Discovery

A frequent commentary chronicling the creative and intellectual
excitement of discovery at Washington State University.

Brought to you by Washington State Magazine

06
Apr

Margarita Mendoza de Sugiyama: Inspiring Speaker, Inspiring Woman

Margarita Mendoza de Sugiyama

Margarita Mendoza de Sugiyama

On a wet, chilly evening in early March (Women’s History month), a small and attentive group gathers in Todd Hall to hear Margarita Mendoza de Sugiyama give an intriguing and powerful talk.  Margarita is the third woman to speak in WSU’s Week of Women Speakers, presented by the Coalition for Women Students.  After listening to her speak, it is evident that this woman is quite remarkable—and her passion to promote justice and equality is inspired by the time she spent as a student at WSU.  Even back then, she knew her future career needed to incorporate her campus activities.   “You can have jobs where you live out your passions,” she insists.  Her words encourage students who have chosen a field of study based on their interests, rather than practicality.

Margarita was born in Yakima and grew up in a large family of farm workers.  Though her parents placed an emphasis on education, being a farm worker kid also meant there was less of a chance that Margarita and her siblings would graduate from high school. She views the situation differently, however, and argues that farm worker children use their Mexican heritage to their advantage—it helps them to succeed.

To describe Margarita as being involved is an understatement—during her college years she was a Chicano student leader, participated in the national Chicano Movement, and was one of two MeChA founders and the only student in a committee proposing a Chicano Studies Program.  She was also the former chair of the Racial Justice Training Committee, which promoted racial injustice awareness and provided racial justice training in dorms, fraternities, and sororities.  Since the time when Margarita was a student at WSU, racial diversity has come a long way. When she came to Pullman, there were only six Mexican students. She saw this as a problem, and by working to fix it she was able to banish stereotypes and build trust among Chicano students. Margarita’s involvement in various activities on campus was not without criticism from the WSU administration; in fact she says that they couldn’t wait for her to graduate!  Later, when Margarita began working at WSU, the ratio of colored faculty members increased from 12% to 25% and a corresponding increase in students of color soon followed.

Margarita has spent 37 years as a civil and human rights professional, has held a position with the Washington State Department of Transportation (as diversity programs administrator), and has worked as a staff member for governors, an attorney general, a college president and agency directors.  Throughout all of her professional experience, Margarita has been tenacious in holding people accountable for their job responsibilities. Yet, despite all she’s been through, this ambitious woman describes life as a joyful struggle, something worth struggling for.  She has also maintained a positive attitude, viewing every person she meets as a way to learn more.

Despite her recent retirement, it’s obvious that Margarita still has so much energy and passion for life. “I’m not done.  There’s more to Margarita that is yet to happen,” she concludes.  This is an easy statement to believe when it comes from such an accomplished woman.

Links

With Eyes Wide Open” (profile of Margarita Mendoza de Sugiyama in Washington State Magazine, Summer 2003)

01
Apr

Quite Simply, The World’s Most Energy Efficient Office Building

Try as you might to save energy at home—wear sweaters, hit the lights on the way out of the room—and you can still see vast amounts of energy going to waste at work. Empty rooms have lights on. Large, nearly empty spaces have the heat cranking. It turns out that buildings take up the bulk of our energy use.

The environmental sustainability goals of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, rating system have been taking a crack at this problem in recent years. WSU’s own Compton Union Building was refurbished with the guidelines in mind, earning a silver rating by saving energy and water and recycling construction waste, among other things. WSU Vancouver’s undergraduate classroom building went one better, earning a gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Rendering courtesy of Miller Hull.

But such efforts pale in comparison to the Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction, a six-story office building slated for East Madison Street on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. All the building’s energy demands will be handled on the site. All the building’s water will come from rainfall. Where other green buildings compete over certifications of silver, gold and platinum, this will simply be the most energy-efficient office building in the world.

Participants in the project—the Bullitt Foundation, PAE Consulting Engineers, and the Miller Hull Partnership—spoke about the effort earlier this week in a seminar put on by WSU’s Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach, or CEREO. A look at just some of the steps in the effort shows it is indeed possible to make such a dramatically sustainable building. It also shows how hard it can be.

A typical building uses more than 70,000 British thermal units of energy per square foot a year. This translates to an “energy use intensity” of about 70. A LEED platinum building cuts that by more than half, to 32. The Cascadia Center cuts that in half again, to 16. Craig Curtis, a Miller Hull partner and lead designer for the architecture team, said this is probably the lowest of any office building in the state.

All the building’s electrical needs will come from solar panels. To get the most surface area, and therefore the most energy from Seattle’s intermittent sunshine, the architects extended the roof outside the property line and ran panels down much of the building facade.

The roof’s rainwater will be filtered and disinfected for drinking and showers. Water from the low-flush toilets, as well as the solid stuff, will be composted and used to fertilize and water plants.

Laptops, which use less energy, will replace desktop computers. In some cases, computing will be done through common servers.

Tenants will include the building’s owner, the Bullitt Foundation, which focuses on environmental issues in the Northwest. The foundation, said Amy Solomon, a program officer, decided to develop the building to create a “replicable prototype” and inspire more environmental policies, including building codes.

Other tenants will need to agree to limit their energy use, although heavier energy users may be able to take advantage of an inter-office “cap and trade” system. Workers will need to expand their comfort zones, tolerating a few degrees warmer in summer—there will be no air conditioning—and a few degrees cooler in winter. The only on-site parking will be for a shared electric car. And with an elevator using as much as 4 percent of the building’s energy, tenants will be encouraged to use a glassed-in stairway with views of downtown Seattle and Puget Sound.

Miller Hull has several charts and images of the building here.

