Coming out of a year in which new technology was used to create a first-ever vaccine, it’s to be expected that scientific progress abounds. In the backyard of every Corvallisite sits a university where these breakthroughs can be developed and seen in use every day. Here is a list of the top discoveries to come out of Corvallis in 2020.
No. 1: Electronic Noses
Assistant professor of chemical engineering Cory Simon led research into the development of an electronic nose that allows for the monitoring of air quality. The goal is to detect safety threats and diagnose diseases which can be measured by the gases in a patient’s breath. Collaborating with engineering professor Chih-Hung Chang, the research focused on materials known as metal-organic frameworks, which have pores that can selectively absorb gases – much like a sponge.
“In our research, we created a mathematical framework that allows us, based on the adsorption properties of MOFs, to decide which combination of MOFs is optimal for a gas sensor array,” Simon said.
This array, much like a dog’s nose, should be capable of smelling far more than what is possible with a human nose – such as biomarkers for disease. However, this electronic nose would be more practical to bring into hospitals than a dog. With the mathematical modeling done, the researchers are looking for funding to bring this tool to realization.
No. 2: Microbiome & Behavior
Tom Sharpton, a microbiologist and statistician at OSU, researched the connection between kindergarten-aged children’s microbiome or “gut bacteria” and their behavior.
According to OSU Newsroom, “The analysis showed that children with behavioral problems and higher socioeconomic stress had different microbiome profiles than those who didn’t, and also that the quality of the parent-child relationship, as well as parental stress, played a role in how pronounced those differences were.”
Along with Keaton Stagaman of the OSU College of Science, and Jessica Flannery and Philip Fisher of the University of Oregon, Sharpton is believed to be the first to note a connection between the bacteria in the gut of children ages 5 to 7 and how they behave.
“Childhood is a formative period of behavioral and biological development that can be modified, for better or worse, by caregivers and the environments they help determine,” Sharpton said.
The team cautions that they have not found a definitive link between microbiome and mental health, but rather an association between the microbiome and behavior – meaning this could be a tool applied for diagnostic purposes.
No. 3: TRACE-COVID-19
Its official name is Team-based Rapid Assessment of Community-Level Coronavirus Epidemics, but Corvallisites have come to know it as TRACE-COVID-19. This unique door-to-door effort was among the first in the nation to provide an overview of an entire community’s COVID-19 wellness through random testing and testing of waste water for shed virus.
Used in Newport, Hermiston, Bend, Eugene, and of course, Corvallis, this system has allowed state health officials – led by an OSU based group of scientists and volunteers – to trace the coronavirus to specific neighborhoods.
“We see great value in this project being used as a template for other universities wishing to provide timely and useful information to public health officials in their communities and states,” associate professor in OSU’s College of Public Health Jeff Bethel told The Advocate in April. “Universities with public health, community engagement and lab capacity are particularly well positioned to continue this important work.”
No. 4: Korean Vietnam Vets and PTSD
An OSU study of North Korean soldiers’ after effects from the Vietnam War has created a path that can help identify and treat post-traumatic stress disorder in kids from bad neighborhoods today.
The research, published in Psychology Trauma, took into account that 40% of the Korean soldiers who were Vietnam War veterans had some level of PTSD – a rate that is higher than among American soldiers from the same war. The research focused on Korean veterans because little study has been done on them despite the fact that they were the second-largest army fighting North Vietnam.
Carolyn Aldwin of OSU and Korea Military Academy researchers Hyunyup Lee and Sungrok Kang sent surveys to veterans in 2017 which included questions specifically about wartime stressors such as combat exposure, harsh environmental conditions, and insect infestations, as opposed to more “protective” factors like optimism, unit cohesion, and homecomings.
The results of this study will allow better insight into the emotional wellbeing of people living in crime-ridden neighborhoods or bombed out cities. Future studies will compare Vietnam veterans with veterans from the Persian Gulf and post-9/11 wars.
No. 5: Phytoplankton and Carbon Sequestration
The first ever winter sampling of the North Atlantic phytoplankton determined that the carbon sequestration models most commonly used are likely too optimistic. OSU research published in International Society for Microbial Ecology Journal stated that the North Atlantic spring phytoplankton bloom is probably the largest biological carbon sequestration mechanism on the planet each year, and the size of cells determines how fast that carbon sinks.
These microscopic plants – the base of the food chain for oceans – have big effects on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Most phytoplankton float to the surface to absorb sunlight while removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via photosynthesis – eventually sinking to the bottom of the ocean where they die.
“We’re not certain whether our new observations of small phytoplankton in the western North Atlantic are due to physical differences between the western and eastern North Atlantic, ocean warming and higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations, or constraints of earlier research methods,” OSU College of Science microbiology researcher Steve Giovannoni told OSU Newsroom. “Our results could have major implications for understanding how the blooms affect regional carbon biogeochemistry – the multispecies blooms we describe can have lower carbon export efficiencies than the models typically allow for.”
