Start it up

Two engineering members holding their business brand mugs.

Photos by Karl Maasdam, Lucas Radostitz, Gale Sumida.

Every engineer spends countless hours learning their field inside and out, but only a relative few ever launch a company to bring their inventions to the world. Luckily, the Oregon State University Advantage Accelerator helps faculty, staff, students, and alumni take that critical step by shepherding new companies through all phases of the startup process.

“Part of Oregon State’s mission as a land-grant university is boosting the local as well as the global economy,” said Karl Mundorff, executive director of innovation and entrepreneurship at Oregon State and the Accelerator’s director. “You can do that by supporting existing businesses, but to really be competitive and grow stronger and more diverse living-wage jobs in Oregon, we need to layer entrepreneurship on top of that.”

The Accelerator offers a trio of programs to help would-be entrepreneurs take their idea from sketch pad to launch pad.

ITERATE consists of four workshops that help clients evaluate ideas from an entrepreneurial mindset. Clients in this stage work to identify a potential product, market, and industry for their idea.

The 10-week ACCELERATE program focuses on product-market fit. Clients develop a viable product, test their startup’s feasibility, and validate their business models. Faculty, students, staff, alumni, and the broader Oregon State community all participate in Iterate and Accelerate together.

LAUNCH is a five-month, immersive program designed to make each startup fully operational — from completing the team to developing a repeatable sales model. At this stage, clients seek to ramp up from an R&D company to a product manufacturing and marketing company.

The Accelerator also offers funding support, including access to the University Innovation Research Fund, the University Venture Development Fund, and small business development grants. When clients are ready, Accelerator staff make introductions to angel and venture capital investors.

Since its creation in 2013, the Accelerator has helped companies created by College of Engineering faculty, staff, students, and alumni — including inaugural Accelerate program member Onboard Dynamics, which received a $30 million investment from BP Energy in 2021. The stories that follow highlight three companies launched, both with and without Accelerator support, by College of Engineering students and alumni.

Adaptive Ascent

Josh Bamberger knew for certain that his invention would work after he used a single finger to effortlessly lift a duffel bag holding a 50-pound sack of concrete. He followed that with a one-finger pull-up.

“He’s pretty strong, but not strong enough to do one-arm pinkie pull-ups on his own,” said Nathan Jewell, Bamberger’s business partner and co-inventor of the MoonClimb adaptive climbing device, designed to help rock climbers ascend using less force, making the sport more accessible to climbers of varying ability and strength.

Nathan Jewell (left) and Josh Bamberger get ready to test the lifting capabilities of MoonClimb, a product they invented to provide assistance for rock climbers. With the help of the device, Bamberger easily hoisted a duffel bag containing 50 pounds of cement with his little finger.

Bamberger, B.S. mechanical engineering ’21, and Jewell, B.S. computer science ’21, were friends in preschool, but they didn’t cross paths again until Oregon State. By pure chance, they became dorm neighbors in West Hall and reestablished their friendship around backpacking, rock climbing, snowshoeing, and mountaineering. Their adventures included summiting some of the Pacific Northwest’s foremost glaciated peaks, like Rainier, Hood, and Baker.

The idea for MoonClimb emerged in the winter of 2020, when Bamberger was talking with some other members of the Adaptive Technology Engineering Network, or ATEN, a student group that aspires to provide solutions to problems encountered by people with disabilities. Its membership includes individuals with and without disabilities.

“We were thinking up ways to make rock climbing more accessible, and my friend at ATEN said he could probably make it to the top of a climbing wall if he didn’t have to support his entire weight,” Bamberger said.

After graduation, Bamberger and Jewell became roommates in Corvallis and founded Adaptive Ascent. They worked out of their garage, and Bamberger recalls many cold, late nights. “I have clear memories of Nathan with a blanket over his shoulders, hunched over a workstation, soldering circuits or writing code,” he said. Later, they moved into the Rogue Makers workspace just outside of town. Their first working prototype was ready in early 2022, even though both partners hold full-time jobs and run the company on the side.

MoonClimb, which is the size of a beefy briefcase and weighs about 25 pounds, is simple to use. Once the device is secured at the top of a climbing route with traditional gear, a rope is looped through it. One end attaches to the climber’s harness, while a climbing partner nearby serves as the belayer to take up slack and arrest falls. Power comes from a standard wall outlet.

With the rope pulled taut, the climber sits back until they’re suspended a foot or two above the ground so the machine can gauge their weight. MoonClimb’s assistance level is set through a smartphone app. With a 50% assist, for example, the climber needs to exert only half the total force required to ascend. Assistance can go up to 95% for climbers up to 310 pounds, and the level can be changed midclimb.

