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Biological sciences

Summer 2009

Pasteur’s Quadrant

Reporters, college administrators, and even scientists themselves often talk about basic and applied research as if they are the two ends of a spectrum, and that most research can be described as being either “purely basic,” with no practical end in view, or “applied,” with only practical ends in view (and no interest in understanding fundamental processes of nature). Scientists whose work combines the two get placed somewhere along the line between them, but like placing a pivot under a teeter-totter, the question arises, which side is heavier? Does her work tilt more toward the applied side or the basic?

Such questions, and the whole … » More …

Spring 2009

Roger McClellan – A suitable combination

As a teen, Roger McClellan ’60 D.V.M. went to work at his high school farm. By helping manage a flock of sheep that were a control group in a Hanford nuclear facility study, he became part of a major research project on radioactivity in animals. The work put him in touch with Leo Bustad, at the time the research veterinarian at Hanford and later the dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University.

Bustad’s study focused on ungulates consuming the radioiodine that had been deposited on pasture land on the Hanford site, which was then run by General Electric. Bustad would often … » More …

Spring 2009

Great promise in a nitrogen conundrum

Mike Kahn and Svetlana Yurgel, molecular biologists in Washington State University’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, have a challenge on their hands that involves one of the most abundant, but also difficult to obtain, substances on earth.

Nearly 80 percent of the atmosphere is nitrogen, and even that is only 7 percent of the total nitrogen on earth. However, most of it is locked up in rock. Only a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the total nitrogen is accessible to plants in the soil and in a form that can be used by living things.

And living things need nitrogen in a big way. Nitrogen … » More …

Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe's work to help people with memory loss

Whether the problems stem from normal aging, diseases like Alzheimer’s, or traumatic brain injury, impaired memory can turn even routine tasks into major challenges. The main focus of Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe’s work is finding ways to help people with memory loss cope better with everyday tasks, enabling them to live independently as long as possible.

In one recent project, she coached volunteers with memory loss in the use of a notebook that resembled a detailed day planner. They recorded what happened as each day went along, including what they did, when, and with whom. That helped them with content, source, and temporal ordering memory. They … » More …

Winter 2008

Fine Specimens

Washington State University is home to three superb research collections, all begun soon after the young agricultural college opened its doors. What makes them research collections, says Ownbey Herbarium director Larry Hufford, is "sheer numbers." The Conner Zoology Museum has about 69,000 specimens, the Herbarium about 375,000, and the James Entomology Collection more than 1.25 million. These numbers make WSU's collections among the best in the nation. » More ...

Value of the collections

“[The collections] answer to a lot of people,” says Rich Zack. “They answer a lot of questions, and at times they can generate funds, but it’s not a steady stream of funds. Often you’re answering small questions from hundreds of people.” Any one of those hundreds might get along OK if the collections shut down, “but because we serve so many, it would be a major loss,” says Zack.

Anthropologist Karen Lupo, whose students make frequent use of the Conner Museum’s bone collection, says she was disturbed to learn that WSU once considered closing the Conner. With new analytical techniques making collections more valuable than … » More …

Where the Conner specimens come from

“We get a lot of things that people might not think we’d get a lot of,” says Kelly Cassidy. She opens a drawer to reveal one cedar waxwing and five Bohemian waxwings that were brought in by a Pullman resident on a single day. They’d flown into her window after being spooked by something. Students and faculty regularly bring in songbirds that have dashed their brains out on the glassed-in walkway between Abelson Hall and the Science Library. “It’s a terrible bird killer because it’s clear all the way through,” Cassidy says. Other animals make their way into the collection as road kill. Barn owls, for … » More …

Stable isotope work at WSU

Several WSU scientists are gearing up to use stable isotope analysis to ask new questions of the Conner’s specimens. Physiologists Ray Lee and Hubert Schwabl joined Dick Johnson and visiting scientist Elizabeth Yohannes of Germany’s Max Planck Institute to do stable isotope analysis on hairs from small mammals collected on the Palouse over the past hundred years. Their study lays the groundwork for explorations of habitat and dietary changes in mammals, similar to those done with marbled murrelets and other birds. Yohannes has also outlined plans to do SIA with elephant teeth that former WSU zoologist Irven O. Buss donated to the Conner Museum in … » More …