As OSU scientists make new discoveries and provide improved products for the world, the Radiation Center often plays an important role.

The radiation center was ranked in the top 10 in nation
The radiation center was ranked in the top 10 in nation

The building sits unobtrusively at the west end of campus. It looks like many a university building. But this one’s different. For one thing, the OSU Radiation Center houses a nuclear reactor.

The reactor is a source of neutrons for local and international researchers. But it also has an educational role. Each year 70 to 75 classes are taught at the Radiation Center, and many of them use the reactor.

“It’s very unusual to have a nuclear reactor on campus, but it’s quite valuable” says Steve Reese, director of the Radiation Center. “Students studying nuclear engineering or radiation health physics can learn how the reactor works in the classroom, then apply the knowledge in the laboratory.”

The center also provides training to Oregon First Responders and teaches hazardous material radiological training courses.

With its TRIGA Mark II research nuclear reactor, a gamma irradiator, gamma radiation spectrometers and germanium detectors, instruments for measurement and monitoring, and other equipment, the Radiation Center has greater combined capabilities than any other university facility in the western half of the United States, Reese says.

Research recently performed at the center or through use of the reactor includes certification testing for next generation nuclear reactors, environmental analysis related to the Hanford site, arsenic contamination studies, bandage sterilization for the Army, and prostate and lung cancer cell studies.

While most of the service performed is for university researchers or other agencies, Reese says he’s trying to greatly expand the center’s research aspect by bringing research into the Radiation Center organization itself in the areas of neutron radiography, neutron activation analysis, and radiochemistry.

In addition to its educational and research functions, the center provides outreach services, offering tours to schools and other groups.

Radiation Center website

OSU Nuclear Engineering program ranked in top 10

As an OSU undergraduate, Nick Ehlers has been involved in research projects in Panama, the Bahamas, and Newport, Oregon.

Nick Ehlers highlights his research as one of his most memorable college experiences
Nick Ehlers highlights his research as one of his most memorable college experiences

Nick Ehlers had the opportunity to do research in a wide range of places as an Oregon State University undergraduate student majoring in biology.

With funding from OSU’s International Undergraduate Research Program, Nick traveled to Panama and the Bahamas to work as a research assistant alongside OSU faculty members Bruce Menge and Mark Hixon. “Both were such amazing experiences,” Nick says. “It was a classroom with no walls and everything and everybody was my professor.”

Then, as part of the marine biology option, Nick had the opportunity to live on-site at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. The 16-week marine biology course offers students field and laboratory experiences with a variety of instructors, including Sally Hacker, associate professor of zoology, pictured with him above. “This program was one of the reasons that I chose Oregon State,” Nick says.

For the coming year, Nick has accepted a job as a science instructor at the Ocean Institute at Dana Point, California. “This will combine my love of science, research, and education,” he says.

“The three highlights of my college career have been my research, my fraternity, and my involvement in the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program,” Nick says.

OSU biology program

Hatfield Marine Science Center

Marine Biology at HMSC

Mark Hixon website

Dana Point Ocean Institute

A team consisting of OSU students and others is testing a propulsion system that could cut the time needed for a human flight to Mars.

Traveling to Mars might not take as long as we think
Traveling to Mars might not take as long as we think

When Marci Whittaker-Fiamengo describes the project she and other OSU undergraduate students are working on, she calls it “an out-of-this-world experience.”

And so it is. Marci, a senior in nuclear engineering, and Dan Wittmer, an electrical engineering senior, lead a student team working on ways to use nuclear power in a propulsion system that could substantially reduce the time needed for a flight to Mars.

“We’re not using nuclear fuel in the test,” Marci says, “but we’re doing a test of what the actual physical reaction in a nuclear reactor would be.”

Their idea impressed NASA officials enough that they agreed to test it in their Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities program.

That means a trip to the Johnson Space Center in Houston this summer where the students will make presentations, work on experiments, and fly on NASA’s famed “vomit comet,” a large aircraft that simulates weightlessness in long, steep dives.

Dan and Marci have been on previous NASA flights through their participation in other student projects. “The nearest thing I can compare the ride to is when you’re in an elevator and it just drops,” Dan says. “That’s like a millisecond, though, and this goes on.”

The team has five OSU students (Brooke Butler, Adam Reiner, and Michael Rutherford, in addition to Dan and Marci), five from Western Oregon University, and a high school student from Salem. In addition, OSU student Cody Sheehy, is filming the students for a documentary on their project.

Marci and Dan plan careers in the space industry, and both would like to eventually go into space. They say OSU’s hands-on education and supportive professors have prepared them well.

Meanwhile, the team is carrying the story of the project and the space program to students in schools around the state. “This is an important program. It needs to continue. That’s the message we carry,” Dan says.

