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NASA plant habitat
Summer 2017

Space farming

Surviving the challenges of deep space exploration could rely as much on botany as astrophysics.

NASA sees plants not only as potential food sources aboard future spacecraft but as natural oxygen producers. The space agency is preparing for its first in-depth study of how growth and development of plants is affected by gravity, or more specifically the lack of it.

“The overall significance is what it could mean for space exploration,” says Norman G. Lewis, a Regents professor at Washington State University’s Institute of Biological Chemistry and principal investigator for the NASA-funded study. “Whether it’s colonizing planets, establishing a station, … » More …

Monarch butterfly
Summer 2017

Very well off the beaten path

“There he is!” I look up as tattered orange wings flutter above the sunflowers. A lone male monarch butterfly hovers near the milkweed patch, gallantly hoping, says wildlife ecologist Rod Sayler, for the arrival of a female.

The scene took place early last August at the Washington State University Arboretum and Wildlife Center, where for the first time in 25 years, Sayler documented the iconic butterflies living and breeding on campus. Weeks earlier, to his astonishment, he’d found a handful of monarch caterpillars devouring the leaves of recently restored showy milkweed plants.

“The monarchs were a big surprise for me,” he says. “It’s the first … » More …

SafeShot device
Summer 2017

Healthy innovators

A safe and sterile needle seems to be a basic idea when preventing infections. But how that needle is sterilized, especially in places where reuse is a common practice, spurred a good idea for a pair of Washington State University student entrepreneurs.

Emily Willard and Katherine Brandenstein came up with the idea of SafeShot, a lid that sterilizes a needle each time it enters the vial of medicine, as part of an entrepreneurship class. The two students started a company, won a health business contest last spring, and headed to Tanzania early this year to research how their product could be used in a real … » More …

Summer 2017

AI

One of the most memorable moments of Matthew Taylor’s life so far would look to most people like just a jumble of numbers, brackets, and punctuation strung together with random words on a computer screen.

IF ((dist(K1,T1)<=4) AND
(Min(dist(K3,T1), dist(K3,T2))>=12.8) AND
(ang(K3,K1,T1)>=36))
THEN Pass to K3

And so on. Line after line of computer code flowing like a digital river of expanding possibilities.

Although sophisticated and wonderfully complex, it wasn’t so much the code itself that made this such a pivotal moment.

It was what came next.

Taylor, a graduate student in Texas at the time, … » More …

Faster drop for a new crop
Spring 2017

Faster drop for a new crop

Water and time are money if you’re a farmer. Trees are especially slow, and to get a new apple variety growing at a commercial scale can take years. It not only takes a couple of years after planting for fruit production to start, but it’s a long time just getting trees to plant.

The number of trees needed to plant a commercial-scale orchard is daunting. Even a small orchard of 100 acres needs nearly a quarter million trees to get going. And while it might take only a couple years to “raise a few rootstocks, thousands can take many years,” Washington State University apple breeder … » More …

Spring 2017

Learning that’s virtually fun

Graceful tropical fish circle around me as a sea turtle glides overhead. Slowly and steadily, hundreds of pink jellyfish swarm from behind and a curious striped creature moves in for a better look at what I assume is my virtual reality headset. In awe, I blindly reach out and it pulls away with alarm. The scene is so realistic I’m speechless.

Don McMahon is laughing. “You look pretty engaged right now,” says the director of the Washington State University Neurodiversity Lab located in the College of Education. “Fun is engaging and engaged students learn,” he’s been intoning, seemingly miles away in the background.

McMahon … » More …

From the top
Spring 2017

From the top

It’s sunrise somewhere on the Appalachian Trail. Ruth Boden is sitting on top of a mountain, playing her cello as she gazes out at a sea of trees. A hiker approaches. “So that’s what I’ve been hearing for the past six miles!” he calls out to her, grinning from ear to ear.

Boden is the cello professor at Washington State University and the founder of Music Outside Four Walls. She is challenging the received wisdom that classical music is played in tuxedos in concert halls with whisper-quiet audiences who’ve paid big bucks for a seat. So she backpacks, with cello, … » More …

Spring 2017

Paths that grew crystal clear

Crystals reflect the best of nature’s handiwork. With their atoms aligned in repeating 3D patterns, crystals can be as momentary as a snowflake or as common as the sodium chloride in table salt. They can sparkle on a finger, scatter rainbows across the room, or be grown on your kitchen table with a few ingredients from the hobby shop.

Some also possess unusual properties, such as quartz crystal’s ability to generate a tiny electrical current when pressure is applied. Known as the piezoelectric effect, this useful phenomenon helped inspire the rise of a global, multibillion dollar crystal growth industry.

Today, manmade crystals power an astonishing … » More …

Spring 2017

Ends of eras

Yes, Mesa Verde is the richest archaeological preserve in America. A sanctuary of cliff dwellings. Petroglyphs. Thousands of sites holding clues to an ancient civilization. But is it too much to ask for better cell phone reception?

For two days, my wife and I meandered around the park and its environs, climbing with other tourists among the 40 rooms of Balcony House, visiting dozens of kivas—rooms for religious rituals—and walking among striped pieces of broken pottery, or “sherds,” that litter the place. But it wasn’t until we retreated to the park’s Spartan lodgings, also called kivas, that we could tap the wi-fi and fill our … » More …

Spring 2017

Waste not

Someone forgot about the fruit salad. When the refrigerator door opens, the sickly sweet aroma delivers a potent reminder. All the rotting apples, pears, and bananas in the bowl will need to be thrown out, and hopefully composted. It may seem insignificant, but that fruit salad represents a piece of the 40 percent of food wasted in the United States, about 20 pounds per person each month.

In recent years, food waste in this country and many other places around the world has grown not only in volume, but also in the collective consciousness. The numbers are staggering. Americans throw away an estimated $165 billion … » More …