The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Steve Strauss Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Chris Petersen.

March 7, 2017


Steven Henry Strauss was born in 1955 in Borough Park, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, where he received his early education. At the age of sixteen, he left to attend college at the State University of New York at Purchase. About a year later, Strauss took a break from college to travel and connect with the outdoors, visiting Alaska and Oregon. It was during this time that he discovered a passion for forests and began considering a career in science.

Strauss returned to school at Cornell University, where he pursued a bachelor's degree in Biology from 1973-1978. He then transitioned to graduate studies at Yale University's School of Forestry & Environment. While at Yale, he was exposed for the first time to plant genetics, and also began to explore the world of public policy in relation to environmental issues, law, and activism. Strauss earned his MFS in Forest Science from Yale in 1980.

From there, Strauss went on to earn his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, completing his program in Forest Resources and Genetics in 1985. As a doctoral student, Strauss worked closely with Bill Libby, professor of Forest Genetics, who modeled for Strauss the possibilities of genetic engineering technology in forestry, and a mindset of openness to new technologies. Likewise, while at Berkeley, Strauss' experiences as a teaching assistant opened his eyes to public policy as an essential resource for knowing how to harness science for social change.

In 1985, Strauss was hired by OSU's Department of Forest Science and Genetics as a biotechnologist. In hiring Strauss, OSU became one of the first schools of forestry to enter into the emerging field of biotechnology. Once arrived, Strauss' first research focus was on the evolution of major tree species. Later, in the early 1990s, Strauss developed and directed the Tree Genomics and Biosafety Research Cooperative, a public-private partnership that worked to apply good science to pressing social and economic issues.

Since 2000, Strauss has worked primarily on areas related to genetic engineering of flowering, stature, and transformation-based "functional genomics," using poplar trees as model organisms. His research aims to develop hybrids of different species for increased productivity and use in the production of biofuels, for example. Strauss is perhaps best known for his development and application of biosafety technologies meant to contain genetically modified organisms.

Strauss is also a member of the Leopold Leadership Fellowship Program, which works to develop closer communicative relationships between scientists, the media, and policy makers. In 2009, Strauss was named a Distinguished Professor, the highest honor that Oregon State University bestows upon members of its faculty.