How do you roast cottonseeds to make the besttasting spread? How many baby oysters can grow in a 1-liter jar? Can you really make rubber out of dandelion sap?
Every summer, a dozen Oregon State University undergraduates explore questions like these. Through the College of Agricultural Sciences’ Experiential Learning Internships, they’re matched with like-minded scientists at one of OSU’s eleven Agricultural Experiment Station branch centers, located in every corner of the state.
It’s a pretty sweet summer job— several cuts above clerking in a store or caddying at the local golf club. But it’s more than a job, these students say. As they work with AES researchers on reallife science projects, they gain valuable research skills and career experience.
Kimberley Preston spent last summer learning how to grow algae. A 2015 OSU honors grad in fisheries and wildlife, Kim was tapped by Chris Langdon to help feed baby oysters in his Molluscan Broodstock program at the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station in Newport.
“To be good food for the oysters, the algae have to reproduce over a certain number of generations,” Kim explains, ushering me through a lab crammed with glass tanks and bubbling beakers of vividly colored algal soup. Every three or four days, Kim divides the soup among several new tanks of sterilized seawater, so that the algae will multiply afresh in their new environment.
So, oysters eat algae—but what do algae eat? “Sodium nitrate, phosphate, trace metals, vitamins,” Kim says. “It’s a well-established recipe, and we make it here in-house.”
Kim didn’t spend all her time amid bubbling beakers—she also slogged through tide flats in Washington’s Willapa Bay, planting out some of Langdon’s young oysters on a commercial shellfish farm that supports his research. “I’ve found great satisfaction in working with oysters,” she says, “because they perform critical ecosystem services, and with algae, because it’s the basis of the aquatic food chain.” She plans to enter a master’s program within the next year or so.
Estany Campbell, a senior environmental-science major from Pendleton, worked with entomologist David Wooster on a project to understand the effects of fertilizers and pesticides on water-dwelling insects in eastern Oregon’s farm country. Estany (rhymes with “destiny”) counted mayflies, dragonflies, and notonectids—those wacky bugs that swim on their backs—in 36 artificial ponds at the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center.
“Because this is the first year we’ve had the ponds, we had no idea what would show up,” says Wooster. “Estany is helping us identify the invertebrates and amphibians that would naturally colonize ponds and wetlands in this area.”
To attract aquatic insects to the new research ponds, she fashioned floating islands from wooden dowels and nylon rope. She even made her own activity traps out of 2-liter soda bottles tied to lengths of rebar.
On a typical day, Estany would spend a couple of hours catching bugs and sampling pond water, then a few more hours in the lab identifying her catch. “The combination of lab and fieldwork was the perfect balance,” she says.
Insects and other invertebrates make up the bottom layer of the food web that supports wildlife in the water and on dry land. “The better our understanding of what the natural invertebrate community looks like,” Wooster explains, “the better baseline we have for understanding how human activities are affecting the aquatic and terrestrial environment.”
At the Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center in Klamath Falls, Rebecca Armstrong built sprinkler grids to water 33 test plots of dandelions. Yes, dandelions. Not the kind you grub out of your lawn, but the kind that grow wild on the steppes of Kazakhstan.
The carrot-sized roots of Russian dandelion exude a milky sap that can be made into high-grade natural rubber, says Rebecca’s mentor, agronomist Rich Roseberg. But there’s many a slip between a promising plant and a profitable product. “You’d think, dandelions, just throw the seed out there and poof! I wish that were the case. But it’s actually not a very competitive plant.”
Rebecca, a senior majoring in renewable materials, grew up in a ranching family in Bonanza, east of Klamath Falls. “After I built the irrigation grids, I moved them daily from plot to plot according to the study protocol,” she says. “And I put out moisture meters in the soil to record variations in irrigation.”
OSU’s dandelion-rubber research dates back to the Emergency Rubber Project during the Second World War, Roseberg says. His recent studies aim to find the optimum spacing, moisture, weed control, and fertilization to make dandelion a profitable commercial crop. Ninety percent of the U.S. supply of natural rubber comes from Asia, Roseberg says. The U.S. produces synthetic rubber from petroleum, but it’s not tough enough for high-performance applications like aircraft tires. He estimates that up to one-half million acres of dandelion could replace 5 to 10 percent of the foreign rubber supply.
“It’s not in our interest to have a vital resource come from overseas,” says Rebecca. “Our nation needs to become more self-sufficient. With this internship, I felt like I was a small but important piece in a long process to get alternative rubber sources to market. It was inspirational.”
Scientists at Oregon’s eleven Agricultural Experiment Station branch locations have conducted practical, community-engaged research for more than 125 years. “We wanted to make this research more relevant to OSU students,” says Tim DelCurto, director of the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Union. He got together with two other station directors—Christina DeWitt of the Seafood Lab in Astoria and Michael Morrissey of the Food Innovation Center in Portland—to develop an undergraduate class showcasing the science happening at the AES’s statewide research stations. And with funding from the OSU Provost’s office, they created a program for motivated undergrads to be paid for summer work on research projects directed by station scientists.
