New speaker series showcases Oregon State research at da Vinci Days

Da Vinci Days is offering a new series this year featuring speakers from the fields of science, technology, engineering, the arts and math, with an emphasis on highlighting research at Oregon State University.

The family-friendly series, called “Stories from the Edge of Science,” will showcase the creativity and research that leads to new discoveries, tools and works of art.

Nick Houtman, an organizer for the series, said there hasn’t been an OSU speaker series at da Vinci Days since at least 2005. He said part of the rationale behind the series was to re-emphasize the ties between the festival and the scientific work being done at the university.

Michael Dalton, board chairman of da Vinci Days and the festival’s de facto executive director this year, said that the goal of the series is to show what researchers are doing at OSU.

“There’s so many resources available through OSU,” Dalton said.

Dalton said the speakers aren’t just talking heads: Their presentations will be interactive, with multimedia elements. He added that, in the spirit of da Vinci Days, the presentations are also supposed to be fun.

Ten of the 11 speakers are OSU faculty, but the final speaker will be Steve Amen, the host of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Oregon Field Guide.” Presentations will be held in Room 112 of Kearney Hall on the OSU campus throughout the festival, except for the opening night keynote by Jane Lubchenco, which will take place at the Whiteside Theatre, 361 S.W. Madison Ave.

A festival wristband is required for admission.

Speakers will talk about Antarctic oceans and invasive bullfrogs and many other subjects, but here are a few sneak peeks from three OSU presenters.

Using science for art

Sara Robinson hasn’t taken the usual route to a career in science, but that hasn’t stopped her from becoming an assistant professor in the OSU College of Forestry and combining science and art in a technique called spalting.

Spalting is a process by which fungi create unique patterns and colors in wood. Robinson makes bowls and other vessels using spalted wood.

At the festival, Robinson plans to teach spalting history and woodworking techniques and will offer an activity as well.

“The kids will have a chance to get dirty and covered with fungus,” Robinson promised.

After her plans for the Peace Corps fell through, Robinson, who majored in criminal justice and minored in woodworking as an undergraduate, had to rethink possibilities for a master’s degree. Robinson’s background in woodworking with colorful materials such as pink-tinted box elder led her to research how fungi can be used to make art.

She collects fungi, sequences their DNA and experiments with them.

Now, after years of research, Robinson can create a piece of art in hours that would have taken years before.

Robinson will present Saturday at 2 p.m.

Solving problems

Skip Rochefort has a message: The world’s in trouble, and engineers can find the answers.

“A solution to one problem can be a solution to another problem,” Rochefort said in a phone interview.

Rochefort, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, will draw connections between other presentations he helps deliver at da Vinci Days about gel beads and baby diapers.

Orbitz sodas, a drink discontinued in the late 1990s, has floating gel balls in the liquid. Rochefort, who purchased several cases of the drinks, said that similar beads are used to clean up heavy metals in water.

Rochefort points to a polymer used in baby diapers as an example of how creative thinking can take the solution to one problem and apply it to others.

Baby diapers rely on a gel-like, superabsorbent polymer that’s also used to coat roofs to prevent houses from catching on fire as well as for water retention in dry soils.

Instead of reinventing the wheel, Rochefort said, engineers work to find new ways to use technology.

“The toughest thing is formulating the right problems and finding solutions,” Rochefort said.

Rochefort does science and engineering outreach for children and teens. He will present Sunday at 1 p.m.

Flying machines

Down in “the pit,” the basement of Peavy Hall, Michael Wing is exploring an emerging avenue of surveying using unmanned aerial systems, better known as drones.

Drones such as the X-8 are made of a sturdy type of Styrofoam called EPO and are equipped with cameras, autopilot technology and other gadgets. The X-8 can fly as slowly as 30 to 35 mph and run nearly 25 minutes on a full battery. Equipment costs are relatively low; for example, it costs only about $1,200 to buy and modify another model, the Beaver II.

Wing will bring several different models and speak about the potential offered by the unmanned aerial systems at OSU, a timely topic as the Federal Aviation Administration focuses on rewriting its regulations regarding drones by 2015.

“We think that, in the near future, the skies will be open,” Wing said.

Drones could be used to survey forests, aid search and rescue operations and help fight fires, Wing said. Infrared photography could be used to find lost hikers or smoldering wildfire hotspots, he said.

Recently, Wing took a drone system, the Beaver I, to a university in Turkey. He directed the drone in the skies around the campus, over buildings and newly planted forests.

Conventional methods such as hiring a pilot and scheduling a flight could take months, with even more time spent waiting for the images, Wing said. But these drones are able to capture images almost instantly.

Wing will present Sunday at 3 p.m.

Speaker schedule

Here is the lineup for “Stories From the Edge of Science,” the da Vinci Days lecture series. All events except the opening night keynote will be at Oregon State University’s Kearney Hall, 1491 S.W. Campus Way. A festival wristband is required for entrance.


7 p.m.: Jane Lubchenco, Oregon State professor and former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Whiteside Theatre, 361 S.W. Madison Ave. “From the Silly to the Sublime: Stories About Science in D.C.“


11 a.m.: Jack Barth and the ocean glider team. “Ocean Exploration with Underwater Gliders”

Noon: Dan Rockwell. “A Mathematical Detective Story: Decoding the Golden Ratio”

1 p.m.: Marty Fisk. “Curiosity on Mars: NASA’s Search for Habitable Environments”

2 p.m.: Seri Robinson. “Art and Science of Spalted Wood”

3 p.m.: Andrew Thurber. “Life in the Polar Ocean”


Noon: Tiffany Garcia. “Bullfrogs and Other Threats to Aquatic Ecosystems”

1 p.m.: Skip Rochefort. “Stories From the Game of Life: Engineering for Fun and Function”

2 p.m.: Zach Dunn. “Kel Wer: A Film About Water, Survival and Hope in Lela, Kenya”

3 p.m.: Michael Wing. “The Future of Unmanned Aerial Systems”

4 p.m.: Steve Amen, host of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Oregon Field Guide.” “Oregon’s Splendor,” in which he will share some of his favorite spots in Oregon, from the high desert to the coast

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