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The uncompromising pursuit of healthier people and communities

Addressing health disparities and preventing disease

American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities experience elevated rates of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. These communities are historically underserved when it comes to health care. Little research has been conducted to better understand and address their health care needs.

Dr. Dedra Buchwald of the WSU Health Sciences Spokane campus hopes to equip these communities with powerful tools to improve blood pressure control, and ultimately cardiovascular disease and stroke. With a $10 million grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, Dr. Buchwald will work with a Southwest tribe, an Alaska Native health care organization, and three Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community-based organizations to reduce health risks related to high blood pressure.

Taking aim at chronic disease

The grant is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Transdisciplinary Collaborative Centers for Health Disparities Research Program (TCC), which focuses on priority areas in minority health and health disparities. Dr. Buchwald will create one of two TCC centers that target chronic disease prevention. The other center will be based at Michigan State University.

A community partnership

Dr. Buchwald and fellow Principal Investigator, Dr. Spero Manson of the University of Colorado Denver, plan to engage community members in all aspects of the research process. The leaders of the Center’s three intervention projects are all American Indian or Alaska Native, and all are former mentees. The Center also includes teams of personnel who represent the spectrum of National Institute of Minority Health and Health

Disparities staff, academic institutions, and health care systems and agencies that play a role in serving minority communities. In addition, Drs. Buchwald and Manson will foster new scientific collaborations with local and regional partners. Scientifically rigorous and culturally informed, their investigations will respond to community needs while honoring community values.

Stopping the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Young lady being treated in hospital bed

Advancing the health of communities worldwide

For decades, doctors have trusted antibiotic medicines to fight Infectious bacteria, saving lives and restoring health. Lately, though, the drugs often fail. To blame are newly emerging antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Drug-resistant bacterial infections cause nearly 23,000 deaths annually in the United States. Globally the annual death toll could be as high as 700,000.

WSU is part of global effort

Stopping antimicrobial resistance (AMR) requires a global effort. Washington State University is helping to lead the charge.

In the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health, where experts study the emergence and spread of disease, researchers are examining the role the environment plays in proliferation of AMR.

Understanding how AMR spreads

AMR spreads quickly in developing countries where antibiotic use is unregulated and widespread. It thrives in low sanitation settings. Global travel and the international food trade aid dissemination of resistant bacteria worldwide.

WSU scientists are conducting research in east Africa to better understand the emergence and spread of AMR. They are working in partnership with Tanzania’s Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

Professor Doug Call of the Allen School is training scientists from Africa to better understand complex issues associated with AMR persistence. He teaches local scientists to recognize genetic mechanisms that can give resistant microbes an upper hand. Learn more about Allen School programs addressing AMR here.

Convening a Washington Coalition

In 2016 Washington State University joined with other organizations addressing global health issues to form the Washington State Antimicrobial Resistance Coalition. The group explores how drug resistance emerges in settings worldwide, then spreads into U.S. communities and hospitals.

The coalition fosters collaboration among federal agencies, Congress, international global health organizations, U.S. hospitals, research universities, and others to deploy resources strategically in the fight against AMR. It plans to monitor high-risk locations and test new approaches to keep superbugs in check.

Recent lecture in Seattle


The 2017 WSU Innovators event in Seattle featured researchers working with Dr. Call, as well as Dr. Guy Palmer, the Allen School’s co-founder and senior director for global health at WSU. Tina Vlasaty of the Washington Global Health Alliance moderated the panel.

The panelists discussed the global-to-local approach needed to curb the emergence of antimicrobial resistance, and WSU’s role in developing solutions.

Watch a video of the engaging conversation. 

Promoting an informed and equitable society

Preserving indigenous traditions in digital form

A complete picture of U.S. history requires the information held in tribal archives, libraries, and museums (TALMs). While many major libraries and museums now digitize their collections for access and use, many TALMs lack the resources to do so. In addition, traditional content management systems are organized under Western standards, not allowing for local narrations and other cultural practices and protocols important to archiving Native heritage.

Digitally preserving and sharing stories, artifacts, and images from diverse cultures is important in a technologically advancing world. WSU researcher Kim Christen is ensuring that digital history includes Native American voices stored and accessed in culturally responsible ways.

Helping tribal communities build and maintain digital archives

Dr. Christen has partnered with WSU Libraries to train tribal communities in the lifecycle of digital stewardship. Together they are hosting a multi-year Tribal Stewardship Cohort Program, supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

Central to the program is Mukurtu CMS, a content management system that Dr. Christen originally developed several years ago for the Warumungu Aboriginal community in Australia. The sustainable, scalable software platform is now used around the world to help indigenous peoples circulate, manage, and narrate materials following their cultural practices. The cohort program teaches tribal communities how to implement and use Mukurtu in their home institutions.