Katie Gaebel is the matchmaker, pairing student interests with researcher needs. Gaebel coordinates all kinds of internship and work-study opportunities for College of Ag Sciences students. What makes this one special, she says, is that it gives undergraduates the rare opportunity to get their hands on real-life research off campus.
“It’s Oregon’s strong experiment-station network that makes this program possible,” she says. “And to have faculty raising their hands and saying, ‘Yes, I want to work with undergraduates’—that’s really exciting.”
Danica Berry spent her summer at Portland’s Food Innovation Center learning how to measure consumers’ preferences in a way that helps businesses improve their food products. Scientists at the center—one of the nation’s first urban experiment stations—help clients like Diamond Foods and Litehouse Foods create, test, and launch new products. Danica’s mentor was Ann Colonna, head of sensory testing and consumer science.
Danica is a sophomore in food science and technology from Lake Oswego. She had worked on some sensory experiments on campus during her freshman year, “but I didn’t know what went on behind the scenes,” she says. When a California-based startup company named DANG contracted with the Food Innovation Center to test new flavors of snacking chips, Ann Colonna let her intern run the whole show.
Danica started by studying DANG’s products. She identified the qualities that consumers were likely to respond to (crunchiness, sweetness, saltiness, nutritional quality, price). Then she searched Colonna’s 20,000-name database for tasters who fit DANG’s customer profile. She narrowed the pool to 120 confirmed taste-testers, scheduled the tasting, and wrote the questionnaire they would answer as they munched.
“Our goal for student interns,” says Sarah Masoni, head of product development at the Food Innovation Center, “is to teach them to function successfully in a professional workplace. That includes mastering lab and kitchen skills expected of a food scientist, and the communication skills you need in any profession.”
Last summer Masoni worked with Experiential Learning intern Anita Conklin on a project to develop a bread spread from cottonseeds. Anita, a senior in food science from Sandy, started with a formula already developed by Masoni’s team. She modified the roasting time and temperature by small increments, aiming at a more peanut-buttery flavor and texture. After many trials, she says, she came up with something that tasted really good. She wrote up her experiments and submitted a report to the project’s funders, a North Carolina cotton-industry trade group.
Masoni believes Anita’s formulation has commercial potential. “Cottonseed nut butter could be the next big thing” she says. As Anita was roasting her seeds, Danica prepared for her taste tests. She arranged the chips on trays and added glasses of water and crackers for cleansing the palate. The tasters sniffed, munched, and pondered as they completed Danica’s questionnaire. She later analyzed the data with industry-standard software used in food sensory labs.
Tasters had only 30 minutes to taste and respond to nine different chip samples. “Talk about speedy quick!” Danica wrote in a blog about her experience. “We perfected a system of serving and refilling samples pretty quickly; time flew by and I had fun, too.”
Ann Colonna is sold on the Experiential Learning internships. “It’s really a win-win,” she says. “We get competent help for the summer, and the student gets great experience. I told Danica, ‘If I’d had your experience as an undergrad, I’d have been so far ahead when I started my career!’”
Blogs such as Danica’s are one way of sharing what students learn. David Madison’s internship experience will likely become a published scientific paper. Like Kimberley Preston, David spent his summer at the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station in Newport, surrounded by baby oysters. He worked with Langdon, who’s conducting a large study with OSU colleagues George Waldbusser and Burke Hales on how ocean acidification affects oysters and other shellfish.
David helped Langdon perfect a plumbing network for the tanks where the lab’s experimental oysters are reared. He was part of a team that designed an airtight flow-through system that keeps the water in constant motion, much like the intertidal wave action that refreshes the water in real oyster beds. Langdon and his colleagues dose the tanks with precise formulas of dissolved carbon, oxygen, and algae, and see what happens to oyster larvae reared under each set of conditions. David used the tanks to conduct an experiment of his own. “For this big project, they are going to need to sample a lot of larvae,” he says. “I was trying to figure out how many they can stock in each tank without detrimental effects.” By placing varying numbers of tiny oyster larvae in a measured amount of water, he determined that 50 larvae per milliliter of water yielded the best results.
In the process, he made another important discovery. “Previously the [tank] system had only been used to grow the larvae up to 8 days,” he says. David found that the larvae grew happily in the tanks for 24 days—long enough to undergo metamorphosis into their adult form. His finding means that Langdon and his colleagues can use the same rearing tanks to monitor the oysters’ entire larval stage—the period when oysters are most vulnerable to acidic waters.
David expects to publish his results in a scientific journal, a rare feat for an undergraduate. After he graduates this spring, he plans to return to COMES as Langdon’s master’s student, studying a class of viruses that attack a bacterium called Vibrio, which infects oysters and makes them unsafe to eat. He hopes his work will contribute to a safe, antibiotic-free biological control for a serious pest.
“I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to do aquaculture research,” David says, “but I wasn’t sure where or how. Then I got into this lab; it’s exciting work, and Chris is a great mentor. So when he offered to take me on as his grad student, I said, ‘Absolutely.’”