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Broken Beams  September 9th, 2010

By Nick Houtman

Fred Kamke is site director for a new wood composites research center at Oregon State University.

Engineers like to break things. In my years reporting on university research, I’ve seen them bend reinforced wood beams as wide as my front door until they shatter. They’ll pummel stud walls repeatedly until the nails cry uncle. Bunker-sized concrete bridge beams will crack from one end to the other as they are stressed with the pounding that a real bridge might see over 100 years.

It’s more than just the joy of destruction. How and when things break yields information that manufacturers use to build better structures. So it’s no surprise that the companies that make the things we live in, ride over and depend on support research that tells them just how far their products will take us.

Last July, eight of these companies (Arclin; Ashland, Inc.; JELD-WEN; Hexion Specialty Chemical, Inc.; Henkel; Weyerhaeuser Co.; Georgia Pacific Chemicals; and Willamette Valley Co., mostly international wood products manufacturers) had signed on and ponied up to support a new Industry/University Cooperative Research Center, a partnership between Oregon State University and Virginia Tech. The National Science Foundation set the stage with a $2.2 million five-year grant to the Wood-Based Composites Center, which is led by Virginia Tech.

Fred Kamke, site director at OSU and professor of wood science (holder of the JELD-WEN Chair in Wood-Based Composites Science), describes the emphasis as “pre-competitive.” Companies want information that will move the whole industry forward. Stress testing is still on the agenda, but the emphasis for the past decade has been on the small details, the molecular bonding between wood, adhesives and synthetic materials such as carbon fiber and reinforced polymers. Businesses succeed by leveraging advances in basic science.

“Wood products are now a global, intensely competitive industry, and we believe that advanced research will help keep the U.S. at the forefront of that industry,” Kamke told OSU news writer Dave Stauth in July. “This will help both existing and new companies stay competitive while they create innovative new products and jobs.”

Just as important for the companies, he adds, is work force development. By providing graduate students with the resources to specialize in these areas, businesses are creating their future talent pool.

Kamke has been a leader in this field for more than a decade. Before coming to OSU, he led Virginia Tech’s Wood-Based Composites Center. Among his accomplishments at OSU: a more efficient and effective way to increase resilience and strength in weak woods, a process known as viscoelastic thermal compression, or VTC.

The vision for the new center includes collaboration with two other leaders in the field: the University of Maine’s Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center and the Forestry Sciences Centre at the University of British Columbia.

Of Salmon, Sculpin and Stone Flies — Looking into Lookout Creek  June 25th, 2010

By Lee Sherman

On June 24, Stan Gregory opened a window into Lookout Creek.

Lookout Creek, H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest

It was HJA Day, the annual field day which this year drew about 150 scientists, students, writers, foresters and community members to witness the exciting ecosystem research that makes H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest one of the crown jewels of the National Science Foundation’s network of long-term ecological research sites.

The OSU biologist had set up a pair of wedge-shaped portable aquariums beside the creek, their front and back glass panels spaced just a few inches apart. They looked almost like double-paned windows with water between the panes. Sun dapples dancing through the canopy made the glass glimmer.

Inside the narrow aquariums, species native to the McKenzie River drainage were moving lazily or watching warily. As visitors clustered in front of the trailside display, Gregory pointed out the fish, amphibians and aquatic insects he had netted from the crystalline waters just that morning: a small cutthroat trout and an even smaller rainbow, some of the “charismatic” species that humans value (as opposed to the humble sculpin, a critical but largely unheralded lynchpin in the food web). A salamander sat on the bottom of its temporary glass house, its gills pulsing rhythmically. There was a stone fly with its scorpion-like hindquarters. And a caddis fly in a gravel casing.

We were entranced. It was as if Gregory was taking us along on a virtual dive into the forest’s cold, fast waters to see the animals and insects he studies during actual dips in mask, snorkel and wetsuit.

About half of the fish species in the Willamette River are non-natives, says Stan Gregory, OSU professor of Fisheries and Wildlife. None of the non-natives have made it into Lookout Creek. "The Willamette National Forest is an anchor of the best habitat," he adds. (Photo: Lina DiGregorio)

For several decades, he has monitored trends in Oregon’s aquatic populations. Not all the news is bad, he said. Some species can evolve quickly to adapt to changing water conditions. And old-growth’s complex, multilayered structure — with its cool carpets of mosses, feathery stands of ferns, snarls of shade-loving oxalis, trembling vine-leaf maple, cathedral-like stands of Doug-fir and hemlock — holds onto the cold air that flows down the timbered slopes after the sun sets, mitigating some of the effects of planetary warming.

