Life-Saving Science

At a recent meeting of the American Meteorological Society in New Orleans, I participated in a discussion of early warning systems that give the public time to take cover from tornadoes and to prepare for hurricanes. Today, we have hours or days to get out of harm’s way. Contrast that with the hurricane in Galveston, Texas, in 1900: Inability to track and warn of the storm led to the deaths of more than 8,000 people. That event still ranks as the United States’ most deadly natural disaster.

Rick Spinrad (Photo: Karl Maasdam)
Rick Spinrad (Photo: Karl Maasdam)

For me, the meeting stimulated important thoughts about scientific inquiry. If researchers save lives, are they “heroes”? One common concept of heroism refers to putting one’s life at risk for the safety of others. We think of a firefighter rescuing a child from a burning building or a soldier risking death to save a comrade. While scientists do not always take chances with life and limb in field and lab work, their efforts often save lives.

Remember polio? By the early 1950s, the epidemic had killed thousands and left many more paralyzed. Most victims were children. As a boy, I watched a neighbor move slowly, awkwardly, with great effort, using metal braces and crutches. I remember standing in line with my classmates to receive a revolutionary dose of precaution. Vaccines developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin eliminated new cases of polio from not only my community but from most countries and dramatically reduced its worldwide incidence. I name Salk and Sabin among my champions.

Design for Maximum Benefit

At Oregon State, I think of work by our Construction Engineering faculty, who focus on the safety of homes, buildings, roads, freeways and bridges. Rescuing someone from underneath rubble takes heroism, yet preventing disasters by thoughtful design and construction can also be heroic, with far-reaching benefits.

Illustration by Teresa Hall
Illustration by Teresa Hall

Take our students in Engineers Without Borders. They have brought clean drinking water to communities in Central America and are working today in Africa to reduce the death rate from waterborne diseases and to improve quality of life.

Oregon State’s contributions to the understanding of tsunamis and earthquakes are widely heralded, yet between “events,” many of us don’t think about related issues: preservation of critical lifelines, such as key roads, airports and utility networks; seismic upgrades to buildings; and strategies to protect public safety during an event and to help a shattered region rebuild.

Maintaining public health is no less of a challenge. Researchers in our College of Pharmacy are developing new ways to prevent and treat infectious diseases. In the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, researchers address obesity, diabetes and cancer with sound science and with personal care.

Of the more than a quarter-billion dollars’ worth of research conducted at OSU, a large percentage aims to protect human life. In my book, that makes our researchers a band of heroes. So I add my humble definition to Joseph Campbell’s quote above: A hero is someone who dedicates his or her life to creating knowledge for a safer world.