Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Going viral November 24, 2009 by Jean Arthur • Published 11/24/09

Award-winning professor Trevor Douglas' enthusiasm for science is infectious
Photo by Kelly GorhamProfessor Trevor Douglas says he is inspired by getting on the floor and playing with children who attend MSU Science Saturdays, a popular hands-on program that introduces kids to science. Douglas takes time from his research to help organize and participate in the popular program. Photo by Kelly Gorham.
For a guy who nearly flunked high school math, chemistry and physics, Trevor Douglas has accomplished much.

The chemistry and biochemistry professor is considered one of MSU's top scientists for his work in nanoscience, or the control of matter on an atomic and molecular scale. His innovative research takes him to the far corners of the globe and to the thermal features of Yellowstone National Park hunting for undiscovered viruses that he can use to build microscopic cages that deliver drugs to a specific target in the body.

It is work that is rooted in the same math, chemistry and physics that Douglas, 47, nearly failed three decades ago.

"I attended a very traditional school that allowed very little creative thought," he said of academics while growing up in Cape Town, South Africa. "Teachers resorted to capital punishment -- caning with a bamboo stick -- to keep students in line. Math and science teachers had a greater tendency to do that; they laid into me and killed any interest in (those disciplines)."

He completed high school with grades indicating low academic potential.

It wasn't until Douglas enrolled in a university chemistry class -- in order to perfect a ceramic glaze -- that he discovered his interest and aptitude for sciences. A mentor then directed him to the University of California-
San Diego, where Douglas conducted undergraduate research that became instrumental in inspiring him to further his studies in science.

Douglas, the 2008 Distinguished Professor for the MSU College of Letters and Science, now lectures at universities such as Harvard, Cambridge and Kyoto University, yet it's in Bozeman where the faculty researcher finds his most inquisitive audience. Since 2008, Douglas and a team of colleagues and MSU students have invited hundreds of youngsters, ages 6 to 16, to Science Saturdays on MSU's campus for explorative, hands-on experiments -- real science.

In the process of recapturing how kids look at things, I discover new ideas.

-Trevor Douglas
Douglas, dad of two teens, entices youngsters into the den of virus hunters with promises of goopy, icky, sticky stuff, and with assurance that there will be time to ask questions, play and explore.

About 100 young students attended each of the five Science Saturdays last year. Douglas garners inspiration from children's enthusiasm by "looking at the world as a child does. It's a hard thing for us to do, because we know how things work, but in the process of recapturing how kids look at things, I discover new ideas.

"It's important for people doing cutting-edge research to get down on the ground and play," said Douglas, who means that literally. During the Science Saturdays, kids find Douglas crawling on the floor, helping construct their handmade models of viruses.

"The kids are at an age where they are still interested, excited about everything. It's a wonderful experience to teach middle school students, not just facts but to play with the science, the inquiry-based exploration of the world around them."

Photo by Kelly GorhamTrevor Douglas. Photo by Kelly Gorham

The kids love it, says Kate Forrest of Bozeman, who brought her six-year-old son, Jack, to a Science Saturday.

"(Now,) when we are not doing schoolwork, Jack wants to play with his real microscope by looking for 'cells' and 'good viruses' in objects that he finds outdoors and around the house," she said.

It's those "good" viruses -- or a virus that scientists can transform into use for medical purposes, such as delivering an anticancer drug to a cancer cell -- that Douglas calls his most important work.

"We can take a drug, encapsulate it, and use the virus as a delivery vehicle so it transports the drug that kills the cancer cell," he said.

Fellow researcher Mark Young, MSU professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology who partners with Douglas on some research, calls their work finding previously unknown viruses that can be utilized this way "groundbreaking science."

Such research often takes Young and Douglas' team into Yellowstone in search of heat-loving microbes that can exist in extreme environments, such as boiling acid.

Douglas explains that if a virus -- or any kind of protein -- can survive in those environments, it can withstand the extreme synthetic conditions it would face in the laboratory as scientists work to manipulate it for useful purposes. For instance, Douglas' research includes emptying or hollowing out protein viruses and turning them into ultra-miniature containers that have unique chemical, physical and mechanical properties.

"The use of a virus like this has a big impact across the broad spectrum of life sciences," Young said.

Douglas also encourages innovation in his classroom. His students have won prestigious awards for their science, including two former students who won Goldwater Scholarships while at MSU. One of them, Luke Oltrogge of Absarokee, currently a graduate student at Stanford, called Douglas "an exceptional scientist and a good friend."

"(Douglas) was instrumental in enabling my success as an undergrad and preparing me to be a scientist," Oltrogge said. "The thing that I probably like most about him is his infectious enthusiasm for science. It's hard not to think big when brainstorming together. He excels at incorporating creativity into science."

This fall Douglas, who received the 2009 MSU Provost's Excellence in Outreach Award, and his team will bring the Science Saturday concept to Crow Indian Reservation schools with funding through Center for Bio-Inspired Nanomaterials and NSF EPSCoR grants. In December, Douglas and several MSU undergrads will take the program to five different schools near Douglas' alma mater outside of Cape Town.

"My goal is to inspire kids and adults to keep asking questions," Douglas said. "This is the way good science begins and continues to progress."