Sharon Rose wore gigantic sunglasses to hide her scorched eyebrows, and she covered the charred ends of her golden-blond hair with a patterned scarf. The propane oven in her trailer had blown, and the explosion had singed her scalp and brow. "The explosion really blew me out of my trailer!" Rose recalls. "I had to have my neighbor pour water over me and help put out the fire."
She hoped the scarf and sunglasses would veil her unusually hairless appearance, at least for a few hours, until she completed an admissions interview for graduate school. A soil microbiologist was on his way to meet Rose at her trailer alongside the banks of Northern California's Mad River.
"I never thought I'd get in," says Rose, who today is a scientist and professor of microbiology at Willamette University. But the untimely interview in 1974 won Rose admittance to the doctoral program at Oregon State University (OSU).
The disaster turned out to be only a small bump in the road for Rose. In fact, it seems that she was born to be a woman in the field.
"I don't know when I wasn't interested in science," Rose says of her lifelong love of fieldwork. "Even as a little kid, I loved science. There were no scientists in my family, so I suppose it was just an innate curiosity."
While many other little girls were busy with dolls and dress-up clothes, Rose was examining rocks and bugs and saving money to buy her first microscope. After graduating from high school, she earned a bachelor's degree in biology at California State College at Long Beach. She then earned her teaching certificate and, like many women of her generation, taught elementary school.
But Rose chose to teach science. For three years, she was the science resource teacher in a Southern California school district, where she was expected to enrich children's experiences with science despite inadequate funding and a lack of materials. The job demanded a great deal of patience and innovation.
"On one occasion we made a gas," Rose says. "I had the children combine aluminum and hydrochloric acid in glass jars, and we used the gas to fill balloons." When the balloons filled slowly, disappointing the children, Rose increased the amount of acid. Neither Rose nor the children would ever forget the result: The glass jars exploded, and acid ripped through the carpet. The classroom truly transformed into a scientific laboratory.
In 1972, Rose decided to return to school for her master's degree. She entered Humboldt State University in California with plans for a degree in forestry, but an unusual offer from a microbiologist changed her mind.
"He said I could study mushrooms if I did microbiology," Rose recalls. "It was a two-year program. I thought it was so much fun, and I still was able to work in the forest." Rose then became one of only two female microbiologists in the United States at the time.
Toward the end of her second year at Humboldt State, the chairman of the Microbiology Department at OSU visited Rose's fire-damaged trailer. He offered Rose an outstanding research stipend to attend OSU and study the plant genus Ceanothus, small, nitrogen-fixing woody plants in the Western forests of North America. Rose leapt at the chance to study the genus, which includes the plant commonly known as the California lilac.
"I looked at the impact of these plants on conifer productivity throughout Oregon," says Rose. "I found that mycorrhizal fungi on the roots of Ceanothus provide moisture, phosphate and nitrogen, which enriches the soil for conifers and therefore helps in the reforestation process."
Rose's study of Ceanothus ultimately yielded the discovery of three new mycorrhizal fungi in the genus Glomus, which she named Glomus halonatus, Glomus lacteus and Glomus scintillans. These microorganisms, which are too small to view with the naked eye, are a vital part of the forest ecosystem. After logging, burning or wildfire ravages an area of forest, Ceanothus grows until it is overtopped by trees. Its symbiotic relationship with conifers is essential.
"Most people aren't aware that when they tread over the plant life in a recovering forest region, they're trampling on tenuous connections," Rose says.
In 1988, after finishing postdoctoral work at OSU and a four-year professorship at Colorado State University, Rose accepted a position at Willamette University. Her decision hinged largely on a desire to return to the Pacific Northwest. Moreover, she disliked feeling landlocked and was tired of the heavy snows that besieged Colorado each year. Her job at Willamette returned her to the Oregon country she knew intimately from her years of fieldwork at OSU.
"Then I was able to take students on field trips to the Oregon Coast to study tide pools," Rose says. She smiles and adds, "On one of those trips, a student stuck his tongue on a sea anemone."
Rose and her students have conducted various studies as part of Willamette's Science Collaborative Research Program, which provides summer housing and a $3,450 research stipend to advanced students in biology, chemistry, exercise science, environmental science and physics. From collecting critters in Oregon estuaries to investigating the mysterious deaths of oak trees, Rose says she has "so many positive memories interacting with her students."
Teaching students about the fundamental vitality of microorganisms is what Rose enjoys most about teaching microbiology. "You can't see them (microorganisms), but you can see their extraordinary impact," she says.
During the spring of 2002, Rose embarked on a different kind of quest, one that moved her from the field and laboratory to the library archives.
Collaborating with College of Liberal Arts Dean Carol Long and philosophy Professor Deborah Loers, Rose taught a course at Willamette on the struggles and accomplishments of women naturalists of the 1800s. The course brought to light the deficiency of biographical information on female scientists in the Western United States. "I knew that there had to be women doing science in the West," Rose says.
Between June 2002 and January 2004, Rose researched and organized an exhibit at Willamette's Hallie Ford Museum of Art that brought together the life history and remarkable botanical sketches of Oregon naturalist Helen Gilkey. "I was amazed that nothing really had been written about her, and yet she had made all these wonderful sketches," says Rose, who knows first-hand the challenges women scientists have faced.
Rose's own life and career have been very much about breaking down old stereotypes. She is a woman who pursued a master's degree in microbiology back when the Forestry Department buildings at Humboldt State didn't have a women's restroom. She proved in 1972 that she could operate a soil auger when her all-male colleagues didn't think she should. And in 1969, when she couldn't find a pair of women's running shoes, she sported athletic shoes made for boys.
"Despite some challenges, I've had the chance to do a lot of unusual things," Rose says. "I've had the chance to explore so many places in Oregon, so many places I never would have gone to. It's been exhilarating."