By Vinay Ramakrishnan

The Daily Barometer

Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 00:03

prof 03/06/13Vinay Ramakrishnan | THE DAILY BAROMETER

Dr. Joseph Beckman with research assistant professors Dr. Valery Voinov and Dr. Yuri Vasil’ev in the Mass Spectrometry lab at OSU.

This spring, Oregon State University will honor two professors as distinguished. Joseph Beckman, director of the Environmental Health Science Center, and Thomas Diettreich, professor of computer science and a pioneer in the field of machine learning, will become distinguished professors, an honor they will continue to hold as long as they stay with OSU.

Distinguished professor is the highest recognition given by the university to an active OSU faculty member.

“The honor recognizes outstanding accomplishments as well as the potential to continue to excel in the future,” said Sabah Randhawa, provost and executive vice president at OSU.

Randhawa has the final decision in terms of recognizing distinguished professors.

Nominations are requested around campus and a small committee of faculty who hold the distinguished professor title evaluate nominations.

Both Beckman and Dietterich felt honored to be named distinguished professors.

“It’s a very nice honor,” Beckman said. “I have tremendous respect for those who have been selected as distinguished professors before, and know that many others deserve the recognition.”

“We are fortunate to have excellent faculty at OSU,” Randawa added. “Dr. Dietterich and Dr. Beckman have outstanding credentials in their respective fields — Dr. Dietterich in artificial intelligence and Dr. Beckman in neurodegenerativediseases.”

Dietterich and Beckman both felt they were recognized as distinguished professors in large part due to contributions to their respective fields.

“I’ve made major contributions over many years in understanding the role of oxidative stress in human diseases,” Beckman said. “Also, I’ve been director of the Environmental Health Science Center for over a decade, a very important resource at OSU that’s helped drive many new discoveries.”

Dietterich cites his role as an innovator in the field of machine learning.

“As a graduate student, I was one of the first people to do research in this field,” Dietterich said. “I was one of the people to help grow machine learning as a scientific field.”

Beckman has been interested in researching the progression of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, for the past 20 years.

“I made a key discovery about how the oxidant peroxynitrite underlies many different diseases,” Beckman said. “Of all the disease processes that peroxynitrite affects, I focused on ALS 20 years ago because of the discovery of a mutation in an antioxidant enzyme called SOD1 that reacts with peroxynitrite.”

Beckman’s research also involves looking into the cause of the death of motor neurons in ALS.

“We’ve discovered, as a number of different investigators, that astrocytes, support cells that surround motor neurons, can be activated and drive the death of motor neurons,” Beckman said.

As a pioneer in the field of machine learning, Dietterich was part of a group that founded the first journal in machine learning and was the first president of the international machine learning society.

“The idea of machine learning is to teach the computer by example to do particular things,” Dietterich said. “Cameras that put a square around a person’s face would be an example of the results of machine learning.”

Dietterich and Beckman both work in research labs here at Oregon State University. Beckman works in the OSU mass spectrometry lab, helping develop and use new instrumentation.

“We are also synthesizing and testing new types of drugs in vitro to treat ALS here at OSU,” Beckman said.

Dietterich runs a research group here at OSU, and is interested in a wide range of things.

“I joke that I have research Attention Deficit Disorder,” Dietterich said.

His research group is currently working on three major projects, all involving the application of computer modeling.

Dietterich received an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Oberlin College in Ohio, a master’s in computer science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford, prior to coming to Oregon State in 1985.

“My master’s adviser at Urbana-Champaign named the field ‘machine learning,’” Dietterich said.

Diettrich’s research group’s major projects currently involve using computer modeling to look at a variety of topics, including bird behavior and migration, invasive species and managing wildfires.

“We’re trying to build a computer scientific model to answer questions about bird behavior,” Diettrich said. “Joint with Jo Albers in the department of forest ecosystems and society, I’m working on a project using computer modeling to control invasive species.”

Diettrich’s third major research group project is about managing wildfires in Eastern Oregon.

“We’re trying to use computer models to decide when a fire’s ignited whether to fight it or to let it burn,” Diettrich said.

Along with his research duties at Oregon State, Diettrich is the deputy director of the Institute for Computational Sustainability, based out of Cornell University.

“The purpose of computation sustainability is to apply novel computer science techniques to solve sustainability problems,”Diettrich said.

Beckman came to OSU in 2001 from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he advanced from his post doctorate position to being a full professor in the department of anesthesiology.

He holds an undergraduate degree in molecular biology and a masters in population biology, both from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He holds a Ph.D. in botany from Duke University. After receiving his master’s degree, he worked for a surgical hospital in Korea for the U.S. Army for two years.

Besides acting as the chairman of the Environmental Health Science Center, Beckman is the Ava Helen Pauling Chair of the Linus Pauling Institute. He is also a professor in the department of biochemistry and biophysics in the College of Science.

“Joe is a valued colleague, a talented scientist and a wonderful mentor to our junior faculty, graduate students and undergraduates,” said Vince Remcho, interim dean of the College of Science. “I am so pleased to count him among our distinguished science faculty. This designation brings great honor and much positive attention to the college.”

Vinay Ramakrishnan, news reporter

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