MoonClimb was initially developed for people with disabilities, but Jewell and Bamberger see the potential for a much larger market, such as novices who need a shot of confidence. They compare the device to e-bikes, which have become popular among people who know how to ride regular bicycles but just want a little more oomph.

There are about 500 climbing gyms in the U.S., and the number is growing. However, that market may not be big enough to attract major investors, Jewell says. The partners are exploring other channels, such as selling directly to adaptive sports groups. And market opportunities are bound to expand once a battery pack is integrated into the unit, allowing outdoor use. So far, the most effective marketing tactic has been letting people try MoonClimb.

“It’s been really cool to watch people who have never scaled a climbing wall reach the top,” Jewell said. “We’re excited that this technology can open up rock climbing to many more people.”


When fourth-year computer science student Harry Herzberg was in high school, his sister worked as a paraeducator who assisted students with learning disabilities by sitting with them in class, giving them one-on-one support. Her experiences, as well as his being diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, inspired Herzberg to develop Alerty, a mobile app to help students — especially those with ADHD — perform better in class.

Dubbed “a paraeducator in your pocket,” the Alerty app transcribes class lectures in real time to help students see what they might have just missed. Herzberg explains that students with ADHD may unintentionally lose focus in class and — because college courses are often fast-paced, with information that builds upon itself — quickly get left behind.

Dmytro Shabanov (left) and Harry Herzberg discuss Alerty, the mobile app they helped create to enable students to perform better in class.

“I’ve had many classes where I’ve missed the teacher talking about the homework assignment, or a key point,” Herzberg said. “Then I’m spending the entire day or even weeks trying to catch up, just because I missed that one important point.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when classes were being taught asynchronously online, Herzberg liked that he was able to go back, replay the lectures, and absorb concepts he may have missed.

“I was able to get better grades and even made the dean’s list because I was able to go back and replay, slow down, and speed up the videos,” he said.

Alerty is designed to be used by instructors and students together. When the instructor makes an important point, they press a button on the app, which alerts students with a vibration on their phones or tablets. The app also highlights the corresponding part of the transcript in blue.

After class, students can review the lecture and, if necessary, select a portion of the transcript to ask for clarification. This feature also helps instructors to see where students are struggling over certain concepts. The app could prove helpful to students without ADHD, including those who have different learning styles, English language learners, and those who have difficulty hearing.

Herzberg and Dmytro Shabanov, a fourth-year student in finance and marketing, are joined on the Alerty team by their business partners Jade Zavsklavsky, Artemis Kearny, Nicholas Craycraft, Alexander Victoria Trujillo, and Freya Crowe.

The team, more than half of whom have ADHD or autism, recently won the TiE Oregon regional competition and the Social Entrepreneurship Award at The Indus Entrepreneurs’ University Global Pitch Competition and was one of 30 teams to advance to the semifinal round, out of some 1,400 accepted into the competition. Alerty also earned second place in the College of Business’s Launch Academy competition, and a grant from the 1517 Fund.

Mike Bailey, professor of computer science, beta-tested Alerty in one of his classes during spring term. “For those who have difficulty focusing and taking notes in class, I think this could be a game changer,” he said.

Tonsil Tech

Confronting an embarrassing problem was the first step for two bioengineering alumni who invented an oral health care solution. The idea sparked in their senior design class, when they were asked to come up with 10 health care issues they wanted to improve. At the top of both of their lists was tonsil stones.

Even though Sydney Forbes, ’17, and Jessy Imdieke, ’17, were friends, they were shocked to find out they had tonsil stones in common. The condition occurs when substances like mucus and tiny bits of food collect in pits on the tonsils and harden into stones that harbor odor-causing bacteria.

“It’s a huge source of embarrassment and frustration, because it causes extreme bad breath,” Forbes said. For their project, Forbes and Imdieke designed a tool to allow people to remove their own tonsil stones at home.

After graduation, both got full-time jobs with biomedical startups in the San Francisco Bay Area. Then the pandemic hit, and they saw an opportunity to return to their passion to create a new solution for tonsil stones.

In early 2020, they launched Tonsil Tech in Bend, with a third co-founder, Daniel Forbes. Sydney Forbes contacted Oregon State’s Advantage Accelerator, which was conducting programs online. After completing the Iterate and Launch programs, the team further refined their plan with the help of programs at University of Washington, the Washington Innovation Network, and the Oregon Bioscience Incubator. Their mentors at the Accelerator continue to support them, and they also get advice from Adam Krynicki, executive director in the Innovation Co-Lab at OSU-Cascades.

“Oregon State University was critical for the development of our company. The Accelerator programs gave us the mentorship, structure, and resources we needed to move forward,” Imdieke said.

Sydney Forbes (left) and Jessy Imdieke discuss their products — individual stone removal tools and TonsiFIX basic and premium kits.

