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Biological sciences

Spring 2011

New threats, new science

Sure, Darwin had to battle seasickness aboard the HMS Beagle, and he spent nearly five years getting to and from the Galapagos Islands, and it took another 23 years to incorporate his findings into his seminal work on evolutionary biology.

But at least he lived in a slow-motion world of ship travel and isolated, slowly evolving species. Today, a scientist, or an exotic parasite for that matter, can get from London to the Galapagos in 24 hours. The parasite can start changing the biology of a place almost overnight. The scientist will have trouble keeping up.

Jeb Owen has seen as much, not by … » More …

Winter 2010

A New Land

John Bishop was late getting to Mount St. Helens.

He was only 16 years old when it blew in 1980, and it would be another decade before he began crawling around the mountain as part of his doctoral studies.

“I was worried I missed all the action—‘Ten years, it’s all been studied,’” he recalls.

It turns out the dust, pumice, and other ejecta were only beginning to settle, and the mountain would continue to rumble, spit, and recover. In 1994, he found himself running from a mudflow, then watched as it moved fridge-sized boulders and shook the earth beneath his feet. Arriving at WSU Vancouver … » More …

Winter 2010

Nature twice: Poetry and natural history

I lean on a glass case that displays stuffed egrets, herons, and sparrows. Across the room, Larry Hufford—director of the Conner Museum of Natural History and professor in the School of Biological Sciences—taps data into his computer. Larry is tall with thick graying hair and sharp blue eyes. I’m a full foot shorter, and this, coupled with the fact that I’m a professor in the English Department, makes for an unusual collaboration.

I used to feel alien in Larry’s scientific domain, even though my office is just a five-minute walk across campus. But over the last six … » More …

Winter 2010

The deadly cough

Few creatures in the course of human history have ever been as influential as the one that crawls and jumps and drinks blood in the lab of Viveka Vadyvaloo.

It hit the world stage in the sixth century, starting in Lower Egypt, traveling by ship to Constantinople, then into western Europe. It took about half a century to kill 100 million people, half the earth’s population.

Seven centuries later, it fanned out from the Crimean seaport of Caffa to revisit Constantinople and Sicily, from which it swept through Italy, France, Spain, England, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. One-third of Europe, about 25 million people, was … » More …

Fall 2010

Too much of a good thing

Science has been predicting and measuring our warming planet for more than a century now. But it was only in the last two decades that most Americans came to believe the earth’s temperature was indeed rising and that the main culprit is the growing amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

Now scientists are giving a lot of thought to another culprit: nitrogen. Like carbon dioxide, it’s seemingly benign—colorless, odorless, tasteless, and a foundation of life on our planet. Left alone, it tightly binds to itself in inert, two-atom molecules, or N2. It’s ridiculously commonplace, making up four-fifths of our atmosphere. It’s also a modern … » More …

Fall 2010

Cows deposit piles of diversity

Holly Ferguson knows her cow pies about as well as anyone. In the first study of flies in managed pastures in the Pacific Northwest, the entomologist has spent an unusual amount of time traveling the state and assessing its cow pies.

No matter the obvious jokes, dung dispersal in pastures is serious business. Wherever there are cows, there will be cow dung, and lots of it. A beef cow can produce nearly a ton of manure per month. And if that ton sits there untended, there will be problems.

Oddly enough, the conditions of the cow’s other major habitat, the feedlot, reduce the problem of … » More …