It was like a scene from a grade-B horror film. On a gently rocking vessel in the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez, a young oceanographer earnestly watches her computer screen while colleagues lower a cable into the water.
Instruments aboard the ship, the Pacific Storm, ping sound waves toward the cable. The oceanographer’s eyes flicker across the screen to make sure the signal is clear. Tethered to the cable is a 5-pound Humboldt squid, and the sound waves, set at 38 kilohertz, bounce off the squid. An image shows up on the screen.
The oceanographer raises her fist in triumph. It marks the first time scientists had clearly picked up a strong sonar signal for squid, which lack the bones and swim bladders that give away other marine creatures.
Suddenly a second image appears, darting up from below. The acoustic signal tracks it from the depths toward the cable — and the tethered squid. It is another squid, larger than the first, and it attacks the tethered animal. The oceanographer screams.
Distinguished Professor Steven Strauss focuses on research and outreach.
When he encounters people who are against his type of research, forest science professor Steven Strauss sometimes shows a photo of himself as a young man. In the picture, taken when he was about 17, Strauss’ long hair is tied into a ponytail, and he looks, he says, “like a stereotypical young environmentalist.”
It’s the kind of image he breaks out when he wants to help establish a bond, to show young activists that he can relate to them and their concerns. The picture helps Strauss explain that his research has taken him down a long, still evolving path. After all, Strauss’ professional life is bound to be contentious. He uses the tools of biotechnology to, among other things, turn poplar trees into more efficient wood and energy sources.
But he wants to show people more than his picture. Strauss wants to show them evidence that he has collected for more than 20 years — that biotechnology can work for society, and that the acronym “GMO” (genetically modified organism) doesn’t mean “villain.”
“It makes my work exciting,” he says. “You run into ethical, ecological and business issues that impinge on whether people accept or reject biotech. But the science is fascinating, diverse, and it’s changing fast.”
The science is also complex, which, Strauss says, creates an equally important mission to translate it for the public. “It’s going to be used in the environment,” Strauss says, “It’s not surprising there are people who have a hard time accepting it.”
His accomplishments at the intersection between research, outreach and mentoring have earned Strauss the title of “distinguished professor,” the highest honor a faculty member can receive at OSU.
“His scholarship is broad, spanning the molecular to the ecological, and technical to policy levels,” wrote Tom Adams, department head of Forest Science, and Steven Hobbs, Executive Associate Dean of Forestry, in nominating Strauss. “Dr. Strauss’ laboratory has trained more than 150 high school and undergraduate students, 21 postdoctoral scientists, 39 technical/professional employees and 23 graduate students. Most of his graduate students have earned leading positions in academia or industry,” they added.
In some ways Strauss sees himself as another kind of plant breeder, albeit on a microscopic level.
“What I do is a gene-centric approach to breeding,” says Strauss. “People are constantly modifying the plants we depend on for food, fiber, and energy. Knowing something about the plants’ DNA helps us answer the questions, ‘Can we do things other breeders can’t do, or can we do some of what they already do better?’”
In his research, Strauss has looked at poplars from many sides. Sometimes he tries to create trees that are more resistant to drought, or more tolerant of shade or salty soils. Sometimes he looks for ways to make trees generate better feedstocks for ethanol production. But one of Strauss’ major research goals has been creating trees that don’t flower at all — to minimize ecological concerns of genetically modified trees. In short, he’s one of the world’s foremost genetic architects of the arboreal world.
According to Strauss, it is crucial to pay attention to biotech.
“When you look at the future and identify all the things that make you insecure, like climate change and sustaining energy sources for a growing population,” he says, “we’re on a creek, about to go over a waterfall without a paddle, and I see genetic engineering as a major tool that can help.”
From coral reefs in the tropics to Oregon’s rocky banks, Mark Hixon investigates coastal marine fishes.
OSU zoology professor Mark Hixon’s research on fish population dynamics has taken him to most of the planet’s oceans, both temperate and tropical. He’s dived in the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Coral Sea. He’s graduated from the bone-chilling dives in cold-water kelp forests that he made as a doctoral student in the 1970s to using small research submarines in frigid northern waters.
Hixon’s research is driven by a mystery relevant to both fisheries management and marine conservation — whether and how isolated populations of adult fish are linked. “One of the most important challenges in marine science today is to understand how the decline of a species in one part of the ocean affects the same species elsewhere — how spawning in one region replenishes populations in other areas,” says Hixon.