The firm is also featured in the spring issue of Washington State Magazine.

21
Mar

Next Stop, Neptune, If the Brakes Work

Next time you’re in a pub with a dart board, pick up a dart, stand at the regulation distance, and toss a bull’s eye. Piece of cake, right? Now, stand in that same pub but throw the dart so that it goes into a nice, near orbit around Neptune. Not so easy this time, eh?

But we’re not done. To make things a little trickier, figure on using Neptune’s atmosphere to brake your dart’s velocity. While you’re at it, calculate the path your dart took to get from the pub to Neptune. Write that path out in a series of differential equations. Write a 500-word abstract. Do all this is 48 hours under the auspices of your faculty mentor. You’re almost done! Last step: enter the paper you’ve just written in the University Physics Competition.

With slight variations on the process above (like, they didn’t actually throw a dart), that’s what three WSU physics majors did. Julian Smith, Kyle Welch and Ken Dorrance spent a recent weekend bravely battling the complexities of Lagrangian mechanics to calculate just what it would take to get a rocket from Earth to Neptune. Their efforts won them a bronze award in the competition.

Left to right: WSU Physics and Astronomy majors Kenneth Dorrance, Kyle Welch and Julian Smith/photo and montage by Brian Charles Clark

A couple centuries ago, mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange made significant contributions to celestial mechanics, the area of math that deals with the movements of planets, moons and various other objects in space – including rockets. “Newton’s second law–force equals mass times acceleration–beautifully describes many simple physical systems when forces are known,” says Dorrance, a junior majoring in physics with the nanotechnology option. “Lagrangian mechanics lets you solve some less-than-simple systems without knowing the forces.”

All three of the young physicists agreed that the mechanics involved in aerobraking a probe in the atmosphere of Neptune is a complex business. “Julian and I spent a lot of time staring at the white board, looking for analytical solutions, while Ken worked on coding methods for finding numerical solutions,” says Welch, a senior from Olympia majoring in physics and neuroscience.

“Being someone who focuses on theory, I often like to believe that there will be a clean analytical solution for everything,” says Welch. “However, the complexity introduced by the drag of aerobraking showed me that sometimes you have to give up on finding an exact solution.”

Not only was the problem complex, but the three-person team had only 48 hours in which to formulate their solution. This involved investigating the composition of the upper reaches of Neptune’s atmosphere where the probe would experience frictional resistance and be slowed enough from its interplanetary velocity to go into orbit around the gas giant. Between the three of them, they hammered out a solution that satisfied them.

The University Physics Competition annually offers teams a choice between two problems.

“We chose the problem we thought would be the most interesting, and opted out of the one we thought would be easier to solve,” says Smith a senior in physics from Vashon Island. “The aerobraking problem was exciting for all of us but we really had to think outside the box. This contest taught us to be creative and to think quick.”

Michael Allen, the students’ mentor and competition advisor, says the competition problems are unlike what they would find in a textbook.

“The problems do not have a single approach, and do not have a single correct answer,” he says. “Also, the students are allowed Internet access whilst solving the problem, hence they have a lot of information available to them and must pick that tiny, relevant bit of it to use. In other words, there is scope for being creative, but there is also a need for discipline.”

09
Feb

The Slime that Saves the Planet

Washington State University researchers have received half a million dollars to study a microscopic slime that they believe plays an outsized role in life on the planet.

The slime, also known as biofilm, forms a super-thin layer gluing the roots of plants to mineral surfaces and serves as a reactor in which a plant can break down the rock for vital nutrients. The process, says Kent Keller, was central to the start of land-based plant life as plants invaded the continents 350 million years ago. It continues to take place on modern volcanic ground and receding glaciers—anywhere a plant can’t get enough to eat.

A special root slime helps plants like this pine tree pull nutrients from bare rock. Flickr photo courtesy of eviltomthai.

“The magic of all of this is plants come in that are adapted to make the slime,” says Keller, co-director of the Center for Environmental Research, Education, and Outreach (CEREO) and professor in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “Within 100 years, you’ve got soil. That’s an amazing thing. And it’s these slimes that are a key part of the mechanism.”

Wait, there’s more: The biofilm reactor also facilitates the most fundamental process on the planet for packing away carbon, as seen in the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. As the plant dissolves minerals, the plant’s natural carbonic acids, made from CO2 through photosynthesis, are transformed into bicarbonate that is carried in runoff to the oceans. There it precipitates as calcium carbonate.

In other words, the biofilm acts as an intermediary between carbon from the atmosphere and its storage in the earth’s crust. Absent that process, carbon dioxide would continue building up in the atmosphere until oxygen-dependent life forms suffocated in a “runaway greenhouse.”

“Without that we wouldn’t be here,” says Keller. “We’d be Venus, because Venus has no mechanism to sequester volcanic CO2.”

But there’s a mystery to the process, which Keller and a group of colleagues will explore with $492,000 from the National Science Foundation. Somehow plants employ biofilms to build up nutrients for plants to use while also releasing them for long-term storage, and they’ve done this in a way in which plants thrive and the chemistry of oceans and the atmosphere is kept in balance.

The researchers—a team of earth, life, and soil scientists—plan to grow trees in different nutrient conditions, including pure sand, to see which are best at inducing the formation of biofilm. One indicator of that will be microbial communities, which essentially generate the biofilms for shelter. The researchers hypothesize that plants in the worst conditions will be predisposed to hosting the most diverse microbial communities, the better to generate slime and nutrients.

One experiment will rely entirely on fertilized irrigation as a proxy for conventional agriculture, which is less reliant on large microbial communities for nutrients. Comparing this system with those generating their own nutrients could help open the door to agricultural systems that can use fewer artificial fertilizers.