Still, he has seen the precipitous slump in salmon runs as spawning fish push upstream through the Columbia and Willamette rivers with their toxic loads of industrial and agricultural pollutants, wear themselves out leaping concrete dams, and swim against the warm, sediment-laden waters of degraded landscapes. “I’m old,” Gregory said at one point. “Maybe it won’t be so bad to die, seeing where things seem to be headed.” He smiled, but there wasn’t much mirth in the look. A few people laughed softly. Those of us who are older knew what he meant.

The students, though, stand at the beginning of their work on Earth. Their faces are smooth and unlined, their hearts beat with possibility. Will they see those trends turn around? Will they be part of the solution? There’s nothing to do but to go forward with hope.

Life underground persists after severe forest fires  June 17th, 2010

The "red soils" show up as light colored patches in this photo from the B&B Fire Complex. Their shape often outlines the location where downed logs or other debris burned.

Another piece of conventional wisdom about severe forest fires appears to be falling. First, Oregon State University professor Beverly Law showed this year that such fires emit far less carbon than had been assumed, closer to 10 percent of above-ground live carbon stocks instead of 30 percent. Now, two forest scientists — Jane E. Smith and Cassie L. Hebel — have shown that life persists in severely burned soils, contrary to the assumption that such soils are sterilized by intense heat.

According to the June 2010 issue of Science Findings from the Pacific Northwest Forest Service, the two OSU graduates have found that life in so-called “red soils” does take a major hit. In soil samples from the 2003 B&B Fire Complex in the central Oregon Cascades, nutrients (carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus) were depleted by more than two-thirds, and microbial abundance was about 60 percent less than in less severely burned “black soils.” Not surprisingly, plants take longer to recover in these conditions, but recovery does occur.

Hebel, who now works for Watershed Sciences in Corvallis, also showed that severe burning may affect competition between native and invasive species. Non-native plants do not grow as well in severely burned soils as they do black soils. In contrast, native plants grow as well in both types of soil and may thus have an advantage in red soils.

You can read more about Hebel’s research, which was conducted in affiliation with OSU’s Subsurface Biosphere Initiative.

Smith, who has MS (forest ecology) and Ph.D. (botany and plant pathology) degrees from OSU, is a research botanist with the PNW Research Station and continues to study soil recovery after fire and salvage logging.

Surprise!  June 15th, 2010

Scott Baker had no idea that when he agreed to participate in the making of The Cove, a documentary about a dolphin slaughter in Japan, that the movie would win an Academy Award. Neither did he expect to find as much evidence of traffic in endangered whales when he analyzed DNA from purchases made in Asian meat markets. Science has led the associate director of Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute down unexpected paths.

Surprise is a constant companion for scientists on the frontier of their fields. In A Feeling for the Organism, her stirring biography of Nobel prize-winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, Evelyn Fox Keller wrote: “The miracle of life is that, despite the best grip we can get on reality, it continuously manages to surprise us. The beauty of science is that, notwithstanding all our tacit assumptions, these surprises can get through.”

Keller reflects on the resistance and hostility that McClintock endured when she developed a theory to explain the appearance of new traits in corn plants. The conventional wisdom in the 1950s was that genes — poorly understood, much like the cosmological concept of “dark energy” today — were nevertheless stable, fixed in place, immutable. McClintock’s idea that they could move from one chromosome to another during cell division was not understood or welcomed by others in her field.

How far we have come in plant genetics and biotechnology. We have complete genome sequences for rice, corn and a wild species known as Brachypodium (a model species that OSU geneticist Todd Mockler calls the fruit fly of plant genetics). Through the work of OSU scientist Jim Carrington and others, we know that plants and viruses engage in molecular fencing matches through mechanisms that silence genes.

New knowledge is emerging from biotechnology labs at OSU and other institutions at a dizzying pace, and plant breeders, farmers and educators need new tools to make use of it. The Gramene database is a promising example. One of its architects, OSU molecular biologist Pankaj Jaiswal, describes Gramene as a bridge between those who study genes and breeders whose eyes are on the plants we’ll need to avert food shortages in a changing world.

We still have a few things to learn about plants. Why does it take weeks for some species to go from seed to flower while others can take as long as 40 years? How can we benefit from disease resistance traits that plants have evolved through eons of evolution with microbes? No doubt, researchers will find plenty of surprises along the way. What an exciting time to be a scientist.

