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Murdock Foundation funds summer research

June 10, 2002

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    Thomas Olsen, Greg Hermann, and Kellar Autumn

Kellar Autumn, Thomas Olsen, and Greg Hermann recently captured the attention of the M.J. Murdock Foundation and received grants to fund projects during the summers of 2002 and 2003.


“What I like about the Murdock program is that it raises the bar,” says Kellar Autumn, assistant professor of biology. “So much of what we’re teaching doesn’t happen in the classroom; it’s happening in the lab, where students are learning to be scientists by doing science.”


Murdock Partners in Science Program: Gecko adhesives and binary stars

Autumn and Olsen, associate professor of physics, each received a $14,000 Murdock Partners in Science grant to work with area high school teachers.


Autumn has teamed with Corbett High School teacher Phil Pearson and a science student from that school. “The partnership allows Phil to conduct scientific inquiry that is part of a larger project and to pass the excitement of cutting-edge research on to his students,” says Autumn, whose lab is funded by a large grant from the federal Defense Advanced Research Project Agency.


With the help of a high-speed video camera that captures 500 frames per second and attaches to a high-magnification microscope, the team is investigating the principles and applications of gecko adhesives, which function unlike anything known to science or engineering—they stick by geometry, not chemistry.


“Traditionally, high school students look to big research institutions for their undergraduate science education. We believe we can provide a better science experience at Lewis & Clark than they can get at Stanford or Berkeley because our students don’t compete with graduate students for research opportunities,” says Autumn. “It would be great to have a student come to my lab as a high school junior and work with me for six years.”


Olsen has welcomed North Eugene High School teacher Suzanne Moe into his lab to study light from eclipsing star pairs.


“Unlike our sun, most stars operate as part of a group, whether that’s two, a handful, or millions,” Olsen says.


He and Moe are studying orbiting star twins known as 44i Bootis in the constellation Boötes (also known as the Ploughman), visible in the Northern Hemisphere from spring through summer. This binary pair consists of two G2 stars, similar in color, mass, physical size, temperature, and luminosity to Earth’s sun.


Because these binary stars are moving so fast—eclipsing one another almost eight times a day—they provide scientists with an excellent tracking model. Olsen and Moe are plotting a light curve to analyze whether the pair is speeding up or slowing down.


“In a small way, this study is providing clues to stellar evolution,” says Olsen, who took over the project four years ago. The research originated in the 1950s with James Karle, professor emeritus of physics.


Murdock Research Program for Life Sciences: Organ development in worms

Greg Hermann, assistant professor of biology, received a $36,000 Research Program for Life Sciences grant from the M.J. Murdock Foundation.


This summer, the grant is funding the work of Hermann, Elizabeth Kwan ’05, and Steve Jetter ’03. The trio is studying how organs are constructed during embryonic development in the soil nematode C. elegans, a type of worm.


“C. elegans has become a favorite model system for the study of development due to the recent discovery that its genetic makeup differs very little from that of a fly, fish, mouse, or human,” says Hermann.


The team is studying the genes that control how cells communicate and cooperate during the construction of the C. elegans intestinal tract.


Because 40 percent of the genes found in these worms are also found in people, Hermann says understanding organ construction in C. elegans will provide important insights into the mechanism controlling the development of organs in humans. “Eventually,” says Hermann, “this work may allow us to begin designing strategies to repair organs that have been damaged by injury or disease.”


—by Pattie Pace

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