Read the original story in the Portland Tribune here.
What drives a man or woman to spend a career studying one bit of science? We asked Portland scientists how they chose their fields, and found a few were the result of serendipitous events:
Alex Ruzicka, Portland State University geologist:
I grew up with the Apollo program; my first drawings were of rockets launching. The moon landings were a great adventure and I thought it amazing that one could study rocks collected from their surface and learn about how the moon formed. Plate tectonics was the new accepted theory for Earth (although some of my college textbooks weren’t sure), and I found it incredible that a planet could operate this way. Now I study meteorites because it is the one thing that best combines my interests in space and rocks.
Kenneth Clifton, Lewis & Clark College biologist:
When I was 10, my geologist father spent two months living next to a coral reef in an underwater habitat with three other scientists. He sent me letters stamped with “Dispatched from the ocean floor” describing the fish swimming past his window. I’ve been studying coral reefs ever since.
Kellar Autumn, Lewis & Clark biologist:
I became interested in gecko adhesion 14 years ago during a vacation in Hawaii. I was in a little hotel near Kealakekua Bay and, while I was in bed, a huge spider crawled out across the ceiling. I’m a bit arachnophobic, so I was trying to work up the courage to deal with the spider when a tiny gecko came out on the ceiling too. The gecko and the spider had an upside-down battle right there above me. The gecko won easily and knocked the spider off (fortunately not on me!). This made me wonder how the gecko could run so easily on the ceiling, and why it was so much better at sticking than the spider. This moment of curiosity inspired our study of the force generated by a single microscopic gecko foot hair and led to the invention of the adhesive nanostructure.
Christina Hulbe, PSU geologist:
When I was an engineering undergrad, I used to study at a table way back in the stacks in the college library. The table was against a wall along an aisle, right across from GB2401.J68, the Journal of Glaciology. When I needed a break from working on a problem or studying for an exam, I'd pull a bound set of issues off the shelf and try to read the papers. They turned out to be about really interesting applications of physics, with ice and mountains – and I was hooked. It would require years of additional study before I could understand a lot of what was written in those articles but now I write papers published there and I'm an officer in of the International Glaciological Society, publisher of the Journal.
Pamela Yeh, Portland State University biologist:
I have loved animals since I was very little, but it wasn’t until I was 13 when I read about being a wildlife biologist, at the end of a science textbook that was highlighting different scientific careers, that I realized you could do that for a living. Evolution is an integral part of studying organisms in the wild, which is how I ended up being an evolutionary biologist.
Growing up in a family that loved to travel to far-flung countries, I was imbued with a sense of intrigue and respect for foreign cultures. After graduating with a doctorate in materials chemistry, I sought to unite my interest in cultural heritage and materials chemistry. I recently founded the Regional Laboratory for the Science of Cultural Heritage Conservation at PSU.
Peter Kennedy, Lewis and Clark College biologist:
When I visited the cloud forests of Panama 15 years ago, I was amazed by how similar the mushrooms were to the ones I had grown up seeing in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. I read more and found that both forests contained specialized fungi that were symbiotically associated with tree roots. Ever since, I have been studying the ecological role this symbiosis plays in forests worldwide.
Lisa Zurk, director of PSU’s Northwest Electromagnetics & Acoustics Research Lab:
I never did take apart a radio when I was a child (which is supposedly the story of a “real engineer”). I was told women don’t become engineers, and that it was supposed to be a very difficult career – so perhaps I am just stubborn. Once I became a scientist, I found the idea of using waves (electromagnetic and acoustic) for sensing applications provided a way to help us understand the world around us, from space to the deepest areas of the sea. And I continue to mentor women in science and engineering, hoping they don’t find it as unfriendly as I did (although the statistics of women in science don’t seem to support this).
Angela Strecker, Portland State University biologist:
I spent a great deal of time camping, boating and staring at water when I was growing up, and I was always fascinated by what lurked beneath the surface of the water. Why was the lake water clear some of the time, but thick green other times? Why do minnows swim as a pack? Why are fish abundant at some times and not others? Currently, my research focuses on the human and natural variables that influence fish, invertebrate, and algal communities in freshwater ecosystems.”
When I was an undergrad, I was mortally shy and wanted to be away from people insofar as possible. The only career that I felt would enable me to stay away from people was biology. In looking further, it seemed a career in field biology studying animals such as wolves or bear would be the best. As it happened, my chosen path did not end up with those study organisms: I had a highly influential professor as an undergrad who studied rodents and rabbits and – without necessarily wanting to – I found myself studying those smaller organisms (and many more!). Later on, I realized that I would have to face people, so still an undergrad, I ran for class office so that I would be forced into public speaking. Now I have one of the best jobs a scientist can have: field work in the summers, lecturing young (hopefully open) minds and lab work in winters.
Julio C. de Paula, Lewis & Clark chemist:
As a child growing up in Brazil, I was first inspired to become a scientist by the Apollo moon missions. I was so happy that Neil Armstrong stepped on the lunar surface on my 10th birthday! A few years later, the oil crisis of 1973 affected Brazil strongly, and I began to wonder about alternative energy sources. By the time my family immigrated to America in 1976, I was convinced that I wanted to be a scientist, and a chemist in particular. My early interest in energy took me from studies of plant photosynthesis to attempts to mimic photosynthesis in systems that can be made in the laboratory and become the basis for efficient solar energy conversion devices.
Hannah Chong, Legacy Clinic Services Specialist, Randall Children’s Hospital:
I was diagnosed with leukemia at age 15 and was treated at Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel’s Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Program. Today, I serve as a clinic services specialist there and work with Dr. Janice Olson, one of the oncologists who treated me, in the unit where children receive cancer treatment. I have also become a certified child life specialist and help children who have been diagnosed with cancer.
Jim Pankow, PSU chemist and environmental engineer:
As a kid I was really interested in chemistry. This was partly due no doubt to the fact that my uncle, Howard Cordts, was a chemist with Dow Chemical. When I was 6, I would go to the library and check out books on chemistry, sit at my dad’s little Royal portable typewriter, and make tables of the elements, with the names and symbols and atomic weights.
JoAnn Vance, nursing administrator at the Center for Medically Fragile Children at Providence Child Center:
My father worked for the Hood River ambulance and fire department. I watched the excitement and energy he gave to this career and wanted the same. I had a medically fragile child who died at the age of 10. She was treated at (Legacy) Emanuel Children’s Hospital a month after I graduated from nursing school. Through an agency assignment I went to work at Emanuel’s inpatient unit after her passing. I knew the within the first hours of working my shift that pediatrics was my calling.
Bob Butler, PSU authority on earthquakes who keeps a seismograph in his basement:
I remember being confused by the Rocky Mountains because those mountains do not look anything like the Cascade volcanoes. My uncle, a professor of physics at WSU, told me about the idea of continental drift and mountains forming when continents collide. My uncle also told me about the 1957 International Geophysical Year and I recall reading articles about how geophysicists use physics and math to study the Earth. Then Sputnik was launched and every kid like me who was good at math and science was told to become a scientist or an engineer so we could save the nation from the communists. So I became a geophysicist specializing in research on paleomagnetism, geochronology, and tectonics.