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NSF announces a major center for river-to-ocean observation and prediction

PORTLAND, Ore. – Oregon Health & Science University has received a $19 million National Science Foundation grant to form a new center for studying coastal margins, the biologically rich but highly vulnerable environments where rivers meet the ocean.

The NSF Science and Technology Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction, or CMOP, is one of only 17 active STC's and one of four chosen for funding this year. It is the only STC focused on coastal margins and the first ever hosted in Oregon.

OHSU's OGI School of Science & Engineering and its partners, including the University of Washington and Oregon State University, are kicking in an extra $5.6 million to the effort, for a total of $24.6 million over the next five years. The NSF grant also is renewable after five years.

The Science and Technology Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction (CMOP), supported by the National Science Foundation, will use advanced science and technologies to help society meet important challenges. CMOP research will be driven in particular by key questions in coasal margin understanding: How do climate and climate change impact coastal margins? What roles do coastal margins play in global elemental cycles? How far seaward do human activities impact ecosystems?

CMOP is more than a scientific project however. “CMOP is a truly unique opportunity for the Pacific Northwest, with many, many facets,” said CMOP director António Baptista, Ph.D., professor and chairman of environmental and biomolecular systems at OHSU's OGI School of Science & Engineering, where the STC will be based.

“We will observe, understand and predict ocean processes in exciting new ways, in particular by bringing in leading-edge advances in genomics and proteomics,” said Baptista. “With companies as diverse as Intel and WET Labs, we will also explore new information-driven business opportunities while helping regional stakeholders address complex environmental and sustainable development issues in the Columbia River and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. And we will use cool technology and the natural appeal of the ocean to improve science and math literacy among kids while offering rigorous training opportunities for college and graduate students.”

CMOP will be based at OGI's campus in Hillsboro for the next five to seven years, when it will move with the rest of the School of Science & Engineering to OHSU's Schnitzer Campus located on the north end of the South Waterfront District.

OHSU President Peter Kohler, M.D., said CMOP's formation is proof that environmental health and human health are inextricably linked. He called OHSU's decision to move forward with the project "an easy one."

"First, we had outstanding leadership in Dr. Baptista. And these are critical environmental issues that affect human health," Kohler said. "When our environment is sick, people get sick. The CMOP is the best prescription for staving off the environmental ailments our region faces in the coming years."

“CMOP also is an example of the power of OHSU’s 2000 merger with the Oregon Graduate Institute of Science & Technology, now the OHSU OGI School of Science & Engineering, in bringing truly applied engineering to bear at OHSU,” Kohler noted. “CMOP, through OGI’s respected engineering programs, is helping fulfill the vision we had for creating one of the world’s most unique academic health center,” he said. “It is the essence of biotechnology.”

Coastal margins are zones containing a complex of estuaries, freshwater plumes, continental shelves and watersheds, including rivers, tributaries and drainage basins. They comprise less than 20 percent of the contiguous United States but support more than half of the U.S. population. But natural and manmade hazards in coastal areas, from severe weather and earthquakes to dredging and waste discharges, cost the U.S. more than $2 billion annually, and threaten wild salmon and other species.

The backbone of CMOP is SATURN, a space-age river and ocean observation network that includes boats, buoys, stationary platforms, undersea ocean gliders and even unmanned, bottom-crawling vehicles similar to the Mars Exploration Rover. They will continuously collect data, in real time, on everything from water temperature, water speed and salinity to levels of oxygen, organic compounds and plankton, and microbial communities. Scientists will use the data to build computer models and simulations for determining climate change impacts on coastal margins, the roles coastal margins play in the global cycling of environmental carbon, nutrients, gases and other manmade and natural substances, as well as how far seaward human activities affect ecosystems.

“SATURN represents a new wave of sophisticated ocean observation and prediction systems,” Baptista said, “which will give scientists an amazing new window into physical, chemical, biological and ecological processes – just what we need to better understand and predict how our rivers, estuaries and oceans will fare under the influence of evolving climate and anthropogenic pressures.”

Education geared toward minorities and females is a major focus of CMOP. The center will offer a variety of outreach programs for K-12, undergraduate, graduate and continuing education students, including science classes, apprenticeships and internships, lab tours, field trips, and science clubs. Graduate students at partner institutions also will be able to enroll in cross-campus degree programs.

Nathaniel G. Pitts, director of the NSF Office of Integrative Activities, said “teamwork, strategic planning and implementation, and synergy” are key factors that will make CMOP and three other new NSF Science and Technology Centers successful.

“Each has multiple partners from different science and engineering sectors, including national and international academia, industry, and federal, state and local government,” he said. “The partners will enable the centers to take advantage of complex agendas that require special modes of operation. The full diversity of the nation's intellectual talent will be engaged, and the expectation is that new knowledge will be one of the primary products, as will be the development of new instrumentation, new technologies, and future scientists and engineers."

Roy Hunter Sampsel, chairman of the board of the Portland-based Institute for Tribal Government, member of the CMOP external review board and a Choctaw tribal member, said that he is gratified by the CMOP program’s outreach to tribal leaders. “They said they want to identify and use the indigeneous knowledge and science available at the tribal government level. Quite frankly, in 30 years, that question has not been asked. What a tremendous opportunity to share resources.”

Other CMOP leaders are Jack Barth, Ph.D., professor of physical oceanography in the College of Oceanic Atmospheric Sciences, and Bruce Menge, Ph.D., professor of marine biology in the College of Science, OSU; David Martin, Ph.D., associate director and principal oceanographer in the Applied Physics Laboratory, UW; and Peter Zuber, Ph.D., professor of environmental and biomolecular systems, OHSU OGI School of Science & Engineering.