Taking digital preservation nationwide

Dr. Christen’s most recent grant from the IMLS will allow her to launch Mukurtu hubs around the country, in partnership with several universities and libraries. The hubs will provide training and support to TALMs, and ongoing development and deployment of the Mukurtu platform.

Dr. Christen’s work on Mukurtu is part of the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation, which she leads at WSU with co-director Trevor Bond from WSU Libraries.

Harnessing technology to improve quality of life

New promise for solar energy

A breakthrough by WSU researcher Kelvin Lynn could help solar energy compete with fossil fuels for generating electricity.

Commercial success of solar technology has been constrained by the cells’ performance and cost. Key to addressing both concerns are the materials from which solar cells are made.

Seeking an alternative to silicon

Silicon solar cells represent 90 percent of the solar cell market. Because silicon is a costly material to use in manufacturing, it keeps the price of solar cells high. A low-cost alternative is cadmium telluride (CdTe), which outperforms silicon in real-world conditions, such as low light and hot, humid weather. CdTe also boasts a lower carbon footprint. The downside: Its performance is limited.

For decades, the maximum voltage available from a CdTe solar cell was fixed, making it less energy efficient than silicon-based cells. This practical limit was imposed by the quality of CdTe materials.

Breaking a longstanding barrier

Working with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Dr. Lynn’s team discovered a way to grow CdTe crystals that enabled precise control over purity and composition. His approach enabled fabrication of CdTe solar cells that made them nearly as efficient as silicon-based cells. The innovation establishes new research paths for developing solar cells that are more efficient and provide electricity at lower cost than fossil fuels.

Dr. Lynn’s research was funded through the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, which aims to strengthen U.S. competitiveness in the solar industry and make solar energy cost-competitive with traditional energy sources.

Improving security for storage of dangerous materials

waste barrels

New technology safeguards radioactive weapons and waste

Safe storage of nuclear weapons and waste is critical for national security and environmental health. Specialized seals are used to prevent tampering.

WSU researcher Hergen Eilers has developed a seal technology that adds a layer of security beyond what’s found in existing seals. His technology also allows for simple visual inspection to verify that a storage site is secure.

How the seal works

Dr. Eilers’ seals are composed of nano-particles embedded in a polymer. He uses a wavefront-modulated laser, which can control scattered light. When the laser interacts with the seal, the light is scattered by the particles. The reflected light then interacts with a holographic waveplate which is designed to visually display a unique pattern. The particles are much smaller than those used in current seals, allowing for more complex patterns that are harder to mimic.

Tampering destroys the unique relationship between the seal and the wavefront laser, resulting in the disappearance of the reflection pattern. Imagine, for example, that you wanted to check on the security of stored nuclear waste. If the holographic pattern on the seal remains visible, then there has been no tampering.

Added security

Existing seal technologies require more complicated verification methods. In addition, many seals are limited to displaying one reflection pattern. In contrast, Dr. Eilers’ seals can be used in conjunction with lasers of different wavelengths, polarizations, and other variables. As a result, one seal could reflect 10 different images when combined with different types of lasers. In order to conceal tampering, a person would have to replicate all 10 images. This level of complexity—which makes images nearly impossible to replicate—is made possible by the seal’s small particles and light scattering properties.

Creating jobs through sustainable building technologies

Cross-laminated timber could invigorate the regional economy

Buildings stand among the nation’s leading producers of greenhouse gases. To blame is the energy used to operate them and the carbon-heavy materials required to construct them. With populations increasingly shifting toward urban centers, construction will only continue. Reducing emissions created by urban growth will require rethinking our built environment.

Much of that rethinking is happening at WSU, where architecture and engineering scholars are designing future skylines made of wood. Not often used in today’s urban infrastructures, wood is a renewable resource. It can be sustainably forested and manufactured into panels that have high-performance properties comparable to those of mainstream construction materials.

Interdisciplinary research teams supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Science Foundation are developing manufacturing supply chains and improving performance of cross-laminated timber, or CLT. Heavy CLT panels are manufactured with wood that would otherwise pose fire and pest hazards. The panels have 3 main benefits: they improve local forest health, sequester carbon, and reduce construction times.

The economic impact of these WSU innovations have the potential to be felt throughout the Pacific Northwest. Wood materials needed to manufacture CLT can be sourced from Washington forests. Researchers Don Dolan and Mike Wolcott are leading teams to scout and develop the rural-to-urban supply chains that would make manufacturing possible, as well as developing guidelines that will help builders make broader use the material. The teams are also developing new technology to improve panel performance and capabilities.