In two ongoing studies — one in Hawaii, the other in the Bahamas — Hixon and his graduate students are investigating connections among isolated populations of coral-reef fishes. They are studying the demographics of the yellow tang on Hawaii’s Big Island and the bicolor damselfish in Exuma Sound off the Bahamas. They are sampling DNA from adult and juvenile fish at multiple reefs. Their goal is to understand the drift patterns of fertilized eggs and larvae that travel with tides and currents in a process known as “larval dispersal.” And they are testing whether a high level of larval connectivity between two populations is reflected in the population dynamics of adult fish in those populations.
Ultimately, the answers will guide conservation and management, not only of fish, but of the reefs themselves. These complex ecosystems brim with more species than anyplace on the planet, even tropical rainforests. And many are dying. Pollution, global warming and overfishing have degraded about 20 percent of Earth’s coral reefs so far. Another 50 percent are at risk. In Hawaii, the yellow tang, coveted by the aquarium trade for its brilliant color, was depleted until the state created marine reserves along the Kohala-Kona coast of the Big Island to protect them.
Preliminary data from Hixon and his colleagues suggest the reserves are working. “Comparisons inside and outside protected areas demonstrate that the reserves produce larger populations of spawning adults, and the aquarium fisheries are thriving as a result,” he says. The yellow tang genetics, still being analyzed in Hixon’s lab, will reveal which of Hawaii’s reefs need replenishment from spawn drifting in from highly productive “source” reefs and where those respective reefs are located.
Hixon’s tropical reef research, part of OSU’s top-ranked efforts in conservation biology, has relevance here in Oregon. “Off Oregon, it’s impossible to gather the enormous amount of data we can extract from warm, clear tropical waters,” Hixon says. “However, once our methods are developed and tested in the tropics, we can bring them home to Oregon.”
One of the world’s leading authorities on coral reefs, Hixon has been cited in scientific journals more often than any other coral-reef ecologist in the Western Hemisphere over the past decade, according to the Thomson Institute for Science Research. He was ranked third worldwide behind two scientists who live adjacent to coral reefs year-round.
In the end, Hixon wants our progeny to inherit a world still relatively intact. He wants tomorrow’s children to have a chance to dive into the pulsating rainbow of biodiversity that is the tropical reef. “You feel as if you’ve fallen into a universe of stars,” he says. “It really, truly is amazing.”
More on Mark Hixon’s research can be found in the Spring 2008 issue of Terra
Robbie Lamb’s international work with sustainable fisheries has earned him a Fulbright grant.
Robbie Lamb’s love of marine biology started with his mother’s pre-dawn knocks on his door when he was a child. She woke him so the two could drive from their Portland home to see the Oregon coast’s well-known tide pools. He hated getting up early, but once there, Robbie managed to shake off his drowsiness. The pools inspired him. “I think that’s what really planted the seed for marine biology,” says the senior in the University Honors College.
Robbie’s mom didn’t stop there. She urged her reluctant son to spend his junior year of high school as an exchange student in Ecuador. He loved it. Ecuador had so much a teenager like him wanted — diverse ecosystems, more endemic species than almost any country in the world and a rich, varied culture. “It was one of the most formative experiences I had,” he says.
At OSU, Lamb has strengthened the marriage of those two passions – science and culture. He’s a biology major pursuing an International Degree and marine biology option. He’s spent countless hours in the lab and the field, and he’s written his own grant proposals to get funding for research in the United States, Ecuador and the Bahamas.
But perhaps Lamb’s crowning achievement came in the mail on April 2 — a letter approving a Fulbright grant to continue his studies in Ecuador. In September, Lamb will use the grant to help build a marine reserve in the country’s Esmeraldas region — with fishermen’s input. “I’m very ready to go work with them,” Lamb says. “A big part of developing sustainable fisheries there will be establishing my own relationships with fishermen.”
It won’t be the first time Lamb has melded scientific and cultural work. As a congressional Gilman Scholar, he studied in Ecuador his sophomore year and interned with the Ecuadorian marine conservation group Equilibrio Azul, surveying sea turtle nesting sites and the shark catches fishermen hauled in daily. Counting sharks was a particularly sensitive job in Ecuador at the time. Shark fishing was illegal, and the fishermen were initially suspicious of him.
