Spring 2011

The “Why” Switch

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Some people just can’t help it. They ask questions as though their “why” switch got stuck in the “on” position when they were children. Take Don Pettit. The NASA astronaut and OSU chemical engineering alum (’78) from Silverton joined three different labs during his undergraduate years in Corvallis. He learned how to photograph fluidized bed coal combustion, studied asexual reproduction in plants that live on insects and measured gas adsorption on the surface of a solid.

Pettit says professors “roped” him into their labs because he kept asking questions. In exchange, he got a first-hand look at how research was done.

His switch is still wide open. Today he works in a lab that you can see from home. Just look up on a clear night. As an astronaut, he does fundamental physics experiments in the International Space Station. In his online “Saturday Morning Science” videos from space, water forms a glistening sphere in a wire loop, antacid tablets generate frothy bubbles that circulate in a watery world and CD players demonstrate the principles of a gyroscope. These phenomena aren’t just curiosities; they have direct application to engineering in the space environment. Pettit is scheduled to make his third return to space and his second to the station in December 2011.

Pettit may be in the vanguard of space science, but his enthusiasm echoes in today’s undergrads. They show the same thirst to solve problems and make discoveries. At OSU’s Celebrating Undergraduate Excellence forum in May, 56 student teams presented their research in a range of fields — forestry, biochemistry, agriculture, psychology, nutrition, geology, biology, engineering and the arts.

Talking to these students is like getting a tour of new worlds. They gladly share their insights. They talk excitedly but with conviction, and I often come away with an overwhelming feeling: My own “why” switch is open, and I’d love to join them on their journey.

I hope you get that feeling as you read through some of their stories in this issue of Terra.

— Nick Houtman