In July 2021, Tonsil Tech brought to market the first tool specifically designed to remove tonsil stones. The tool, TonsiFIX (patent pending), features a teardrop-shaped loop at the end of a handle with an attached wrist strap, with details of its construction optimized for removing tonsil stones. The company sells the tool alone or in a kit that includes a travel pouch and a bright LED mirror light. Customers can purchase directly from, and the company plans to expand into retail and health care settings.

Tonsil Tech has raised $160,000 from various sources and competitions, including $60,000 through the Accelerator’s University Venture Development Fund. The Accelerator funding will allow the company to scale up production and lower costs by moving from 3D printing to injection molding, Imdieke said.

Success for the Tonsil Tech team is more than their business achievements. They can see that they are changing people’s lives.

“Customers continuously tell us that they have never told anyone about the problem, and yet it affects about 10% of the population,” Imdieke said. “Something that you could think of as a nuisance has a big impact on people’s self-esteem.”

Remote video URL
Dec. 7, 2022

History by the barrel

Image of a barrel in a basement

In the fall of 2019, during the recently completed Merryfield Hall renovations, a plumber descended into a crawl space beneath the building to tap a water line for a new drinking fountain. He also found an odd bit of construction: a dozen concrete-filled barrels, aligned in two parallel rows, supporting a significant chunk of the building. The barrels, it turns out, had also been observed during a 2014 remodel of one of Merryfield’s labs. Who knows when anyone had seen them before that?

Using barrels as concrete forms doesn’t seem to have ever been a common practice, but it sure demonstrates an imaginative solution in a pinch. And though it’s uncertain whether the barrels were part of the building’s initial construction in 1909, there’s some pretty convincing evidence that they were added later.

“I can’t say for sure without inspecting them, but based on photos, the footings used underneath the barrels do not look like original construction,” said Chris Higgins, Cecil and Sally Drinkward Professor of Structural Engineering. “They’re not well excavated and the concrete is poorly placed. These would have been easy to make before the building was completed but hard to do in a crawl space.”

Another clue is the wooden shims wedged between the barrels and the support beams, which ensure contact between the two. “That also suggests they aren’t original, as the construction would have been cleaner if it had been done new,” Higgins said.

The provenance of the barrels is clear enough: Each is marked with the name J.B. [John Bazley] White & Bros., (originally J.B. White & Sons), once one of England’s leading manufacturers of Portland cement. Its enormous plant in Swanscombe, southeast of London, was the country’s largest cement production facility for more than 80 years, mostly during the 19th century.

A compelling reason the columns were needed can be seen in old photographs of the Mechanical Arts Building (Merryfield’s original name). The area above the barrels used to be a machine shop filled with heavy, vibrating equipment. “I think the barrels were added to suppress floor vibration and deflections,” Higgins said. “It’s common to add additional supports to carry heavier loads, reduce vibrations, or stop floors from sagging under load.”

Though no one knows when the barrels were installed, it’s certain that there are no plans to remove or replace them.


Dec. 6, 2022

Student’s success inspires family to help others

Mike and Barb Schmierer enjoyed their son Paul’s time at Oregon State almost as much as he did. Now, Paul designs the kind of fishing gear he used to only dream of buying. His parents couldn’t be prouder.

Photos by Peter Knox and courtesy of the Schmierer family.

Mike and Barb Schmierer created a student success endowment in their name and have been loyal annual donors to the College of Engineering for more than 20 years.

Although neither is an engineer or an Oregon State alum, their family formed strong connections to the college and university through their son, Paul, who graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2005. Shortly after finishing college, Paul landed a job in research and development at Sage Fly Fishing, a maker of high-end fishing rods and reels based in Washington.

“When Paul was in college, his big passions were skateboarding, biking, and fly fishing,” Mike said. “He had several job offers with good companies after graduation, but he held out for something related to his love of outdoor recreation.”

As a family, the Schmierers have always enjoyed fishing together, and they went on lots of trips when the kids were growing up. One favorite location was Barb’s brother’s place, on a lake in Northern Idaho, where Paul and his sister, Emily, would catch perch by the bucketful.

“Perch are kind of tricky. They take your bait, and instead of swimming away, they go up,” Mike said. “We had to refine our method of catching them. The kids got so good at it that I had to cut them off at 50, because that’s about as many as I wanted to have to clean.”

Mike started fishing in his youth and has been going after steelhead for well over 60 years. He ties his own flies — a practice he finds deeply relaxing, like meditation — and has even designed and built his own rods. Barb first got hooked after she married Mike, although she developed a passion for fly fishing in particular more recently, on a trip to Alaska, where she kept landing pink salmon and pike one after another.

