there is absolutely amazing.”

Research in another world

Monnin and the research team stayed at McMurdo Station, a U.S. research station on Ross Island, Antarctica, with about 1,000 other people. They spent as many as 12 hours a day out on the ice riding snowmobiles and scouting for seals to collect data from and outfit with temperature sensors, often working past dinner. After a day on the ice, the team members would return to the base and work more in the lab to organize data and prepare for the next day. Throughout their time on the continent, Monnin was surrounded by continuous light. Antarctica’s last sunset for the year had happened in late October, just before the team arrived.

Monnin’s main role in the project was building 3-D models of seals from photos she took in the field. These models allow the team to determine the surface area of the seal, an important component in evaluating the energy needed for the seal to regulate its temperature in subzero Antarctic temperatures. The research team will return to Antarctica next fall to gather a second round of data, and will then analyze the information to determine the energetic cost for seals to maintain their temperature. Being able to define the varying costs of being on the ice and in the water, Horning says, will help researchers determine how seals forced to spend more time in the water by depleting ice in the Antarctic may be affected by climate change.

Though the long work days and her ambition to produce the most accurate results with her camera calibrations and 3-D models quickly became stressful, Monnin says the experience left her with renewed confidence in herself.

Mee-Ya on skidoo
Mee-ya zipping away on a skidoo searching for seals. (photo by John Skinner)

“It gives you a totally different perspective, not just self-confidence, but to have faith in your abilities and to know what you can really accomplish if you put your mind to it,” Monnin says. “To be completely active and engaged all the time and to take what you’ve learned and apply it in reality is really incredible.”

The ice bug

Now back at Oregon State and continuing her studies, Monnin is planning to use the data she helped collect last fall as well as the data the team gathers next season to write her University Honors College thesis. While working on this project, Monnin will continue to collaborate with Horning, whose mentorship she says helped to make her internship such an enriching experience.

Horning suggested bringing a student intern along with the team because he had the opportunity to do research in Antarctica as an undergraduate and wanted to share that exciting experience with young students. Having Monnin on the team also benefitted the professional researchers, he says, by reminding them of the wonder they felt when they first stepped onto the ice.

“It’s good to have someone on the team who is as enthusiastic as we were the first time, because it reminds you how amazing and unique the environment is,” Horning says.

In Monnin, Horning’s hope to foster a passion for Antarctic research has been realized. Bitten by what Horning calls “the ice bug,” Monnin says that though she’s not yet sure what she wants to do after she leaves school, she is certain she wants to return to Antarctica. Fortunately, she’ll be going back sooner than later — Monnin applied for and received the internship again this year, and will be back in Antarctica with the team this fall.

“It took awhile to adjust when I first got there,” Monnin says. “But being home now, all I can think about is getting back to Antarctica.”

When she first learned about the internship almost one year ago, Monnin says she hesitated, wondering if it was possible for her. After taking a leap and having the adventure of her life, Monnin is adamant that students should take advantage of internship opportunities that excite them, however unlikely or complicated they may seem.

“So many students see a great opportunity and they let it pass by,” Monnin says. “They think they don’t have enough experience, or they worry about graduating on time or paying more money, but you can’t let stuff like that hold you back. An opportunity like this is not only going to make you that much better of a future employee, it’s going to change your life.”

Read more about  Monnin’s first season in Antarctica and follow her this fall as she  returns at

Markus Horning
Markus Horning (photo by John Skinner)

A life-changing legacy

Horning was inspired to include a student intern on the Antarctic research team because of an unexpected opportunity he received as an undergraduate.

When he was studying physics at the University of California San Diego in 1978, Horning personally experienced the transformative power of working in the Antarctic. After getting a job cleaning seal tanks at the university’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, he was invited to spend a year in Antarctica studying the diving habits of Weddell seals. Horning was so affected by the experience that he changed his course of study to pursue marine biology.

“What really changed my life was going to Antarctica,” Horning says. “Recently, I decided that was such an amazing opportunity that I’d like to pass that on to other students so they could have that chance to get excited about the field.”

Picture this scene: A teacher is the last one to leave the school. It’s dark. The parking lot is empty, except for his car. The music is ominous. He gets in, turns the car on, hits ‘play’ on the cd player, and does a double take before he puts his foot on the gas.