Along with OSU College of Agricultural Sciences professor Michael Behrenfeld and OSU postdoctoral researcher Luis Bolaños, the research used various means of measurements including satellites to clarify phytoplankton cycles as well as their connections to atmospheric aerosols – minute particles that bounce sunlight away from Earth.
According to OSU Newsroom, “Behrenfeld found that the increase in numbers of phytoplankton, shown by chlorophyll and carbon concentrations, begins in midwinter when growth conditions are at their worst rather than being started by the onset of spring weather.”
No. 6: Magnetic Forces and Salmon
One mystery of the sea is a step closer to being solved: How do salmon find their way back home when it’s time to spawn?
Professor of fisheries and wildlife at Oregon State and director of the Oregon Hatchery Research Center, David Noakes, subjected young salmon to a magnetic pulse known for reversing the polarity of magnetic particles. When compared to a control group of fish not subjected to the pulse, the test subjects seemed to prefer a specific heading rather than the control group which were randomly oriented.
According to OSU Newsroom, the “difference in behavior suggests that chains of magnetite, which would have been altered by the pulse, may play a role in the navigation system of salmon.”
No. 7: Finding Gold in Amber
A study at OSU identified four new species of ensign wasps – sometimes called the “harbingers of roaches” since their queen lays her eggs in roach eggs which her babies then eat. Named ensign for a flag-like marking on their abdomen, these newest varieties were found in amber after being frozen in time for approximately 20 – 30 million years.
Professor emeritus in the Department of Integrative Biology, George Poinar Jr., is also known as the man behind Jurassic Park for his expertise in finding invertebrate pathology in amber. Poinar was able to search through the amber and describe these new species of ensign wasps – named Evaniella setifera, Evaniella dominicana and Semaeomyia hispaniola. He also found a fourth, Hyptia mexicana, from Mexican amber.
No. 8: OSU vs. Bat Fungus
Researchers from Oregon State University and University of California Santa Cruz teamed up to win a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Prize Challenge to fight against white-nose syndrome, a lethal fungus that has caused the death of millions of bats in North America. The team consisting of Oregon State researchers Emily Dziedzic, Jenny Urbina Gonzalez, Jared LeBoldus, Michael Gordon, and Taal Levi, along with A. Marm Kilpatrick from UC Santa Cruz won $20,000 for their proposal of using an aerosol spray that will genetically silence the fungus which leads to the disease.
There is no cure for white-nose syndrome, so scientists are working to study it and learn how to control it. The U.S. National Response to white-nose Syndrome is a multi-agency effort led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which is overseeing much of the research being done worldwide.
No. 9: Starship Technologies Delivery Robots
A big change around the 500-acre OSU campus in 2020 was robots roaming about bringing folks food – making OSU the first college in the state to offer autonomous robots in the ultimate contact-free delivery system. OSU’s Housing & Dining Services and Memorial Union Retail Services planned the use of 20 robots to bring food orders to students, staff and faculty prior to the pandemic. The advent of the coronavirus and the closing of so many things worldwide made these robots even more needed and appreciated.
“This was a long time coming,” Kerry Paterson director of residential dining and University Catering with UHDS said. “We’d been considering contactless delivery for a while. This service is yet another way we can facilitate COVID protocols regulating restaurants.”
No. 10: NuScale
Founded by Oregon State professor Jose Reyes, NuScale Power had several milestones this year. In August, their small modular reactor design was approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, completing the sixth and final phase of the NRC’s review of NuScale’s design certification application. In November, NuScale opened an E2 Center at OSU to train students on how to run these smaller sized nuclear reactors, following a large sale of reactors to Idaho.
“From the start, OSU has been the strongest partner and supporter of NuScale,” said Scott Ashford, Kearney Dean of the Oregon State College of Engineering. “Our School of Nuclear Science and Engineering is committed to the NuScale innovation and development, leading small modular reactor research and education around the world.”
The E2 Center are supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, and are meant to ensure that there will be people able to manage a small farm of NuScale reactors when they are scheduled for commercialization in 2027.
Bonus No. 11: NOAA Offers OSU New Partners in Science
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chose Oregon State University, the University of Washington, and University of Alaska Fairbanks to receive up to $300 million in funding over five years to study climate, ocean and coastal challenges – forming the Cooperative Institute for Climate, Ocean and Ecosystem Studies, or CICOES. This will allow NOAA to take advantage of the academic and research capabilities of these three schools to support their mission.
CICOES will focus on nine research themes: climate and ocean variability, change and impacts; earth systems and processes; environmental chemistry and ocean carbon; marine ecosystem observations, analysis and forecasts; ocean and coastal observations; environmental data science; aquaculture science; human dimensions in marine systems; and polar studies.
Associate Professor of OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Justin Wettstein told OSU Newsroom, “This new institute brings together researchers with expertise in atmosphere-ocean connections that reach from the equator to the poles.”
The institute will be led by UW, but housed jointly amongst the three universities.
By Sally K Lehman