“It’s the land of the midnight sun,” she said. “I went out there at 11 p.m. after everybody else had given up. I just wanted to stay out there all night. That was my first time fly fishing.”

Mike and Barb both grew up in Washington, meeting as students at Washington State University. Mike graduated in 1971 and started his career as a math teacher. Barb graduated a couple of years later and moved to Portland to become a nurse at Oregon Health & Science University. Mike followed her to Oregon, and the two were married a year later.

 A family photo of Mike, Barb, and Paul Schmierer on one of many fishing outings.

 A family photo of Mike, Barb, and Paul Schmierer on one of many fishing outings.

After the children arrived, Barb chose to take time off from her nursing career while Mike taught in the Lake Oswego School District. He would retire from the district in 2003 after 30 years of teaching math to junior high and, later, high school students. If he hadn’t been a teacher, Mike says, he might have followed a path similar to his son’s.

“I could have been an engineer,” Mike said. “My father was an industrial arts teacher, and he had skills that went far beyond those of your typical shop teacher. He was very, very good at building things. I got that from him. So, I think Paul probably has it in his genes.”

As a child, Paul was interested in Lego and other building sets, his parents recall, but his interest in engineering really developed after he got to Oregon State. As a student, he was active in Baja Beaver Racing, in which students design, build, test, promote, and race cars in competition with other teams from around the country. His parents traveled with the team to national events in Ohio and Arizona and got to know them well.

“That was a very good program for Paul,” Barb said. “It really added a lot to his college experience. We have talked it up to other people over the years. It’s great hands-on experience, where they learn problem-solving and collaboration.”

Mike compares the team to the New York Yankees.

“Everyone just expects them to put up a good car year after year,” he said. “They’ve been in the top five the whole time we’ve followed them.”

Paul says the Baja Beaver Racing experience helped him to land his dream job after graduation. He arrived to his interview at Sage armed with a portfolio, from which he could refer to specific examples of how he had dealt with challenges while designing and building a racecar for competition.

That interview, to which Paul had worn a suit, ended with him casting flies from an R&D dock into a pond at Sage headquarters with company founder Don Green. Paul won’t hazard a guess as to whether his fly-casting skills played any part in his getting the job, but his father is a bit less circumspect.

“I think it sealed the deal,” Mike said.

Both of Paul’s parents are proud of their son, and of the life he’s made for himself after graduation. “He gets to go to some pretty exotic places and have some outrageous fishing,” Mike said. “Somebody has to do all that hard work in the field, making sure things work right.” 

Dec. 6, 2022

Releasing history


Photos by NASA, ESA, CSA, STSCL, and Kerry Dahlen.

Last Christmas, Amrit Nam Khalsa, B.S. mechanical engineering ’18, woke up to a wonderful gift: the perfect launch of the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope, the largest, most complex space telescope ever built.

“I thought, ‘Finally, this is actually happening.’ Then I thought, ‘Now comes the hard part,’” Khalsa said. “The launch was not necessarily the hardest thing the telescope had to endure. There were still weeks of nail-biting deployments and positioning.”

Portrait of Amrit Nam Khalsa
Amrit Nam Khalsa
Khalsa’s first job after graduating was ordnance engineer (eventually lead ordnance engineer) for the Webb program at Northrop Grumman, the telescope’s prime contractor, in Redondo Beach, California.

“The first time I set foot in the high bay and looked up at the telescope, I was just 22. It’s hard to appreciate the scale until you’re right there,” Khalsa said. “You feel the energy change and you think, ‘Whoa, this is big; this is something monumental that could change our fundamental understanding of science.’”

Khalsa’s four-person team was responsible for testing and troubleshooting the telescope’s 178 nonexplosive actuators. The devices are a type of hold-down release mechanism used to secure elements of a spacecraft or its payload during launch. On command, HDRMs release to allow equipment to move into operating positions.

To fit inside the Ariane 5 rocket that carried it into space, the telescope was folded up. Critical elements, like the solar power array, communications antennae, sunshield, and mirrors were all secured by HDRMs. During Webb’s monthlong journey to its permanent station, each component had to be released and deployed in a tightly choreographed sequence. A single HDRM failure could compromise the mission.

Khalsa had moved on to his current position with Blue Origin in Seattle when the telescope launched. But, of course, he still felt a tremendous personal and professional connection to Webb. He checked for updates several times a day throughout the flight.

“Every one of those actuators was a potential point of mechanical failure that carried an insane amount of risk. So, yeah, I was a little anxious,” Khalsa said.

Amrit Nam Khalsa with a group in lab uniform.
Amrit Nam Khalsa with Webb after successful mirror wing deployments. This would be the last time the mirrors were in an open configuration until the telescope was halfway to its operational destination a million miles from Earth.

They all worked perfectly.