Deja vue on climate change  May 24th, 2010

OSU climate scientist Phil Mote and colleagues are calling attention to the need for a national strategy to adapt to climate change. Part of a Congressionally mandated report called America’s Climate Choices, their recommendation is the latest call for adaptation going back more than 20 years. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, NOAA and Environment Canada co-sponsored conferences across the continent on regional trends and what adaptation would mean from the Pacific Northwest to New England and Eastern Canada.

Doubling carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to lower average winter precipitation in western Washington and northwestern Oregon, according to model results. (map courtesy of Steve Hostetler)

In 2008, Oregon’s Climate Change Integration Group (co-chaired by Mark Abbott, OSU dean of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences) issued a report pointing to the need for an adaptation strategy to address community resilience, public health and other concerns. In 2009, the New England Aquarium held a symposium on coastal adaptation strategies looking at environmental and economic issues. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains a website on climate change adaptation, calling attention to human health, ecosystems, agriculture and energy. And the Pentagon continues to regard climate change as a national security threat to which planners must respond.

These calls for action may increasingly fall on deaf ears. The Pew Research Center reported in 2009 that a declining portion of the American public accepts the seriousness of climate change. However, another view comes from Oregon Sea Grant, which has found that coastal communities in Oregon and Maine are concerned about climate-related issues such as sea level rise and flooding. The Oregon Global Warming Commission takes a solve-the-problem approach by offering tips on ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

Just like politics, climate changes and thus adaptation strategies are ultimately local. A recent report by OSU scientist Chris Daly and colleagues in the International Journal of Climatology concluded that topography makes the difference between environmental business as usual and changes that are extreme.

That does not reduce the need for a national strategy. As Mote and his colleagues note, adaptation to changes in wildfire patterns, agricultural pests, water availability, storm frequency and public health risks will be required to guide public and private investments. People who depend on natural resources for a living will have to adjust or find other ways to survive. The rest of us rely on their success. At stake is whether our children will have the basic necessities of life — enough food and water, adequate health care and an environment that supports and enriches their lives.

Baby Einsteins? There’s more to being ready for school.  May 17th, 2010

By Angela Yeager

When OSU’s Megan McClelland found out that a news story about her had made its way onto the Internet Movie Database, the go-to website for anything movie-related, she exclaimed, “Wow, should I start getting ready for the movie business now?”

Not quite Megan, but the bubbly OSU researcher who is almost as well-known for her scholarly output as she is for her popular classes in early childhood development is becoming a prominent figure in the debate on school readiness. There are two schools of thought around early childhood education: one that centers on rigorous academic studies and the other that believes the best education of very young children is centered on developing skills such as listening, socializing, playing and controlling impulses.

Megan, who belongs in the latter category, has developed a game called the Head-to-Toes task that is modeled after Simon Says, only kids are supposed to do the opposite of what they are told. She has published multiple studies showing that a child’s ability to master this task is associated with academic success later in life. Her next goal is to take the study national and do a large, controlled intervention.

Megan’s enthusiasm for her subject comes from a passionate desire to help kids succeed. The recent birth of her first child only drives her to do more. She is now on the forefront of a national movement to study self-regulation, defined as a child’s ability to pay attention, listen and regulate behavior. Her graduate students have taken up the cause as well, publishing on everything from one teacher’s success with self-regulation in Taiwan to a national study on how self-regulation made the difference on test scores for at-risk kids.

Megan does not hold back when it comes to her research and its implications for policy. She believes that teachers and parents need to “put away the flash card” and stop using products such as Baby Einstein, which have not been shown to have any positive effects on children.

“These self-regulation skills are good predictors of later success in a variety of academic subjects,” says Megan, associate professor in human development and family sciences. “When we teach and reinforce self-regulation first, academic achievement follows.”

Megan has made a DVD demonstrating the Head-to-Toes task, although when word got out to teachers, she was flooded with requests and simply couldn’t keep up with the demand of making copies with her own resources. Her dream would to see it distributed nationally – so perhaps one day she will end up in the movies, if not in a theater, in a school near you.

Some links:

A video of Megan talking about her work:

Ellen Galinsky

Oregonian article:

National Science Foundation:

Tsunami safe?  May 10th, 2010

Oregon State professor Scott Ashford visited Chile after its February 2010 earthquake.

We’re overdue. If the Cascadia subduction zone behaves as it has in the past, an 8.0 to 8.5 earthquake and a resulting tsunami have a good chance of striking the Pacific Northwest in the next 50 years. That’s the take-home message from OSU marine geologist Chris Goldfinger’s studies of offshore debris flows. He has identified up to 38 such events in the last 10,000 years. At the April 2010 meeting of the Seismological Society of America in Portland, Voice of America correspondent Tom Banse talked with Goldfinger and University of Washington emeritus geophysicist Steve Malone about predicting the next Big One. Read Banse’s account here.

