Desert Research Institute Marks 50 Years of Science Achievements

In this undated photo provided by Desert Research Institute, DRI's glaciologist Rebecca Anderson examines an ice core from a depth of 1,900 feet.
Associated Press + More

SANDRA CHEREB


Associated Press Writer RENO, Nev.—Searching for water in a West African nation, scientists turned to the heavens. Using satellite remote technology, they pinpointed fractures in the Earth to identify where water pools below the surface, giving well drillers on the ground the best shot at finding potable water.

Today, those wells provide villagers in Ghana with drinkable water free of disease-bearing parasites common in shallower water sources.

The technology is a cornerstone of Nevada's Desert Research Institute, now called DRI, that this year celebrates a half century of scientific pursuits.

From identifying air pollutants and plotting global warming through miles of ice cores drilled from the polar shelves to studying desert terrain in a quest to identify deadly land mines, DRI's pursuits and stature in the scientific community have grown around the world.

In the 1970s, one study determined that air pollution from Los Angeles was making its way as far east as the Grand Canyon. A decade later, DRI scientists pioneered the use of chemical "fingerprinting" to determine the origin of air pollutants.

"That's become one of our major hallmarks of research," said President Stephen Wells.

That research has made the institute a leader in atmospheric studies, and it's led to scientists being called upon to help identify indoor and outdoor pollutants damaging to China's famed terra-cotta warriors.

DRI's scope and its success took root in a two-page piece of legislation passed by the Nevada Legislature in 1959 when the state population was less than 300,000 and Nevada was known more for gambling and quickie divorces than scientific research.

The measure authorized creation of the institute and outlined its mission: "To foster and to conduct fundamental scientific, economic, social or educational investigations" and "encourage and foster a desire for research on the part of students and faculty."

"These people had a vision," Wells said. "There was no guarantee that it would ever be successful."

In its first year DRI brought in about $2.5 million in research support. Today, that figure is $40 million in the form of grants and contracts.

From the beginning the institute, which sits on a hill on the north end of Reno with stunning views of the city and the snowcapped Sierra, had an operating model that was quite unique. As an autonomous organization, its researchers would not be afforded tenure, as are veteran university faculty members. Instead, they were to find their own project funding.

It was a liberating concept by the institute's first director, atmospheric physicist Wendell Mordy, said Joy Leland, one of the first employees hired in 1961.

"His idea was that at so many places, scientists are sidetracked with all that's involved in teaching," Leland said. "It was a very unusual situation for academia, and I think it all made us feel sort of independent, doing our own thing."

That independence, Wells said, "actually has been one of the reasons for long-term success."

"Not everyone can operate in that environment," he said. "The people who stay, they thrive and survive in handling the challenges and the stresses."

As a result, the institute attracts remarkable talent. "They could go to any institution they wanted to. But they come here and stay here because we let them dream their dreams," Wells said.

Today, DRI has campuses on both ends of the state, as well as satellite or shared facilities in Boulder City, Incline Village at Lake Tahoe and Steamboat Springs, Colo., where scientists study storm and cloud physics from within the clouds at a high elevation laboratory.

Its growth is evidenced by DRI's annual award, the Nevada Medal, a coveted honor in the scientific community. Now in its 22nd year, the award recognizes outstanding international achievement in science, engineering and technology. This year's medal was presented to Dr. Francis Sellers Collins, a geneticist who helped lead the breakthrough unraveling of the human genetic code.

As it looks to the future, Wells said research will undoubtedly focus not only on a changing planet, but how life forms respond to those changes. Such projects already are under way, examining life forms in extreme environments, from hot springs and deep sea vents to the polar regions.