When the last segment of the telescope’s enormous mirror swung into place two weeks after launch, he felt relief and a sense of accomplishment — and then again, once the telescope reached its destination 1 million miles from Earth.

Fully deployed, the telescope looks like a giant golden honeycomb riding atop a diamond-shaped silver surfboard. Its sunshield covers the area of a tennis court, and its hexagonally segmented mirror is more than six times the size of the one on the Hubble Space Telescope. According to NASA, Webb will allow scientists to peer back 13.6 billion years, when the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang.

At Blue Origin, Khalsa is responsible for integrating payloads for the New Glenn program. According to the company, New Glenn’s massive launch vehicle will be capable of carrying people and payloads into Earth orbit, and possibly beyond.

Khalsa was a senior before he even considered a career in aerospace. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just get some manufacturing job in Portland and follow that general path,’” he said.

Everything changed when the time came to choose a senior capstone project. He wanted something different and challenging, so he convinced some friends to join a team that would design and build a high-altitude rocket. And it would be yet another chance for the type of valuable hands-on learning that he’d enjoyed throughout his college career.

“I didn’t think it would lead anywhere new. It was more like something that just seemed cool,” he said. “As soon as I got started on the project, I knew instantly that I wanted a career in aerospace. I never looked back.”

He gives Nancy Squires a lot of the credit. Squires, who died in June 2021, was a senior instructor of mechanical engineering and served as the capstone project’s senior advisor. Her numerous accomplishments included spearheading Oregon State’s aerospace engineering program.

“I took some courses with Nancy. I liked the topics, and I liked her as a teacher,” Khalsa said. “Her passion for space and space exploration was inspiring, and she cared about her students in a way that I had not experienced.” Even years after Khalsa graduated, Squires would reach out periodically just to check in. “She was a mentor and a friend. She was phenomenal, and she’s the reason I found where I wanted to be.”

After Webb arrived at its final destination in late January, a series of algorithms fine-tuned the position of its 18 mirror segments, allowing them to function as a single mirror. Engineers then calibrated its instruments in preparation for initial operations. NASA released the telescope’s first images to the public over the summer.

“My entire career has taken a very different trajectory than anything I expected,” Khalsa said. “I’m just proud to have contributed to something so big.”

This landscape of “mountains” and “valleys” speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula.
Dec. 6, 2022

Spanning the globe

Panama Canal expansion

Photos courtesy of Rick Robertson.

Rick Robertson was barely a teenager when he started his first construction job. He dug catch basins, pushed concrete, and hauled materials through the long summer days. The hard work was nothing new.

“We all worked when we were kids,” said Robertson, B.S. civil engineering ’85, M.S. ’87. “School let out in June, you’d get a few days of vacation, then you went to work. I was picking strawberries in fourth grade.” But it was the construction sites, where he worked every summer through high school, that fascinated him — the precision of surveying, the machines that created perfectly aligned concrete curbs, the lasting contribution to something bigger than himself. “It opened my eyes to the possibilities of civil engineering; I could imagine a future doing that.”

In the meantime, Robertson indulged his more immediate passion: basketball. In 1979, his junior year at McMinnville High School, the team won 27 consecutive games and the state championship. The following season, the Grizzlies extended their unbeaten streak to 39, at the time the longest in Oregon history. The team overflowed with talent, including Robertson’s childhood friend, Charlie Sitton, a future All-American at Oregon State University. Pulling it all together was their coach, Nick Robertson, who would win 699 games over a 41-year career and earn a spot in the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame.

“More than anyone else, my father taught me about communication, teamwork, and caring for others. So much of what I learned to prepare me for life I learned from him,” Robertson said. His father, now 81, still helps out young players.

Robertson’s first year at Oregon State was a rough one, marked by the death of his younger brother, Greg. After transferring to Willamette University for a couple of years to regroup, he played for the school’s basketball team, which helped him to clear his mind after the devastating loss.

Back at Oregon State for his final two years, he dove into his coursework, energized by an atmosphere of collaborative problem-solving that he carried into his career. He capped off his time as a Beaver with a master’s program that focused on geotechnical engineering. “I figured that would keep me from getting stuck behind a desk,” Robertson said. He figured right.

Robertson with his wife, Renee (left), and daughters Rylee and Raegan, at the Cocoli locks before flooding. The rolling steel gate behind them stands more than 100 feet tall and 30 feet wide and weighs about 3,500 metric tons. e looking for our next adventure.”

Robertson with his wife, Renee (left), and daughters Rylee and Raegan, at the Cocoli locks before flooding. The rolling steel gate behind them stands more than 100 feet tall and 30 feet wide and weighs about 3,500 metric tons. e looking for our next adventure.”

