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Yellowstone National Park: A Hot Spot for Research and Learning

October 31, 2011 -- By Suzi Taylor, Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications, MSU Extended University
Thermal features in Yellowstone National Park.
Photo by Kelly Gorham
Thermal biologists at Heart Lake, Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Kelly Gorham
"Examining Life in Extreme Environments"
course taught by John Peters.
Sara Waller taught in Cleveland, Chicago, suburban Los Angeles and Escondido, Calif. before arriving at Montana State University, but the associate professor of philosophy says MSU’s location makes it the ideal place to conduct her research.

Waller teaches the philosophy of mind, language and consciousness. She studies social predators like wolves and coyotes, observing how the animals communicate with each other in wild and urban settings in order to discover how they adapt to—and outsmart—the humans around them. 
At MSU, her work took an unusual twist when she joined MSU’s Astrobiology Biogeocatalysis Research Center (ABRC), a NASA-funded entity that studies the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the universe.

While many of MSU’s astrobiology researchers focus on Yellowstone and the unusual life forms the park harbors in its hot springs, Waller considers weighty questions like how NASA might recognize and interact with “intelligent” life, should we find it somewhere out there.

“There is no better setting (than Montana) for trying to understand how non-human intelligence might develop and progress,” Waller said. “We can watch how the re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone impacted coyote populations, and how coyotes adapted to their new competition. If we know how life adapts on earth, we have a model for how it might adapt elsewhere.”

Aside from the benefit of being physically close to the animal populations she studies, Waller said MSU attracts a special type of student.

“Montana students love the outdoors, so my coyote-project students are always skilled hikers, backpackers and campers,” she said. “When I send students out in the field to look for social predators, I know that they know how to handle themselves in the woods, and that they will be careful as well as innovative in finding elusive wolves and coyotes.”

John Peters, chemistry professor and director of ABRC, agreed that MSU’s location is ideal for his research on bio-energy and the origin and evolution of life.

The thermal environments in Yellowstone National Park likely mimic those of the early Earth, Peters said, and by studying the microbial life that thrives in those environments, researchers may better understand how life on Earth came to be and what other forms of life might exist in the universe.

Peters said he relishes the chance to work alongside Waller and other philosophers, combining his background in chemistry with their focus on societal impacts and ethics. That interdisciplinary work, combined with MSU’s “stronghold on Yellowstone,” puts MSU on a world stage, he said.

“We recruit a lot of good Yellowstone researchers because we’re close, then we recruit other good scientists because we have those good scientists. It becomes a critical mass catalyzed by the Park,” Peters said.

That well-known circle of experts was a draw for Matthew Fields, associate professor in microbiology and the Center for Biofilm Engineering, when he left Miami University to join the MSU faculty five years ago.

Along with colleagues in CBE and MSU’s Thermal Biology Institute, Fields studies microbial communities that thrive at extremely alkaline sites, like those at Heart Lake, deep in Yellowstone’s backcountry.

“I had always wanted to live out West,” said Fields. “But I came here because I knew of the faculty; I knew I would have those folks as colleagues. There are people that study Yellowstone—people with a wealth of knowledge—that I can go give a phone call or a knock on their door.”

Fields, who also works at contaminated field sites, said he appreciates his work in Yellowstone because the Park’s brilliantly colored thermal features are so unusual in his line of work. By nature, he said, microbiology research is not visible to the naked eye. Contaminated groundwater or soil may look no different than the uncontaminated.

“We’re working with things at the microscopic level,” he said. “Scale and boundary are hard to visualize.”

But in Yellowstone, Fields said, “The colors tell you where are the boundaries. Unique and novel living systems have evolved and established on these gradients.”

Fields added that he sees Bozeman as an ideal location for raising a family, and that he and his wife enjoy camping, hiking and fishing with their three young boys.

“MSU has a way of attracting and nurturing balance,” said Peters. “We have people who work hard and work productively, but they also have interests outside of work.”

“The students are also really balanced. They could have been good students anywhere, but we get students who are also world-class skiers, or really into backpacking,” he said. “We recruit a lot of students who are into the outdoors, and they tend to make really good field researchers.”

“The balance really fosters what I think is the most important component of my success as a scientist: my creativity,” added Peters.

“The research opportunities are incredibly vast here,” said Waller. “We truly have it all—cityscapes and country-sides, mountains and wetlands. Anyone curious about life, the evolution of life, and the development of intelligent life could not choose a better place to be.”