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Underwater coral reef landscape background in the blue sea with fish and marine life.

Innovation grants to build model reef at OSU, catalyze biological and materials research

By Grace Peterman

New funding bolsters research on coral reefs, heat waste and more.

The inner workings of a cell, more powerful mass spectrometry and building a tropical reef at Oregon State: The 2021 College of Science Research and Innovation Seed (SciRIS) awards are empowering initiatives that will open fresh pathways in science.

The SciRIS program funds projects based on collaborative research within the College of Science community and beyond. There are two tracks through the program: SciRIS (Stages 1-3) and the SciRIS individual investigator award (SciRIS-ii). SciRIS Stages 1-3 funds teams in three stages to support training, research and capacity-building, accelerating work toward external funding opportunities. SciRIS-ii funds individual faculty to establish research relationships with external partners, enabling them to demonstrate the feasibility of their ideas and quickening the pace of scientific discovery.

The newly-established College of Science Innovation Award provides critical resources for projects that take a new direction, utilize a new technology or are in the “proof-of-concept” phase.

Three groups of scientists received SciRIS Stage 1 awards, two at $10K each and one at $20K. One group received the Innovation Award at $10K.

Professor of Microbiology Rebecca Vega Thurber and her colleagues will use their award to develop a model tropical reef facility within Oregon State’s world-renowned John Fryer Aquatic Animal Health Lab.

The model will allow College of Science researchers across biology, chemistry and ecology to perform highly controlled, repeatable experiments on reef ecosystems, which are under increasing threats from climate change, pollution, habitat destruction and disease. By bringing the reef to researchers, carbon emissions associated with travel are also reduced.

The facility will also serve as an outreach platform, bringing awareness of far-off ecosystems to the local community. By interacting with the lab, citizens will learn about how humans affect these fragile habitats and how they personally can potentially mitigate and reverse reef decline.

Chemistry Professor Wei Kong and Statistics Professor Lan Xue will use their SciRIS grant to develop more effective mass spectrometry through inclusion of electron diffraction. With this addition, future mass spectrometers will be able to reveal not only the mass composition of an unknown species, but also the three-dimensional arrangement of the constituent atoms. This capability can change the paradigm of nanomaterial synthesis, allowing intelligent design and quality control of custom-made materials applicable in medical diagnostics and therapeutics, in energy harvesting and storage, and in catalysis.

Biochemistry and Biophysics Professor Elisar Barbar and collaborators received a SciRIS award to integrate structural biology with cell and organismal biology. Capitalizing on Oregon State’s high concentration of expertise and resources for studying dynamic protein complexes across scales, the team aims to establish new technologies to investigate cancer related complexes and host-parasite interactions. Their eventual goal is to submit a proposal to the NSF Biology Integration Institute, which supports interdisciplinary projects that translate discoveries from the molecular scale to the cellular level of organisms and vice versa.

Associate Professor of Physics Matt Graham and colleagues received the College of Science Innovation Award support their work converting waste heat to electricity, contributing to a more sustainable world through the recovery of energy losses and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The team will develop a prototype of an ultralow bandgap semiconductor device that converts residual waste heat to electricity. The award will support their work optimizing the efficiency of the device’s waste heat to energy conversion and validating the current extraction model related to the device prototype.