Two large domes off South Market Road in Mission may conjure images of science fiction.
But for Stuart Harris, they signify progress within reach.
The field station offers a tool for figuring out how to restore native plants to the Hanford nuclear reservation, 500 square miles of barren CTUIR land in southeast Washington that was used to produce plutonium for World War II and the Cold War. Fully replenishing the land could take decades, Harris said.
The 25-foot-high greenhouses, technically called geodesic domes, are equipped with highly sensitive environmental measuring equipment to study conditions in which native plants grow best, said Steve Link, the botanist in charge of research at the domes. They offer 5,000 square feet of growing room and compare humidity, radiation and temperature between the domes and a one-acre outdoor growing area.
“People don’t do this work in such greenhouses that I’m aware of,” Link said.
The analytical chemistry lab has top-of-the-line equipment to test for chemicals in substances such as soil and food, said chemical engineer Patrick Mills, who is preparing the lab for research. This will allow the Tribes to test for pollutants at the Hanford sight and elsewhere, including contracted work for chemical spills and even crime scene forensic testing.
The Tribes will use the biodiesel fuel lab to explore using canola oil to power its vehicles and farm equipment and eventually sell fuel to the public, Harris said. This lab is run with the expertise of Rico Cruz, a member of the University of Idaho team that first developed biodiesel fuel.
CTUIR dedicated the facility Nov. 12, two months after the two-year construction project was completed. The $1.5 million project was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, except for infrastructure such as water and electricity, which the Tribes covered.
The dome-shaped greenhouses are part of a larger research facility that is the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation’s answer to President Barack Obama’s call to educate more youth in science, said Harris, CTUIR director of science and engineering. CTUIR is the first tribe in the nation with such a sophisticated research facility, he said.
CTUIR is working with Blue Mountain Community College, Oregon State and Eastern Oregon universities to offer credits and video conference classes, and has plans to contact Washington State University and University of Idaho.
“There are other tribes that have converted a room (into a laboratory),” he said. “This is the first one that has actually built an analytical laboratory — a field station — for the purpose of understanding pollution and how it impacts human beings.”
Harris anticipates the station will be operational in 6-9 months and eventually more than double the staff of the Tribes’ current 20-person science and engineering department.
CTUIR also plans to offer classes and internships for juniors and seniors in high school and undergraduate students at the biodiesel fuel research and analytical chemistry labs and greenhouses.
The program will be open to all students, but Harris hopes it will usher more American Indian students into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. He estimates only one percent of STEM professionals are American Indian. He became only the seventh American Indian geologist in the U.S. in 1991, when he received his bachelor’s degree from Oregon State.
“This is how the Tribe is investing in STEM — by putting our money where our mouth is,” Harris said.
Contact Chris Rizer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0836.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.