Robertson went to work for CH2M Hill (now Jacobs), where he’s been ever since. In one of his first assignments, he conducted an on-site geotechnical stability analysis at a Southern California Superfund landfill to determine its susceptibility to earthquakes. For protection, he donned a protective suit and self-contained breathing apparatus. “When I took my gear off at the end of each day, I had to pour the sweat out of my boots,” he said.

The first of many international assignments came in 1989, fulfilling Robertson’s dream of living overseas. “Greg’s stories about his adventures in Guatemala as an exchange student were a huge driver for wanting to experience the wider world,” said Robertson, who has spent 24 years of his 35-year career abroad.

In Egypt, he built Alexandria’s first wastewater treatment plant and installed an extensive water supply system in Cairo. After returning to the U.S. in 1996, he met his wife during a two-day whitewater rafting trip on the Deschutes River. “I told Renee I was probably going to work overseas again, but I’m not sure she knew what she was getting into,” Robertson said.

In 1998, they set out for Israel, where Robertson was appointed deputy manager of a $400 million port expansion. Their daughter, Rylee, was born near Tel Aviv in 1999. The family returned to Corvallis the following year and celebrated the arrival in 2001 of their second daughter, Raegan, who now attends Oregon State.

Next up for the alliterative family was Sri Lanka in 2005, where Robertson played a major role in rebuilding infrastructure that was damaged or destroyed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The 16 geographically scattered projects included bridges, roads, and harbors; a new water treatment and distribution system for 40,000 people who never had running water before; and nine vocational schools — all on a budget of only $52 million.

“The engineering wasn’t the hardest part, it was satisfying so many stakeholders: fishing communities, the entity that controls the harbors, tourism officials, other government bodies, and USAID, which controlled the funding,” he said. “We couldn’t just go in and build things, we had to listen carefully to everyone’s concerns, make adjustments, and solve problems holistically. It was one of the biggest challenges of my career.”

After a stint in the United Arab Emirates, it was on to Panama in 2010 for Robertson’s largest and longest assignment: the $5.25 billion Panama Canal expansion project, for which he would eventually serve as program manager. The work included the addition of two new locks, one each on the Atlantic and Pacific sides, which can accommodate the world’s largest cargo ships. Existing channels were widened and deepened. Because of the new configuration, the canal’s capacity doubled. The scale of the project is mind-boggling: More than 5 million cubic meters of concrete were poured to form the locks. During peak construction, that meant 1,000 concrete trucks delivered their loads every day.

“It all worked out because I was surrounded by very talented people, and success always comes down to teamwork,” said Robertson. “I’ve relied on that principle for every project I’ve worked on. And I’ve also been very lucky that my family has been so supportive and tolerant. Without them, I could not have devoted so much energy to my work.”

The new locks opened in June 2016, but Robertson has stayed on to support post-construction activities. He hopes to return to Oregon in time for a Beavers football game this fall. “I really miss that scene,” he said. “After that, I guess we’ll be looking for our next adventure.”

Dec. 6, 2022

In defense of a ‘dangerous’ practice

A picture of John Lienhard.

If John Lienhard could eradicate one word from the English language, it would be “innovation.”

“It’s a waffle word. How about that?” he said, offering a more temperate formulation in place of one deemed too salty for print.

Lienhard prefers “invention,” a word that industry leaders conspicuously avoid, he says, because of its world-changing implications.

“People are afraid of invention; they’re afraid of creativity,” he said. “Industry seizes on that toned-down word, innovation. What does it mean? It means tinkering a little bit, taking something that already exists and making it new. It’s a word that avoids the hard fact that invention is dangerous.”

Lienhard, B.S. mechanical engineering ’51, has a keen interest in how inventive minds work. Since 1980, when he joined the faculty at the University of Houston, he has held positions that included an element of the history of technology. Today, at 92, he holds the title of M.D. Anderson Professor of Technology and Culture, emeritus. Long retired, he still shows up to work on the radio program he launched more than three decades ago.

Born in 1930 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Lienhard came to Oregon in his teens when his family moved to Roseburg. He struggled in school, having never heard the word “dyslexia.” (“The official diagnosis back then was ‘lazy and stupid,’” he says.) In lieu of any support for students with such difficulties, he invented his own “workarounds,” and he persevered.

A picture of John Lienhard.
John Lienhard

“I found ways of seeing things spatially that others were seeing symbolically, or algebraically,” Lienhard said. “I had very high space-recognition ability. It wound up equipping me to succeed in engineering in a way that other people couldn’t succeed.”

After chewing his way through two years of pre-engineering at Multnomah Community College, Lienhard arrived at Oregon State College in 1949. The campus was inundated with World War II veterans, holding Uncle Sam to his promise made in the GI Bill. They were crammed into squalid, barracks-like housing, hastily erected upon muddy flats on the western edge of campus and at Camp Adair, north of town.