That’s when he sees the first rat.

It squeaks as it scurries beneath his feet and under the seat. He glances into his rear view mirror. There are dozens of rats, poised on his rear dash. They rush him. He screams, but in a moment they’re on him. He panics, and accidentally locks himself in his car.

The next morning all that’s left of him is some flesh, bones and a lingering rat or two, which the hapless school principal has the misfortune to discover. The scene, which opens an episode of the NBC show Grimm called, “Dance Macabre,” is not only eerie – it evokes a visceral response. It’s the rats. People fear rats.

Lauren Henry knows this. She’s the one who trained them.  She taught the rats how to bound toward their victim, how to hang from his hands as he struggled. She taught them to linger over his devoured corpse.

The scene itself is otherworldly, but helping to create it is Henry’s job – she’s made a career out of training animals for film. For more than a decade the OSU alum and her partner, Roland Sonnenburg, have owned and operated Talented Animals, an agency that supplies animals, trainers and coordinators for film. Henry and Sonnenburg have facilities in Oregon, west of Salem, and in California, north of Los Angeles. Their staff ranges from 2-20, but mostly they employ 3-5 people.

Henry’s line of work has brought her to the sets of movies like “Into the Wild.” It’s brought her to the set of “Portlandia,” where one of her cats was a member of an indie band named “Cat Nap.” One of her favorite films was “New Moon,” where one of her wolves appeared in a surreal dream sequence in which a forest was growing through the windows of a desolate, freezing bedroom. In 2010 her work brought her to a Corvallis warehouse, where she spent two weeks working with 12 dogs and a goat to create an acrobatic, one-take video for the band Ok Go’s song, “White Knuckles.”

“That was a dream this band had,” Henry says. “I was in charge of making their dream come true.”

Henry, who graduated from OSU with a degree in Animal Science and a minor in Chemistry in 1999, and completed post-bacc courses in Animal Nutrition and Immunology until 2005, has always loved animals. When she was 5, she’d head into her grandparents’ pasture in Virginia and play with their stallions, observing how the creatures behaved and interacted with each other and the world. When she was 6, she and her grandfather nursed an injured robin back to health. They raised the bird until it was able to fly again. Apparently it was grateful. Each spring it would return to Henry’s yard and perch on her finger. The image evokes Snow White.

“That was a wonderful experience,” she says. “It was the beginning of my love for the veterinary medicine side of things and the rehab side of things as well.”

Her grandfather certainly took notice of Henry’s affinity for animals. “My grandfather had this prophetic saying, ‘You’re going to train animals for film,’” Henry says. “At the time I was 6 or 7 years old, and putting on shows with my dogs for the neighbors.”

After a childhood of immersing herself in animal training and books about animals, Oregon State seemed like a natural choice for Henry, who went to high school in The Dalles. “The animal science and pre-vet departments were among the best,” she says. “I had a fabulous experience at OSU. I was born with an innate gift to train. And I have my schooling background, and classes and seminars to give me an educational framework for what comes naturally. OSU has played a big part in that.”

Henry got her first break when she was still in school, for a TV movie called “Silver Wolf.” The film called for a dog who looked like a wolf, could pull someone on skis, and demonstrate a variety of other behaviors. One of Lauren’s dogs was a perfect match. Silver Wolf’s on-set animal trainer was impressed. “He hired me to work on another show right after the movie,” she says. “I worked with him for several shows, and realized my true calling had just arrived.”

For Henry, training an animal for film is about understanding and communication. She and Sonnenburg spend a lot of time getting to know an animal and understanding its needs. She researches the animal’s social structure and instinctual behavior. She learns what the animal likes, what it loves to do, what kinds of games it loves to play.

“The underlying principles for training are similar across different species,” she says. “What we have to do with each animal is find its motivations, its wants and desires. A wolf may have a strong desire to chase a moving object, while a crow may find that same object frightening but find a small shiny item irresistible.”