The Oregon Space Grant Consortium has provided much of the financial assistance for the student project. “They have been a major supporter of our program from its infancy to where we are today, and without them this program would have diminished long ago,” Dan says.

OSU student team news release

Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities program website

OSU College of Engineering website

Oregon Space Grant Consortium website

Melinda von Borstel is getting well-prepared in college so she’ll be ready for whatever curves life throws her way.

Melinda von Borstel is setting a foundation for a solid health care career
Melinda von Borstel is setting a foundation for a solid health care career

Melinda von Borstel is a presidential scholar and University Honors College graduate in nutrition and food management and in international studies, a community volunteer–and a future pharmacist.

Melinda has been preparing herself carefully for her career and her life. She chose nutrition and food management because it provided a good base for a health care career.

She also minored in Spanish, knowing how the country’s demographics are changing. She felt she lacked fluency in Spanish, so she spent several months in Chile, then went on an exchange to Spain. And she took several courses that focused on gerontology, in recognition of our aging population.

That doesn’t even take into consideration the three summers she worked as an undergraduate researcher in the lab of Theresa Filtz, an assistant professor of pharmacy at OSU, for which Melinda received an Undergraduate Research Innovation Scholarship Creativity (URISC) award.

And she’s experienced at working with people in the community. She has earned numerous scholarships for academic excellence and for her volunteer work, which includes teaching Sunday School, working for Habitat for Humanity, staffing soup kitchens, reading to grade school kids, cleaning Oregon beaches and highways, and helping out at food drives.

Her long-term goal is to work as a pharmacist, where she can use her language and people skills, as well as her preparation. “The profession is changing from being a pill counter to working with people in a consultative way,” von Borstel said. “And I can’t wait to be a part of that.”

Joe Hendricks, dean of the University Honors College, puts it into perspective when he says: “If she is going to be a pharmacist, then that is the pharmacy I want to go to in the future.”

College of Pharmacy website

University Honors College website

Fighting osteoporosis is a lifelong process, according to researchers at the OSU Bone Research Laboratory.

Jumping can increase bone mass as much as 5 percent
Jumping can increase bone mass as much as 5 percent

Osteoporosis is generally considered only an issue for older people, but researchers at OSU’s Bone Research Lab have found that protection from the disease can start at an early age.

In a recent study, researchers found that a regimen of jumping and other load-bearing activities for children can increase bone mass by as much as 5 percent. “A 5 percent increase may not sound like a lot, but it translates into a 30 percent decrease in the risk of a hip fracture in adulthood,” says Christine Snow, director of the laboratory.

Osteoporosis is a low bone mass disease that reduces bone strength and increases risk of fracture. It’s a significant problem in the United States, and the numbers are startling.

  • Osteoporosis is a serious health threat for 44 million Americans, 80 percent of whom are women.
  • In the United States, more than 10 million people have osteoporosis and another 34 million have low bone mass, putting them at increased risk for the disease.
  • One of every two women and one of every four men over 50 will have an osteoporosis-related fracture in their lifetime.

The Bone Research Laboratory is committed to reversing these trends through a lifespan approach that involves building bone mass during youth and building bone and preventing bone loss in adulthood.

For those most at risk, research at the laboratory has shown that a long-term exercise program with weighted vests reduces hip bone loss and the risk of falling in post-menopausal women.

The laboratory also serves the community by performing clinical bone scans to determine individual risk for fracture and to help people and their physicians determine what treatment might be indicated. All scans require physician referral.

An active education program also is part of the laboratory. Graduate students are actively engaged in teaching and research every year, and there are opportunities for undergraduates to gain practicum and internship experience.

“I came to OSU because of the strong reputation of the Bone Research Lab,” says doctoral student Hawley Chase Almstedt. “The knowledge I have obtained here will enable me to become a professional who can significantly contribute to the field of bone health and osteoporosis prevention.”

Bone Research Lab home page

Tory Hagen’s research suggests it may be possible to slow-and perhaps even reverse-the aging process.

Hagen in his lab
Hagen in his lab

Tory Hagen’s lab in OSU’s Linus Pauling Institute features rats that seem to be in the prime of life. They are active, full of energy, and have good memories.

The amazing thing is that these rats are quite old–in the time of their lifespan when most rats are sedentary, slow, and rather senile.

What makes these rats different from others is that Hagen, associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics at Oregon State, is feeding them two dietary compounds, carnitine and lipoic acid, that can mask metabolic problems caused by cellular aging.

“What we are trying to do is understand how these micronutrients work in the body,” Hagen says. “We need to understand both the proper effective dosage and whether they are completely safe.”

So far, the tests have been short-term studies, Hagen says, so it’s unknown whether the benefits can be preserved over the long term.

