An OSU research team, led by Pharmacy professor Bill Gerwick, has found algae off the coast of Venezuela that may have potential in treating pain, epilepsy, and neurodegenerative diseases.

Researcher on undersea exploration
Researcher on undersea exploration

Bill Gerwick, a professor in OSU’s College of Pharmacy, has spent much of the last decade studying marine blue-green algae. In some locales, that same algae is known as “pond scum.” The species known as Lyngbya majuscula, found in a bay near Kalki Beach off the Venezuelan coast, however, is gaining a much more dignified reputation.

Gerwick and his research team recently extracted a compound from the algae that is one of the most powerful neurotoxins they had seen. Dubbed “kalkitoxin,” the compound has the potential to lead to new treatments for pain, epilepsy, and neurodegenerative diseases.

Gerwick said he believes the compound works by blocking sodium channels, thus preventing nerve cells from firing off their electrical signals. “Kalkitoxin is incredibly potent, which means it likely binds with greater affinity,” Gerwick said. “When that happens, there is a good chance that you can create a pharmaceutical that has greater specificity of drug action. “It is,” he said, “a valuable discovery.”

This isn’t the first time that the OSU researchers have found success in mining drugs from the sea. Several years ago, Gerwick discovered a compound called “Curacin A” in different samples of Lyngbya majusscula that had powerful anti-cancer properties. In fact, Curacin A was remarkably similar to taxol.

Since that early discovery, Gerwick has expanded his research lab and now works with a team of 10 faculty and graduate students as OSU continues to become a leader in the promising field of mining drugs from the sea.

“To think that such promising compounds come from what essentially is pond scum is amazing and ironic,” Gerwick said. “It is a great example of that old saying that one person’s garbage is another person’s treasure.”

An OSU anthropology research team has discovered that language barriers, immigration status, and lack of knowledge about the system keep many Oregonians from health care.

Sunil Khanna
Sunil Khanna

A new study by Oregon State University researchers suggests that language barriers, immigration status, and a lack of knowledge about how “the system works” prevents many uninsured Oregonians from gaining access to the Oregon Health Plan.

As a result, says OSU anthropologist Sunil Khanna, ethnic minority populations may be adversely affected.

“Many Hispanic groups in particular are perpetually uninsured,” he said. “They don’t learn about the Oregon Health Plan by reading the formal literature, or visiting the Website. They may not be able to read, or they may not have access to a computer. So they learn about the health plan informally, through friends and family, and that word-of-mouth information tends to be colored by experiences that aren’t necessarily positive.”

Khanna and a group of OSU students conducted a series of interviews from rural eastern Oregon, to Multnomah County, to coastal fishing communities. What they discovered was that many uninsured Oregonians didn’t know they qualified for the Oregon Health Plan, others couldn’t understand enrollment procedures, and still others were turned down because no physician would accept them as patients due to low reimbursement levels.

“There is an unwritten feeling among many working in the health care arena that uninsured people don’t care about their health,” Khanna said. “Instead, what we found was that this group is very, very concerned about health –not just for themselves, but for their families.”

The problems of uninsured and underinsured Oregonians are found throughout the state, Khanna said. Rural areas may have a higher number of uninsured people, in part because of the migrant worker influence, higher rates of unemployment, seasonal jobs, and fewer providers who will accept Oregon Health Plan patients. Urban areas are more likely to have safety-net clinics and there are more providers from which to choose.

An innovative teacher education program helps OSU students prepare to teach in a multicultural classroom by providing on-the-job experience.

Student teacher in multicultural classroom
Student teacher in multicultural classroom

Jean Moule, an assistant professor of education at Oregon State University, knows from first-hand experience that there can be a cultural gap when teachers step into a classroom and encounter a diverse group of students. Bridging that gap is something that teacher preparation programs struggle with around the country. Moule, an African-American educator, has come up with a solution that has turned into a rewarding partnership between OSU and Portland’s Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. She has developed an “immersion” program that takes OSU student teachers into Portland to teach in the school’s predominantly African-American classrooms.

This is the fifth year the program has been offered, and Moule said the students become aware that there may be differences in learning that are based not only on cultural background, but family situations, age, environment and other factors. The program expanded in 2002 to include Grant Elementary in Salem, a K-8 school in Salem with a bilingual immersion program.

“When these OSU students come out of this program, they’ll not only teach their subject matter better,” Moule said. “They are going to know how to treat students as individuals with unique learning experiences. And I expect the experience will explode whatever stereotypes they may have had going in.”

The students spend three weeks on-site teaching in the multicultural schools. “This is a really dynamic partnership that is a win-win-win-win situation for all involved,” Moule says. “As an African-American faculty member, I can talk about diversity in classrooms all day long, but it doesn’t compare with gaining that actual experience.

“Some of the students were a little reluctant about spending three weeks away from campus and their families, but most of them found it a tremendously rewarding experience,” she added.

OSU students in chemical engineering are testing ways to recycle biological and human waste in weightless conditions. Their research may help make long space voyages possible.

OSU Students visit NASA
OSU Students visit NASA

When astronauts venture to the forbidden planet of Mars, it may be in part through the research efforts of students from Oregon State University. The OSU students are working on ways to recycle biological and human waste so that it can be used again and again on a long space voyage.

Such recycling technologies already exist, but they are dependent upon gravity. And in space, that is a problem. So NASA gave the College of Engineering a two-year, $500,000 grant to take advantage of its expertise in “fluidized bed” technology.

“On a long space voyage, everything has to be recycled,” explained Goran Jovanovic, an associate professor of chemical engineering. “If you’re going on a years-long trip to Mars, you won’t be taking along several years’ worth of food and water.”

Jovanovic assembled a team of undergraduate and graduate students and turned them loose on the problem. “We had to find another force to substitute for a gravitational one,” said master’s student Thana Sornchamni.

They decided on an electromagnetic current, with the idea that the magnetic force would act much like gravity. As a team, they created an instrument that would replace gravity with artificially controlled electromagnetic forces that could be adjusted to a variety of levels.

NASA officials were intrigued and invited the team to visit Houston to fully test its hypothesis. Waiting for them was the “Vomit Comet,” an aircraft specially designed to dive several thousand feet in mere seconds, causing periods of weightlessness-and nausea.

“I’ve wanted to be an astronaut since I was six years old,” said freshman Marcia Whittaker, an OSU chemical engineering student from Pendleton. “I’ll do whatever it takes to get up there in space.”

Joshua Stein, a senior from Portland, said, “The experience of weightlessness was incredible. I did get sick, but I would do it again in a moment.”

The results? “Not only did the team’s instrument work, it turned out to be more versatile than alternative technologies NASA planned to use in the future,” Jovanovic said.

And then, of course, there is the impact on the students. “This is what a real high-tech education can do,” Jovanovic said. “Give students the right opportunity and it will bring out all of the curiosity, ambition, and creativity that already exists within them.”