Henry often turns the behaviors directors want from animals into a game. If she wants a skunk to cross the road, and the skunk is motivated by food, she’ll train it to go to a sound to receive a treat. Once the skunk is used to following the sound for food, it’s easy to get it to cross a road when the beeper is on the other side. “With training any of our animals, the absolute key is that they are comfortable with people, and the environment and love what it is we are asking them to do. It has to be their choice.”

Henry’s favorite projects are the ones that feel like summer camp – where she gets to spend time on the set getting to know the cast and crew. “I love when we can really sink our teeth into a character and spend a lot of time prepping. We can really show what the animal can do,” she says. “Everyone’s doing their thing to the best of their ability. We’re doing our thing to the best of our ability. It all comes together to create this amazing piece. That’s my favorite.”

Henry and Sonnenburg share their home with many of the animals with whom they work. It’s easy to imagine the animals happy there – they have acres of Oregon Coast Range forest in which to play. They have dogs, goats, a ringtailed lemur, an anteater, a pied crow, a raccoon, a skunk, wolves. The animals are their family. For them, there’s no one better to work with.

“Who we have in our house is who we want to live with,” Henry says.  “When we wake up in the morning, it’s who we want to run down and play with, or maybe even who we wake up next to in a lot of the cases. That’s our primary reason for doing what we do. We want to spend every minute with our animals.”

A grueling trip to the Guyana Shield will help make OSU’s insect collection one of the best in the nation.

Arthropods were the reason for a trip to South America for OSU scientists

You know you’re in a pretty remote area when the only people who ever tried to survey it on foot died of malaria. The rivers are filled with deadly electric eels and crocodile stew is a staple dinner dish. Never-before-discovered animal species are, well, all over the place.

Such was the trip to the Guyana Shield by a group of scientists from Oregon State University, the Smithsonian Institution, Conservation International, Guyana and others. They visited one of the world’s most remote, pristine and truly remarkable terrains in the northern jungles of South America.

Traveling there by overloaded small plane, canoe and foot through steaming rain forests was anything but easy. But the end result is significant additions to both OSU’s Arthropod Collection and the Center for the Study of Biological Diversity in Georgetown, Guyana.

“This trip was a huge success,” said OSU entomologist Christopher Marshall, who oversees three million specimens in the university’s collection, which researchers hope to build into one of the best in the nation. “Once mounted and identified, a task that will take several years, many specimens will be sent back to colleagues and collections in Guyana to help build their museums. But many will be retained at OSU to strengthen our holdings as well.”

In the end, Marshall said, it’s believed the expedition will have discovered one or two new species of catfish, one or two new frogs, five or six new species of katydids, several new species of beetles, and maybe some new butterflies. Also documented were several bird species and a sloth that were not known to inhabit that region.

Since the existing OSU collection is about 70 percent species from the Pacific Northwest, the new specimens from a remote corner of the world will greatly improve its diversity.

For an entomologist, the motivation for the trip was obvious. Half of Guyana’s plant species are found nowhere else in the world, perched on massive “tepuis,” or forest-covered rock plateaus that stand thousands of feet above the surrounding flood plains, and have been called the “Lost World.”

“I’ve been to many rain forests, but this was truly different,” Marshall said. “There was just this constant, pervasive realization that you were days away from any real type of help if anything went wrong, and since we were often alone by ourselves in the jungle, you paid pretty close attention to make sure something didn’t go wrong.”
OSU Arthropod Collection

News release with more photos

OSU scientists are the nation’s most cited in agricultural sciences and rank sixth in geosciences, according to new reports.

Scientists from OSU have a great reputation
Scientists from OSU have a great reputation

OSU’s reputation as a national leader in important research areas has received a boost from recently published reports in Science Watch.

The publication reports that over the past four years researchers in the College of Agricultural Sciences, the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and the Department of Geosciences in the College of Science are among the most cited in the nation.

According to the reports, OSU was ranked No. 1 in agricultural sciences, followed by the Wisconsin, Cornell, Rutgers, California at Davis and Penn State. In geosciences, OSU was the sixth-most-cited, just behind Princeton and ahead of such institutions as MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

“This ranking demonstrates the important work our researchers are doing and their recognition at the top experts in their fields,” said Thayne Dutson, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Dutson, whose work focuses on meat science and muscle biology, and Ronald Wrolstad, distinguished professor of food science and technology emeritus, who examines antioxidant properties of fruit and fruit pigments, are among the most-cited experts in the world.