Class sizes were huge by today’s standards, with recent graduates pressed into service to teach introductory courses. Professors sought to winnow the horde by subjecting students to punishing workloads.

“It was a purely Darwinian process,” Lienhard recalled.

Less seasoned and a full decade younger than his war-tested classmates, Lienhard would have to fight to keep his seat. He credits one fluid dynamics instructor — who bluntly counseled him over coffee to give up hope of ever becoming an engineer — with providing him the animus to succeed.

“It was a very important moment,” Lienhard said. “I had to decide that he was wrong, and I had to figure out how to make the fact of his wrongness come true.”

After graduating in 1951, Lienhard went first to Seattle, where he worked for Boeing and earned his master’s degree at the University of Washington, before being drafted into the Army in 1953. He moved to the University of California, Berkeley, in 1956 to serve as an engineering instructor and earned his doctorate there in 1961. His academic career then took him from Washington State University (1961-1967), to the University of Kentucky (1967-1980), and, finally, to the University of Houston.

Lienhard’s engineering research focused on heat transfer and thermodynamics. His work garnered awards and honors, including induction into the Oregon State Engineering Hall of Fame in 2000 and election to the National Academy of Engineering in 2003. But perhaps his greatest pride is the heat transfer textbook he first published in 1981, and which is still used in engineering programs around the world. The current, fifth edition, issued in 2020 in collaboration with his son John Lienhard V, is available for download as a free e-book from MIT.

For all his accomplishments as a professor of engineering, Lienhard is more widely known as a preeminent historian of technology, through the radio program he started in 1988.

“Engines of Our Ingenuity,” a four-minute broadcast about “the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them,” airs on public radio stations around the country five days a week. Produced by Houston Public Media, the program reaches a much larger audience these days through its podcast.

Each episode — the archive has more than 3,000 — consists of a short essay, read by Lienhard or another contributing writer, that tells the story of “how our culture is formed by human creativity.” Many of these focus on inventors from long ago, whose inventions we might take for granted today. Just consider, for instance, where we would be as a species without the wheel and crank (episode No. 24) or even the humble paper bag (No. 2,171). Other episodes take a wider view of the creative process and that “dangerous” practice of invention.

Invention is dangerous, Lienhard says, because it disrupts the existing order and challenges old ways of doing things. Progress depends on such disruption, so Lienhard believes engineers need to face the danger head on. Still, he acknowledges that changing the world brings with it the responsibility to be mindful of consequences, both intentional and otherwise.

“There’s no new technology that enters our lives that does not have revenge effects,” Lienhard said. “The automobile, penicillin, the internet — just go down the line. And yet, we human beings are bound to invent, because we cannot live without the fruit of invention. We are the only species that is bound to our technologies. It’s a very, very strange and complex relationship.

Sept. 20, 2022

Four faculty win early-career awards

Early-career investigator award winners for 2022.

Four faculty in the Oregon State University College of Engineering have received prestigious early-career investigator awards from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. Houssam Abbas, Yue Cao, and Xiao Fu are the recipients of the Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, awards from the NSF. Kelsey Stoerzinger is the recipient of an award from DOE’s Early Career Research Program.

The grants cover a wide array of engineering projects: developing computational ethics for autonomous systems; incorporating currently overlooked “virtual” resources, such as HVAC systems or water heaters, into energy storage systems; advancing unsupervised deep representation learning, and designing and testing catalysts that facilitate the conversion of nitrate into ammonia more efficiently and sustainably than current methods.

“These early career awards demonstrate the importance of our research and how the College of Engineering continues to innovate and lead in so many fields,” said Scott Ashford, Kearney Dean of Engineering. “On a personal note, I couldn’t be happier for these faculty members.”

Increasingly, autonomous systems — such as self-driving cars, unpiloted aerial vehicles, and assistive robots in medical facilities — interact with people on a daily basis. Houssam Abbas, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, will use his five-year, nearly $500,000 NSF CAREER award to further develop computational ethics as an engineering and scientific discipline to be used in the design of such systems.

For example, a self-driving car may encounter a situation where it needs to make an ethically laden decision: Given no other choice, does it run into a wall and potentially injure its passengers, or run into a pedestrian? While this question cannot be resolved with purely technical solutions, there is an urgent need for an engineering process to model, verify, and analyze autonomous systems’ behaviors in such situations.

Abbas aims to develop engineering tools to allow system designers to formalize, program, and verify the implementation of ethical principles.

A picture of Houssam Abbas.
Houssam Abbas wants autonomous systems, like self-driving cars, to make ethical choices when faced with difficult decisions.