“Before going on to human clinical trials, we feel compelled to understand the ramifications of supplementation, including any potential safety problems with the use of these supplements,” he says. “Therefore, I cannot recommend that people use them until this information is available.”

“This research is exploring the fundamental process of aging, and we may in fact find ways to slow down that process and even reverse some of the effects of it,” says Balz Frei, professor and director of the Linus Pauling Institute. “But what we learn about aging is also directly relevant to the chronic diseases that kill most people around the world, such as heart disease and cancer.”

Tory Hagen’s Linus Pauling Institute page

Tory Hagen’s gene research center page

LPI newsletter interview

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

Graduate student Jeff Bender won a prestigious Intel Foundation Ph.D. fellowship for his involvement in OSU’s groundbreaking transparent electronics research.
Electrical Engineering has developed the world's first see-through transistor
Electrical Engineering has developed the world's first see-through transistor

When OSU scientists developed the world’s first see-through transistor earlier this year, it was another step toward the next generation of electronics components.

“This is a significant new advance in basic electronics and materials science,” says John Wager, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at OSU. “There’s no doubt it will open the door to some interesting new products and businesses, but we’re not sure what all they might be.

“It’s a little bit like lasers when they were first developed in the 1960s,” Wager says. “People at first thought they were an interesting novelty, but no one was quite sure what they could be used for. Later on, lasers became the foundation of dozens of products and multi-billion dollar industries. Right now, we’re just beginning to think about what you could do with a transistor you can see through.”

OSU’s efforts in this area have been interdisciplinary, featuring researchers in chemistry, physics, and chemical engineering, as well as Wager’s department.

The research has been reported in the journals “Science” and “Applied Physics Letters” and even earned Wager an invitation to appear on the National Public Radio show “Science Friday.”

Jeff Bender, who co-authored the article in “Science,” says OSU’s approach to engineering education allowed him to be so deeply involved in the project.

“A new grad student here can be in the clean room doing research right from the get-go.” Bender says. In many other major universities, graduate students don’t get deeply involved for their first year and may not have much control over what they can do. “OSU is very different from that,” he says. “It’s a lot more hands-on and there is a lot more collaboration with industry on research projects.”

News release, first transparent transistor

Graduate student co-authors “Science” article

Wager appears on “Science Friday”

George Poinar’s research provides information about life millions of years ago.
George Poinar holds a piece of amber
George Poinar holds a piece of amber

Research by George Poinar has shown that amber can provide clues to the plants, animals, and climate of the ancient past.

“Amber has been touted for its medicinal values, and in World War II was used as a conductor in some rockets,” says Poinar, a courtesy professor of entomology at OSU. “It has been used in fine art and sculpture. But for scientific purposes, it gives us a view of the past unlike anything else that exists.”

Amber is an unusual stone that begins as sap flowing from certain trees. Sometimes insects, plants, or small animals become trapped in the sap and preserved in near-perfect condition. Over millions of years, the resin became amber, which can be found in a few areas of the world where conditions were just right.

The preservation properties of amber are so spectacular that Poinar was able years ago to extract ancient DNA from some of his insect specimens. This 130-million-year-old DNA is damaged but in some instances provides enough sequences to identify the insect it came from.

The results of Poinar’s research are covered in the book “Lebanese Amber: The Oldest Insect Ecosystem in Fossilized Resin,” published by the Oregon State University Press.

“Lebanese Amber,” published by OSU Press

Amber research news release

OSU Alum Don Pettit has gone a long way in his career. All the way to the International Space Station and back, in fact.

Pettit in his spacesuit
Pettit in his spacesuit

Donald Pettit has had a lifetime of adventures packed into the past six months. Initially a backup member of the Expedition 6 International Space Station crew, Pettit was chosen to go last November when another astronaut was medically disqualified.

Once at the station, Pettit did two space walks that he hadn’t anticipated. Then his stay was increased from four months to six months when the U.S. Shuttle fleet was grounded following the Columbia disaster Feb. 1. Finally, the trip was capped off by returning to Earth in a Russian Soyuz capsule that dropped steeply to Earth and missed its landing site by 290 miles.

For Pettit, who has been in the astronaut program since 1996, the experience was the culmination of a lifelong goal. “I have wanted to fly in space ever since I was a kid,” he said. “I remember John Glenn flying in space and wanted to be like him.”

Pettit, a 1978 OSU chemical engineering graduate, remembered his alma mater during the trip, engaging in a high-tech conversation from space with two of his professors, Octave Levenspiel and Goran Jovanovic, and a group of engineering students.

Pettit told the group that a typical workday for the space station crew started at 7:30 a.m. and ended about 12 hours later. Except, he said, when a shuttle is docked at the station. Then, he said, the astronauts work around the clock. “It’s kind of like what you do down there during finals week,” he told the students.

Don Pettit’s space chronicles

News articles about Pettit’s space journey