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The Power of Science

Campbell Family Partnership with WSU Finds Global Solutions

Colin Campbell (’95, Crop & Soil Sci.) stood at the edge of a flooded rice paddy in the Japanese village of Itate, surveying a landscape contaminated with radioactive isotopes following the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011. As part of an ambitious and innovative experiment to remove Cesium-137 from the soil, he brought a tool created more than 6,000 miles away at Decagon Devices in Pullman.

Applied Innovation

Colin and Gaylon Campbell

Decagon Devices was founded in 1983 by Gaylon Campbell (’68, Ph.D., Crop & Soil Sci.), Colin’s father. The elder Campbell started working for WSU shortly after graduation. During the research portion of his job, Gaylon often found he needed to build his own instruments. His breakthrough product was the outcome of a quest to measure moisture in soil and the recognition that a current technology could be adapted to meet his goal. By constructing a miniature version of a thermocouple psychrometer, then used to measure air humidity, Gaylon got the results he was after. Colleagues heard about his ingenuity and asked him to build the devices for them, too. When he couldn’t keep up with demand, he asked his children to help, which supported their college educations and formed the basis for Decagon Devices. Even today, Decagon is very much a family operation, although the employee count has grown to about a hundred.

The Tradition of Teaching Science

Gaylon also loved teaching. One of his favorite WSU classes was Environmental Biophysics, which studies the exchange of heat, water, carbon dioxide, and “everything that’s important for keeping us alive,” said Gaylon. The class starts with the fundamental principles of heat exchange in plants, animals, and humans in their environment, and extends into the complexities of climate science.

The mix of students from across campus required constant classroom innovation but provided endless opportunities to experiment. “We had kids from all of the sciences,” he recalled. One zoology student asked if it was possible to measure water loss from a snake. When Gaylon said yes, he removed a slithering serpent from his shirt, sending a number of students bolting for the door. Despite the panic, the measurement was successful, and likely a first in herpetological studies.

Education and Decagon

A new Decagon device is arrayed for testing. The sensors detect grass and canopy health by measuring the reflection of specific wavelengths of light coming from the plants. The devices can help determine the effect of climate change on vegetation growth, especially in vulnerable ecosystems.
A new Decagon device is arrayed for testing. The sensors detect grass and canopy health by measuring the reflection of specific wavelengths of light coming from the plants. The devices can help determine the effect of climate change on vegetation growth, especially in vulnerable ecosystems.

“Education is one of the core principles on which Decagon operates,” Colin explained in his office at Decagon headquarters in Pullman. The room, strewn with note pads, magazines, and spikey sensor prototypes, is well suited to the vice president of research and development. Like his father, Colin also enjoyed teaching Environmental Biophysics at WSU, a class he had taken from Gaylon years earlier. After leaving Decagon in 1995 to pursue a doctorate at Texas A&M, Colin returned to Pullman and began teaching at WSU part-time. The company donated both his time and that of Doug Cobos, the director of research and development at Decagon, so WSU students could benefit from their knowledge and experience at no cost to the university.

The Campbells’ devotion to educating young scientists extends beyond the classroom. Decagon sponsors an in-house internship program, where students not only assist the company with its research and development, but also work on their own projects. One student developed a device for measuring water infiltration into soil to get a more accurate calculation for runoff. By focusing on water potential, the new measurement tool indicates the energy state of water in soil, which determines how strongly the water binds to the soil. This project could have far-reaching effects on water and soil conservation.

An ongoing collaboration between Decagon and WSU’s R.J. Cook Agronomy Farm has also produced long-range impacts. Decagon and sister company Campbell Scientific provided instrumentation and a central data collection system to track water and fertilizer movement across the farm without invasive core tests. An M.S. student working under Colin handled the data processing. WSU leveraged the combined contribution to obtain an additional $4.6 million in grants for research into improving the efficiency of nitrogen and water inputs through site-specific management, also known as precision agriculture. “By reducing the amount of nitrogen escaping into the water and air, we reduce pollution while helping farmers optimize yield and improve profits,” explained David Brown, associate professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.

The latest contribution from the Campbell family is an endowed professorship in environmental biophysics provided to the Department of Crop and Soil Science. It builds upon Gaylon’s legacy of research and teaching to develop and refine models of water, gas, and energy fluxes in the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum, with a focus on agriculture and other managed ecosystems.

Seeking Scientific Solutions

Decagon staff installing water depth sensors in a Japanese slurry pit.
Decagon staff installing water depth sensors in a Japanese slurry pit.

Back on the banks of the Japanese rice paddy, holding a Decagon data logger connected to a Geiger counter, Colin was also thinking about the 71-year-old farmer who owns the land and the farmer’s 93-year-old mother. How they desperately want to return to their land and lifestyle, but can’t while the land is saturated with Cesium-137. While the Japanese government has tried to remediate some farmland by removing the top 10 centimeters of soil, the technique has robbed the land of its fertility. On this farm, researchers are testing a novel approach of flooding the land and creating a slurry with the topsoil. Cesium binds to the light clay particles, leaving the heavier sand particles to settle. When the water is drained from the paddy, it should take the light clay and cesium with it. Decagon has contributed multiple tools that monitor the process. Preliminary results show that this approach yields a significant reduction in contamination, though more testing is needed.

“Science can have the answers to current and future problems.” Although these are the words of Gaylon, the sentiment is applied by the entire Campbell family, as well as scores of students and faculty at WSU.

– by Bob Hoffman