Traditional energy storage systems encompass what Yue Cao, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, calls “real” storage, which includes batteries, supercapacitors, and fuel cells. He plans to use his five-year, $500,000 NSF CAREER award to figure out ways to also incorporate currently overlooked “virtual” resources, such as HVAC systems or water heaters.

“I call those systems ‘virtual,’ because storing energy is not their primary purpose, but they consume electricity and are tied to the grid or other energy resources,” Cao said.

A picture of Yue Cao.
Yue Cao’s work could lead to widespread use of nontraditional, hybrid energy storage systems.

The purpose of Cao’s research will be to create a universal equivalent circuit for multiple energy storage systems that are controlled by connected power electronics. Cao will then develop a design approach to optimally size the hybrid energy storage systems and increase their life and reliability. By dynamically regulating virtual energy mass, this new approach aims to modulate energy usage from the grid.

“For example, if I have rooftop solar panels on my house, and it’s a sunny day and the air conditioner is on, and in the next minute a cloud blocks the sun, solar power will be reduced,” Cao said. “Current systems would use power from the grid to keep the air conditioner running. With an integrated energy system, however, the power used by the air conditioner, or the virtual resource, could be adjusted temporarily to match the reduced power of the solar panels, without my noticing a difference in temperature.”

Cao is already working on research projects that involve energy storage problems including fast charging stations for heavy-duty trucks on rural highways, electrification of locomotives, and wave energy.

Xiao Fu, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and artificial intelligence, will use his five-year, $500,000 NSF CAREER award to develop a suite of nonlinear factor analysis tools and contribute to a deeper understanding of unsupervised machine learning and sensing systems.

A picture of Xiao Fu.
Xiao Fu plans to gain a deeper understanding of unsupervised machine learning and sensing systems.

Factor analysis tools are cornerstones of many sensing and learning applications, such as document analytics, hyperspectral imaging, brain signal processing, and representation learning. They’re designed to detect meaningful information hidden in large data sets, such as prominent topics within a large collection of documents.

However, many classic factor analysis models can be thwarted by phenomena known as nonlinear distortions, which frequently cause inaccurate results. To address the problem, Fu must first establish a deeper theoretical understanding of the so-called nonlinear factor analysis models, which are not well understood.

One of his goals is to use nonlinear factor analysis to understand and advance unsupervised deep representation learning, which is considered a critical tool to alleviate the high demand for labeled data in modern AI systems.

Supervised machine learning algorithms learn through exposure to labeled inputs that correspond with specific outputs. But the training process can be costly and time intensive, because reliable data annotation must be done by experienced workers.

Fu hopes to “reverse engineer” the data generating/acquisition process, so that machine learning and sensing algorithms can recognize and categorize unlabeled data — images, for instance — without being trained, by identifying and interpreting essential factors hidden within the data.

Kelsey Stoerzinger, assistant professor of chemical engineering, plans to use her five-year, $750,000 early career award from the DOE to develop a deeper understanding of electrochemical processes used to convert nitrate into ammonia, and to design and test catalysts that target this reaction.

Kelsey Stoerzinger with some students.
Kelsey Stoerzinger with former students Prajwal Adiga and Cindy Wong. Her work could lead to sustainable production of ammonia, one of the world’s most important chemicals.

Ammonia is among the most widely used chemicals in the world. But industrial-scale ammonia production relies on the Haber-Bosch process, in which hydrogen and nitrogen are combined at high temperatures and pressures. The practice requires enormous amounts of energy and produces huge volumes of carbon dioxide.

Meanwhile, nitrate from untreated wastewater and agricultural runoff overwhelms streams, rivers, and groundwater in many areas of the country. Ingesting excessive nitrate has been linked to a number of serious health risks in humans, while an overabundance in aquatic ecosystems can devastate plant and animal life.

Stoerzinger, who won an early career award from the National Science Foundation in 2021, will investigate an electrochemical option for ammonia synthesis in which an electric current is passed through a device containing nitrate-contaminated water. “We want to take this waste nitrate and transform it into a usable form, ammonia, and we’ll do that by applying electricity from renewable energy sources,” she said.

However, widespread implementation of an electrochemical approach will be feasible only with catalysts that select for, or favor, the reaction that produces ammonia rather than a competing reaction that produces hydrogen from the water molecules. Competing reactions can occur when the same starting materials combine to create undesired products.

Stoerzinger’s goal is to identify effective catalytic materials that result in high yields of ammonia. She intends to focus on materials made from abundant elements, like nickel, iron, and cobalt, because precious metal catalysts, while potentially useful, are too expensive for large-scale production.

“We want to find sustainable solutions that allow us to recycle nitrate by upgrading it to something valuable,” Stoerzinger said. “Developing the most selective and efficient catalysts is the linchpin that will allow us to move the technology forward.”

Sept. 20, 2022
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