WSU is teaming with industry and civic leaders in Washington to rejuvenate sawmills and create new jobs in rural towns where logging once thrived. Dr. Wolcott is on the leadership committee of a CLT coalition convened by Forterra, the largest land, conservation, stewardship and community building organization in the state. The coalition aims to bring CLT to Washington by reducing technical barriers, incentivizing produces and users of engineering wood products, and generating public and private investment.

Equity for women in the workplace

Despite comparable levels of commitment, women don’t advance at the same rate as men

In the past 40 years, women have assumed a larger role in the U.S. workforce. While roughly two out of five women worked for pay in the early 1970s, almost three out of five do so today[1]. But Julie Kmec, a Washington State University sociologist, has repeatedly seen how their roles, wages and mobility continue to differ dramatically from those of their male peers.

In a study of some 800 law firms, she found that a woman’s chance of promotion decreases as she advances. Nearly 40 percent of entry-level associates were women, but only 25 percent of new partners were. Kmec and a fellow researcher found that on average, the mobility rate of women fell by more than half on the path from entry-level employment to partnership.

Studying a nationally representative sample of 2,000 workers, Kmec saw that employed mothers were more engaged than fathers at work and had equal levels of commitment, intensity and motivation. The findings put to rest several myths negatively impacting mothers’ pay and promotion.

Kmec has also seen the role that policies can have on gender diversity in the workplace. In a unique study of more than 200,000 private U.S. companies, she saw a relationship between state equal employment policies and the representation of women in management, where they are typically under-represented. In states with the highest levels of sex-based equal employment opportunity protections, women had from 2 to 9 percent greater representation in top management. Those state statues went beyond federal laws, demonstrating the power of state policies in shaping company diversity.



Removing pollutants from urban runoff

Researchers seek ways to trap toxins and improve water quality

Paved surfaces cover tens of thousands of square miles in the United States. Almost all are impervious, collecting pesticides, fertilizers, oil, metals and other pollutants. The resulting runoff is one of the biggest threats to water quality.

On the west side of Washington State, abundant rain and a surging urban population create an ideal observatory for the problem. Working south of Seattle at Washington State University’s Research and Extension Center in Puyallup, researchers at the Washington Stormwater Center are working to address water-quality issues and develop effective, evidence-based management practices and principles.

Permeable pavement surfaces and various catchments at the center keep rainwater from washing into a nearby creek. At the same time, they help WSU researchers see how well the water is treated by the pavement and underlying gravel. Rain gardens and mesocosms— plastic tanks filled with different soil mixes—take advantage of the soil’s ability to retain and treat water. Researchers are using them to study which soil blends are better at removing pollutants.

John Stark, director of WSU Puyallup and the Washington Stormwater Center, leads the research and outreach programs that address stormwater issues. In 2015, aquatic ecotoxicologist Jen McIntyre, Stark’s post-doctoral scientist working with researchers from NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, found that a simple column of common soil can reverse the toxic effects of urban runoff. Untreated, the water would quickly kill young coho salmon and their insect prey.

The columns of soil are similar to rain gardens that homeowners and municipalities are installing around Puget Sound. With the help of WSU Extension, residents and a local non-profit are working to have as many as 12,000 rain gardens in the region by 2016. The work can make a major contribution towards reducing flooding, preventing pollution, and aiding the recovery of endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead. Applied nationally and internationally, this and other forms of low-impact development researched at the center can help ensure clean water and habitats for generations to come.

Improving fruit cultivars online

Database houses genomic, genetic, and breeding information to help tree fruit growers

Washington, of course, is famous for its apples. Together with citrus, apples and related tree fruits comprise a $12.7 billion industry in the U.S. Staying ahead of diseases and pests, not to mention the search for the perfect combination of productivity and flavor, makes constant improvement a necessity.

WSU researcher Doreen Main, along with a team of fellow horticulture scientists, has created an online database to help growers around the world address these challenges.

The tree fruit Genome Database Resource is the world’s first central repository for citrus genomics and genetics data. All told, it provides genomic, genetic, and breeding resources for 22 major horticultural crops. It also provides a plethora of software tools and bioinformatics resources to scientists who need genetic data to improve fruit varieties.

Dr. Main and her WSU collaborators built the website together with researchers at Clemson University, University of Florida, the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, and North Carolina State University. Funding by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative, the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, and the Citrus Research and Development Foundation backed the project.

Next up: the Grower’s Toolbox, an online resource of weather, soil, and environmental conditions, which will help fruit growers around the world choose the best varieties for their growing conditions.

Washington State University