As science defines what’s at stake, what can we do? Oregon Sea Grant’s Pat Corcoran offers tsunami preparedness advice here. Meanwhile, engineers at OSU’s Hinsdale Wave Lab are testing a proposed tsunami evacuation structure for the City of Cannon Beach. Hinsdale engineers previously evaluated the consequences of a tsunami striking Cannon Beach’s neighbor, the City of Seaside. See a video of those tests here and an Oregon Sea Grant video about how research is improving disaster planning for coastal communities.

The New York Times featured a thoughtful op-ed on earthquake engineering on March 27 by Peter Yanev, author of Peace of Mind in Earthquake Country. And if you really want to delve into the faults under the Pacific Northwest, read OSU emeritus geologist Robert Yeats’ book Living with Earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest. You can order it here.

Sweetspot for Carbon  May 5th, 2010

Tropical rain forests capture our imaginations with their breathtaking beauty and diversity. But acre for acre, when it comes to absorbing and storing carbon from the air, they can’t beat the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. At a time when landowners are beginning to see cash for carbon, that means opportunity.

The science of carbon sequestration – the process of absorbing carbon and keeping it out of the atmosphere for long periods of time – is young. OSU scientists Beverly Law and Mark Harmon are among the leaders in that field, but how their work translates into policy is still a matter of hot debate.

Meanwhile, if you want a stake in this arena, you have options. You can support The Climate Trust, the Portland-based nonprofit that is investing in forest-based carbon storage in Deschutes County, the state of Washington and elsewhere. Through the Pacific Forest Trust, Green Mountain Energy will sell you carbon credits for $19.95 a ton, based on a 100-year plan for the Van Eck forest in Northern California (payments for 185,000 metric tons of carbon credits have reached nearly $2 million, according to Christine Harrison, PFT communications director). And if you are a family-forest landowner, you can learn more about Woodlands Carbon of Salem, one of two pilot projects supported by the American Forest Foundation to assemble and sell carbon credits.

OSU researchers and Extension foresters are in the thick of the emerging science. They run monitoring programs and develop computer models. They assist Woodlands Carbon by calculating carbon uptake and conducting workshops on forest planning. They take a leading role in national and international public policy studies for the U.S. Forest Service, the State Department and the United Nations. They focus on economics, land use and carbon monitoring. Their work could contribute to a comprehensive carbon accounting system, which will be a crucial part of an international program known as REDD, Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation, the most successful outcome of the recent climate talks in Copenhagen.

The forest carbon story wouldn’t be complete without wood products and their role in reducing the carbon footprint of industrial economies. As OSU Professor Jim Wilson and his colleagues have demonstrated, wood takes less energy to produce than concrete, plastic or steel. They have shown that over their life cycle, products from sustainably managed forests will be part of a comprehensive solution to climate change.

The Stress Paradox  February 24th, 2010


Illustration by Santiago Uceda

Carolyn Aldwin has been privy to countless untold secrets, heartbreaking stories from war zones, hospital wards and prisoner-of-war camps. People from all walks of life have confided their everyday problems and their worst nightmares to her.

“I talked to someone who was a lawyer at the Nuremberg Trials,” she says. “I’ve talked to people who’ve committed murder. I’ve talked to people who’ve lost children to cancer. I’m very humbled by the things people tell me.”

Aldwin, a professor in OSU’s Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, has interviewed thousands of people across the United States, many of them combat veterans, for longitudinal studies of aging. Her findings have shaken up conventional notions about stress and trauma across the lifespan.

Read more

Woodlots store carbon  February 22nd, 2010


Forest landowners are starting to earn cash for carbon.

“As Arctic ice thins, sea levels rise and glaciers recede, Ken Faulk takes stock of his trees in the Oregon Coast Range. Last summer, he began measuring his stands of Douglas fir and white oak by pounding plastic pipes into the ground to mark the centers of circles nearly 30 feet across. Working steadily in the soft twilight under the forest canopy, he recorded the height and diameter of every tree in each circle. It took him five days to cover 40 acres, but Faulk didn’t mind. He regards trees with the experienced eye of a man who loves the woods. ‘I saw old friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, trees I remembered, that I had taken an interest in. It was of value to me for that alone,’ he says.

Thus starts the cover story in the winter 2010 Terra magazine about one man’s mission to recognize Oregon’s woodlot owners for managing their land for maximum carbon absorption. Faulk is working with Oregon State University Extension and forestry scientists who are leading international research programs on forest carbon. See for the full story.