Gaining their trust was difficult, and where Lamb used to see only a conservationist’s argument, he began to understand the fishermen’s side of the story. “I saw them for the people that they really are. They’re just trying to feed their families,” Lamb says. The experience crystallized his career path. “That experience was very pivotal in directing my interest toward sustainable fisheries,” he says.
The grants took him to the Bahamas, where he worked as a research assistant for zoology professor Mark Hixon and even performed his own study on the effects of Bahamian marine reserves on fish communities. “What’s great about Robbie is that he is so enthusiastic, so willing to work and so dedicated to learning about ocean conservation and management,” says Hixon.
Now, with funding from Oregon Sea Grant, Lamb is working with zoology professor Bruce Menge, studying the same tide pools he visited as a child. He’s looking forward to returning to Ecuador and eventually wants to earn a Ph.D. “I’m definitely interested in teaching. It’s probably the best way to give back to the next generation,” Lamb says.
A team of OSU undergrads designs a wireless sensor system to help scientists study mountainous forests from the comfort of their PDA.
The science of mountain airsheds requires a strong back as well as a sharp mind – especially when you’re lugging a 65-pound golf-cart battery in your pack.
An interdisciplinary team of OSU students is working to make the science easier on the back, and also the environment. The three seniors – Drew Smith, Erin Wyckoff and Brian Wilson – recently spent 10 weeks scaling the steep slopes of H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, pooling their individual expertise in electrical engineering, soil science and atmospheric science to test and refine a networked wireless system for monitoring what OSU’s Terra magazine calls the “exhaled byproducts of the forest” (see Grasping for Air). They are helping unplug the high-tech sensors that researchers use to measure the ebb and flow of carbon-laden air, connecting them instead through a new generation of ultra-low-power sensing devices that save energy and vastly extend the range of existing equipment in mountainous terrain.
Thanks to their efforts, funded by the National Science Foundation, the miles of electric wire that currently snake through the experimental watershed in glistening black tangles will be relegated to the dustbin of technology.
Wires “degrade, animals chew through them, we trip over them,” says Adam Kennedy, the forest science faculty research assistant who coordinated the team. “This could totally reshape the design of future research sites.”
The project is a team effort. One typical workday in early August, Smith could be seen tapping away at his laptop as he crouched among ferns, reprogramming a custom-fabricated circuit board – the “hub” of the integrated system. The electrical engineering major pored over some 800 lines of computer code while Wilson and Wyckoff trekked the trails, positioning and repositioning the sensors in search of sweet spots that picked up signals.
Wilson was working to upgrade the Andrews’ air-sensing system, to gather vertical temperature and pressure profiles continuously and in real time. Wyckoff, meanwhile, programmed the “brains” of the Andrews’ prized auto-sampler – a state-of-the-art machine that measures carbon flux in soil – so it will work without wires. Instead of tramping across sensitive undergrowth to download data from probes that record moisture, decomposition, soil chemistry and other information, scientists will be able to tap readings remotely through their BlackBerry or Palm Pilot.
Once researchers develop robust sensor networks that operate without wires and batteries, the mysteries of mountain forests will be easier to unravel – for both the forests and the scientists.
A grueling trip to the Guyana Shield will help make OSU’s insect collection one of the best in the nation.
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
Learning the secrets of seed germination is helping Jing Sun grow her future career as a physician.
Jing Sun, an OSU junior in microbiology, has wanted to become a doctor ever since a childhood bout with hepatitis A put her in the hospital. “That made a big impression on me, mostly on how much I didn’t want to be in the hospital, but also on how grateful I was to the doctors who helped me get better,” she says.
Jing decided to use that experience as motivation to study medicine and become a pediatrician. In her first year at OSU, she wanted to learn to diagnose and solve problems, and she jumped at a chance to learn those skills in a research laboratory.
“It was the first lab I found that was looking for a freshman to do real research. Dr. Nonogaki was specifically looking for someone to take on their own projects, which was pretty unique and very exciting,” she says.
As she learned laboratory techniques, Jing found other undergrads were doing research in her area, the Integrative Seed Biology Program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Established by associate professor Hiro Nonogaki in the Department of Horticulture, the program offers undergraduates a chance to gain research skills while they discover how seed genes function.
