CORVALLIS - During the past 15 years, dozens of scientists from Oregon State University have donned diving gear to study ocean currents, undersea vents, fish populations of near-shore reefs, marine algae and their potential cancer-fighting properties, and literally hundreds of other research areas.

It's Jim Washburn's job to make sure they come back alive.

A research assistant in the College of Engineering, Washburn carries an unusual title for an academic - university diving officer.

Since joining the OSU faculty in 1969, Washburn estimates he has worked with as many as 500 divers on university-related projects, including about 200 faculty and graduate students. Fifteen years ago, he was officially appointed as the university diving officer.

"My main function is to work with people who have to go underwater to accomplish their research goals, and to help them be safe," Washburn said.

Universities involved in oceanographic research set up the American Academy of Underwater Sciences several years ago to oversee diving operations. Under these guidelines, OSU set up a Diving Control Board and a diving officer, according to Ron Zaneveld, a professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences at OSU.

"The program's purpose is to regulate control, and instruct all diving that takes place under OSU auspices," Zaneveld said.

An expert in "optical oceanography," Zaneveld knows first-hand of Washburn's experience in diving. The two just returned from a research project in the Bahamas sponsored by the Office of Naval Research where Zaneveld was studying optical properties that affect underwater radiative transfer.

In addition to working with the divers on the project, Washburn also helped adapt an instrumentation package needed in the research to make it portable.

Washburn has worked on numerous other projects. Last year he helped a handful of OSU researchers in Duck, N.C., working on a major erosion study project funded by the Army Corps of Engineers. One of those researchers, Walt Waldorf, said Washburn provided essential safety guidelines and helpful suggestions.

"From my personal experience, he maintains just the right level of control on the OSU dive program," Waldorf said. "He could easily regulate it to death. What he does works well."

He also worked with Bill Gerwick, a professor of pharmacy, and his assistants, helping train them for a series of dives in Indonesia, Fiji, and Venezuela where they were gathering marine algae to explore its cancer-fighting properties.

What Washburn does is to evaluate OSU faculty and graduate students on their diving abilities and then provide the necessary training.

Some of the scientists are complete novices, he said, and need a complete training regimen.

"Others, though, come in with a lot of experience," Washburn said. "We just try to make sure they know enough - about safety, about depth, about the equipment - to get our blessing. The real experts you can spot right away."

Before certifying divers so they can conduct underwater research under the auspices of the university, Washburn and the OSU Diving Control Board require 12 training dives, previous certification from a recognized agency, CPR and first aid training, and certain fitness levels.

"If we have questions, we may jump into the pool with them in full gear and check them out," Washburn said. "Or go out in the ocean. We haven't 'flunked' anyone yet after an open dive, but I've told a few privately that they need more experience."

Each fall, Washburn teaches a research diving class designed for beginners. With a capacity of eight, it is almost always full. Most of the faculty come from backgrounds in oceanography, pharmacy, fisheries and wildlife, zoology, ocean engineering, but Washburn has worked with faculty and staff from all over the university.

"Our first priority is to help researchers who are working on projects," Washburn said. "Some other people just have a strong personal interest in diving."

The work isn't easy. Oregon is one of the toughest places to dive because of low visibility and rough water conditions, Washburn said. When he works with faculty, he lectures them about currents, depth, visibility, marine life and the physical dangers.

He has had experience with all of those facets of diving.

While on leave from the university, Washburn had a job as diving supervisor for the Exxon Valdez oil spill, working for the Dames and Moore consulting company. His job: to do a baseline survey of the ocean beneath the spill.

Washburn also worked in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War, teaching employees of the Aramco Oil Co. how to dive.

He's worked in the Bahamas. And he's worked in the Arctic.

"My own diving has started to taper off in the last few years," said Washburn, who is 59 years old. "I used to do 150 to 200 dives a year. I only made about 40 dives last year."

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Jim Washburn, 541-737-6893