Geosciences at OSU includes work in the Department of Geosciences in the College of Science and the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences (COAS), with more than 90 faculty doing research in such fields as oceanography, atmospheric sciences, geology, and geography.

Projects include work by Chris Goldfinger (COAS) on underwater earthquakes and seafloor mapping, Robert Duncan (COAS) on clues to solar system history from moon rocks, Alan Mix (COAS) and Peter Clark (geology) on climate history information from cave stalagmites, and Sherman Bloomer (dean of College of Sciences) in a variety of areas, including igneous petrology and geochemistry.

“This is a clear recognition of the outstanding research in oceanography and atmospheric sciences being conducted in COAS, especially in the areas of marine geology, geochemistry, and geophysics,” said Mark Abbott, dean of the college.

Roger Nielsen, chair of geosciences at OSU, said, “This is a tribute to the quality of the work being done by our faculty, graduate students, staff and others at OSU. The important aspect of this rating is that it’s a quality metric. It measures impact of the specific research, not just how many papers we publish.”

Research in the College of Agricultural Sciences

Research in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences

Research in the Department of Geosciences

Science Watch Top-10 lists (PDF)

From seed to market, Organic Growers Club members learn to do it all.

The OSU Organic Growers Club offers something for everyone
The OSU Organic Growers Club offers something for everyone

An Earth-friendly approach to farming has quietly been taking place for the past five years at OSU. Members of the Organic Growers Club use alternative weed and pest controls, including beneficial insects, to produce a wide range of crops.

James Cassidy was one of the first members of the club when he joined as a soil science student in 2001. Now, a soil science instructor and research assistant, he is marketing director for the club.

“The emphasis of the club is on the food, not the politics of organic versus inorganic or any other political issues,” Cassidy says. “We choose not to use chemicals because our customers prefer that. We have nothing against people who use chemicals, but it’s not for us.”

Cassidy says the club offers something for everyone. Members include staff, faculty, and students from various majors. Many participants find something to do in their field because club activities involve agriculture, social sciences, marketing, and other areas. Engineering students helped create the drip irrigation system, for example.

“We bought the system with our earnings. That’s the way we get equipment,” Cassidy says. “I think of it in terms of how many onions it is to buy something. I know how much work goes into onions, and if they sell at three for a dollar, it’s easy to determine how many onions something costs, so we know if it’s worth it.”

At their 3.5-acre farm just east of Corvallis off Highway 34, club members produce more than 50 different crops, including tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, garlic, potatoes, corn, beets, broccoli, beans, and, of course, onions.

The club distributes its goods through a list of about 300 on-campus customers. “I send out a message every Monday during the season to tell people what’s available that week and how much it costs. They order by Thursday, then we harvest that night and deliver the items on Friday.”

Organic Growers Club website

James Cassidy’s departmental page

Kalkidan Tadesse is preparing for her future with research that could help protect alpacas and llamas from anemia.
Tadesse working on her research
Tadesse working on her research

This is a busy summer for Kalkidan Tadesse. As a participant in the McNair Scholar program, which provides rigorous academic preparation for doctoral education for low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented minority college students, she is doing lab work, participating in field students, working in the library, and participating in McNair seminars and field trips, while getting ready to write a final paper and give an oral presentation on her research at the end of the summer.

Kalkidan’s research is under the guidance of faculty mentors Susan Tornquist and Luiz Bermudez in the Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

The research involves the pathogenesis of an organism called Mycoplasma haemolama that attaches to the red blood cells of llamas and alpacas and can cause them to become anemic. “We have developed a very sensitive assay to detect the organism and are trying to find the best antibiotic therapy to actually eliminate the infection,” Tornquist says.

Pretty serious research for a college senior who has only been in the U.S. since 1996. Kalkidan was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. After graduating from Grant High School in Portland with highest honors, she received a diversity achievement scholarship to attend OSU.

With the research she’s done the past couple of summers through the McNair program, Kalkidan says she expects to be well prepared for graduate work in chemistry.

The McNair Scholars Program