Jing begins by identifying seeds that show a mutation in a gene known as a transcription factor. These genes operate somewhat like light switches, turning other genes on and off. After finding seeds with transcription factor mutations, Jing allows the seeds to sprout, observes the growing plants and documents the results. She then compares the plants to those grown from seeds with normal germination patterns. Her goal is to identify the molecular mechanisms at work and the consequences of the mutation.
Jing, who is in the University Honors College, has accomplished a lot. In 2005, she received a research grant through the Ernest and Pauline Jaworski Scholarship for Underserved Undergraduates in Plant Science. She also received an award for her presentation in OSU’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute summer research program.
In 2006, Jing was selected to study at the University of Freiburg in Germany through RISE (Research Internships for Science and Engineering), a German Academic Exchange Service program created to bring Canadian and American undergraduates to Germany to study with Ph.D. students.
Each year about 2,000 OSU undergraduates are involved in research projects around campus. “I think it is good for undergraduate students to do this research,” Nonogaki says, “and to present their findings at conferences. It is important for them to be exposed to real scientific research and to experts in the field.”
OSU scientists are the nation’s most cited in agricultural sciences and rank sixth in geosciences, according to new reports.
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.”
J.C. Sanders worked with leading scientists to determine how to protect the planet from a possible future asteroid collision.
An asteroid more than a half-mile in diameter is on a collision course with the Earth. How do we avoid disaster?
J.C. Sanders, a June 2006 OSU University Honors College physics graduate from Roseburg, Ore., spent last summer on an internship with top scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California looking for a solution to that not-so-impossible scenario.
The answer may well be to use a nuclear device to deflect the object, slow it down or speed it up so it misses the Earth. Using computer models, J.C. worked with the scientists on such issues as when and where to detonate the bombs for maximum effect against different types of space objects.
J.C.’s work was so well received that he was invited to the Livermore lab for another internship this summer to work on alternative propulsion systems for interplanetary travel.
And, proving that an OSU education really is hands-on, J.C. also did an internship at Los Alamos National Laboratory working on a fusion research simulation project two years ago.
J.C. says being in the Honors College was a real plus in his OSU education. “You interact with professors in a different way than in a normal class. There’s more discussion and study of ideas in honors classes,” he says.
Next on J.C.’s agenda is graduate work in physics at the University of Texas in Austin.
Jane Lubchenco says there is no longer any doubt that global warming threatens the planet, and it’s time to do something about it.
A vast majority of scientists agree that global warming caused by human-generated greenhouse gases is a serious threat to civilization and the Earth’s natural ecosystems.
A recent scientific study reports that many of the ecosystem services that support life on the planet are being degraded in a manner that could lead to significant harmful consequences over the next 50 years.
“What has become clear is that if society wants to avoid future disasters, it should do two things: prevent even greater disruption to the climate system and prepare for the climate changes already set in motion,” says Jane Lubchenco, Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology and Distinguished Professor of Zoology at OSU, and an expert on issues related to global warming.
“The evidence is overwhelming that even simple changes can be a big help and have a huge cumulative impact,” Lubchenco says. “If every American switched just three light bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs, it would be the equivalent of taking 3.5 million cars off the road. If everyone switched to a car with five miles-per-gallon better mileage, that would be equal to taking another 150 million automobiles off the roads. Individual actions add up to big changes.”
Lubchenco says the oceans also are being critically affected by the changes. Events of the past year, including disrupted fisheries, torrential rains and catastrophic hurricanes, are consistent with what scientists expect as a result of global warming, Lubchenco says.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science recently honored Lubchenco with its Public Understanding of Science Award for her role in encouraging scientists to promote “an open dialogue on issues affecting all our lives.”
Lubchenco has been instrumental in the foundation of three major initiatives to increase science communication. They are:
The Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, begun at OSU in 1998 to train academic environmental scientists to become more effective communicators and leaders
COMPASS, the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea, a collaborative effort to communicate marine conservation science to resource users and managers, policy makers and the media
PISCO, the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, a four-university research, training, and outreach collaboration focused on the near-shore marine ecosystems of the Oregon, Washington and California coasts
“Earlier in my career I was like most researchers who just teach their students and publish their studies but don’t get involved much in the public arena,” Lubchenco said. “But I’ve come to realize that as scientists we have both an opportunity and an obligation to help more people understand and use science, which plays such a critical role in our lives.”