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150 years of science for land and sun

By Katharine de Baun, Srila Nayak

Painted Hills, Oregon

Note: this article is part of a yearlong series on the distinguished tradition of scientific research pertaining to Oregon State’s 150th anniversary and its four land-grant designations. From our fall 2017 issue: 150 years of science for sea and space(Introduction), On the shoulders of giants, Oregon State Science: The many "firsts" in 150 years. From our spring 2018 issue: The significance of OSU's sea-, space-, sun- and land-grant designations, "Milestones: Oregon State Science at the helm for 150 years."

While the College of Science at Oregon State University was formally established in 1932, science programs and departments have been instrumental in shaping the evolution of research and education at the university since its 1868 land grant designation.

In fact, long before OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences came into existence, the new agricultural curriculum was first taught in the Department of Chemistry in 1870 paving the way for the scientific study of agriculture for the first time in the Pacific Northwest. Such pioneering science programs since the earliest days of the institution were responsible for OSU’s land grant designation making it one of three land-grant colleges in the country at that time (The other two were the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of California at Berkeley).

The first professors of engineering at OSU in the 1890s were also professors of mathematics. Some of the university’s earliest engineering disciplines would not have flourished if it were not for the fundamental sciences. A four-year mining engineering curriculum was established in the Department of Chemistry in 1900 that led to the consolidation of early engineering programs in metallurgy.

The chemistry department was also the home of the first geology courses. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the natural and physical sciences at OSU have shaped and guided the growth of the world-class research and education that takes place across all STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields in the university today.

OSU land grant: From plows to touch screens

Science has played a founding role in carrying out Oregon State’s Land Grant mission from its origins in the Morrill Act of 1862, whose focus was to teach agriculture, military tactics and “mechanical arts” or engineering. Chemistry was hailed, for example, as “the cornerstone of Scientific Agriculture” in the 1869-70 course catalog. And in 1899, today’s microbiology department arguably began with a single course in bacteriology, to help understand and eliminate bacterial diseases of crops. Mathematics and physics courses were a core part of the mechanical arts curriculum and the fledgling department of mechanical engineering, formed in 1889.

In the 20th century, the University’s land-grant mission expanded to adapt to the changing social and economic needs, including a new forestry program in response to Oregon’s growing timber industry and a growing emphasis on engineering after World War II. As the scope of the land-grant mission widened, science continued to be front and center. The chemistry department was home to new four-year programs in pharmacy (1898), mining (1900) and forestry (1906). By 1912, bacteriology was driving innovation across various industries and considered essential training for “any student properly equipped in Dairying, Agriculture, Agronomy, Pharmacy, Domestic Science, etc.”

In the 21st century, Oregon State under President Ray’s leadership aims to be among the top 10 land grant institutions in America, with a focus on three signature areas: the Science of Sustainable Earth Ecosystems, Human Health and Wellness, and Economic Growth and Social Progress. The College of Science is a key contributor with pioneering programs and research in biohealth, the life sciences, marine and environmental sciences and, increasingly, statistics, as students and researchers across a wide variety of fields learn to interpret and gain often revolutionary insights from big data.

An integral part of OSU’s land-grant mission is also to foster public outreach and engagement, and science has long been at the heart of its various agricultural experiment stations and Cooperative Extension Service. Through evidence-based programs designed to make Oregon farms more sustainable, to teach gardeners how to raise bees, reduce pesticides or compost; or encourage children to pursue STEM careers through its engaging, hands-on 4-H programs — science provides both a body of evidence and a mode of inquiry that supports both backyard sleuths and future astrophysicists.

Science also contributes to economic growth with a constant stream of research-inspired innovation, producing 48 new inventions and securing 18 U.S. patents since 2011 alone. Local, state and global industries have profited from sustainable materials that began as lab experiments in Gilbert Hall, from more efficient batteries and greener touch screens, to a new heat-resistant paint using YImMn blue, the new pigment discovered by chemist Mas Subramanian.

Lastly, the College’s current investment in student diversity and success continues a long and proud tradition of opening STEM fields to all, science being a necessary part of the “liberal and practical education” for the “industrial classes” since the passage of the 1862 Morrill Act. As the University’s land-grant mission continues to evolve, science will remain at the heart – and the edge – of discovery and innovation.

Sun: Harnessing natural resources for a healthy planet

For nearly 150 years, the natural sciences at OSU have been at the forefront of research and innovation bridging the biological sciences and the physical sciences (physics and chemistry) for environmental sustainability, renewable energy and a healthy planet.

Chemist David Ji has pioneered the invention of new long-lasting and high-performance energy materials in the form of batteries for the purposes of sustainable energy storage. By employing carbon-based materials and hydrocarbon solids, Ji has designed new battery devices such as the world’s first hydronium-ion battery, potassium-ion battery, dual-ion battery and sodium-ion battery which can easily and cheaply store energy from the wind and sun. Ji’s innovations in the area of energy storage have ushered in a new era of renewable and sustainable batteries.

Materials physicist Janet Tate is a key player in the field of renewable energy technologies that includes development of transparent conductors and photovoltaic materials. Tate is a principal investigator at the prestigious Center for Next Generation of Materials Design—an Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

By integrating the talent and expertise of leading scientists such as Tate, the EFRC aims to “accelerate transformative discovery” and innovate new materials on the atomic and molecular scale to enhance energy security and protect the global environment. At the Center for Next Generation of Materials Design, Tate studies metastable alloys to design inorganic semiconductors for optoelectronic applications (electronic devices that source, detect and control light).

The OSU Sun Grant program is supported by funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy aimed at the creation of biofuels and other environmentally sustainable green technologies to meet growing energy demands and promote opportunities for bio-based economic growth in rural communities.

One of the key sun grant projects on genetic modification of poplar trees to produce plant-based plastics will be extended in new, innovative directions with the added expertise of statistical methods. In collaboration with College of Forestry Professor Steven Strauss, statistician Yuan Jiang is investigating better methods of mapping the genes that control the process of regeneration and transformation needed for genetic engineering by using DNA sequence databases, imaging and computations.

This five-year, $4 million project is funded by the National Science Foundation and is an important advance in developing genetically engineered crop species in ways that help meet our present challenges without unintended environmental effects.