WSU’s Biological Systems Engineers celebrate a century of impact

A doctoral student points to a poster while explaining his research to guests during a poster session.
Doctoral student Oluwatunmise Dada presents his research to guests at a Department of Biological Sciences poster session and gathering March 9, 2024, inside WSU's Elson S. Floyd Cultural Center.

For more than a century, scientists and teachers at Washington State University’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering have transformed Northwest agriculture and the lives of Washingtonians.

On Saturday, March 9, BSE faculty, students, and staff gathered at WSU’s Elson S. Floyd Cultural Center to celebrate their accomplishments and reflect on the work and impact of those who came before them. The celebration coincided with the release of retired professor Larry James’ second volume of departmental history, “The Faculty, 1910–2023,” detailing 11 decades of work by dozens of professionals across ever-changing disciplines.

“The department is a testament to the talent, hard work, and vision of 90 former and current faculty,” wrote James, who laid out its major historical accomplishments.

“We led one of the major rural electrification projects in the nation,” he said. In 1925, ag engineering chair L.J. Smith, Washington State College president E.O. Holland, agriculture college dean E.C. Johnson, and engineering dean Hubert Carpenter partnered with farmers and power company representatives to form the Washington Rural Electrification Council, working to remove barriers to electricity use on Northwest farms. Farmers across the state benefited from the project.

Faculty in BSE spurred irrigation and other advances, reduced erosion from wind and water, protected the environment, advanced Washington agriculture, and supported their college and the global profession. Several BSE scholars served their country during World War II.

As the years went by, the mission changed. In 1992, the department name changed from “Agricultural Engineering” to “Biological Systems Engineering” to reflect a broader mission serving agriculture and other biology-based enterprises. Since inception, the department has conferred more than 1,100 bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.

In a panel discussion, Dr. James, Gustavo Barbosa-Cánovas, and Gary Hyde looked back on their long-running experiences in research and education. The gathering also remembered BSE faculty and staff who have recently passed away, including Alan Pettibone, Day Bassett, Keith Saxton, and Bill Bowe. Students also shared their research posters with visitors, who included Wendy Powers, Cashup Davis Family Endowed Dean of CAHNRS, as well as WSU Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research Jonathan Male.

A special moment came when James and fellow retired faculty member Denny Davis, a former chair and associate dean, accepted Distinguished Alumnus Awards from current chair Manuel Garcia-Pérez.

“I’m very honored and touched by this award,” said James, a former department chair, campus chancellor, and vice provost. “I’ve seen WSU from all angles, from student and time-slip employee all the way up to chancellor and vice provost. My degree in ag engineering has served me very well: training on how to think and solve problems works not just for engineering but for life.”

“What really spurred me on was action for students learning something they could use and apply,” said Davis. As a faculty member and leader, he watched the department rise in credibility as it documented outstanding performance by students.

“This was an exciting time for me to be in a position where I could help students,” said Davis, who urges current and future scholars to seek out opportunities that allow them to assist others.

The celebration concluded with the unveiling of photographs of BSE faculty members who have served the department and university for more than 20 years. These photographs are on display in room 259 at the department’s home in L.J. Smith Hall.

Faculty with more than 20 years of service include Joan Wu, Robert Evans, William Symons, Henry Waelti, James Middleton, Ronald Hermanson, Keith Saxton, Larry King, Juming Tang, Gary Hyde, Shulin Chen, and Leslie Smith.

Faculty with more than 30 years of service include John George, Donald McCool, Marvin Pitts, Day Bassett, Denny Davis, Larry James, June Roberts, John Simpson, Gustavo Barbosa-Cánovas, Claudio Stöckle, Ralph Cavaliere, Alan Pettibone, and Albert Powell.

View photos from the event on the CAHNRS Flickr website.

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