Montana State University

MSU grad student whose focus is on conservation filmmaking wins top arts scholarship

November 14, 2011 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


From Sweet Home Alabama to the Big Sky, MSU Science and Natural History filmmaking grad student Ingrid Pfau has deftly told the story of conservation issues through film. Her innovation resulted in a Jack Kent Cooke scholarship for graduate students studying the arts, one of the top scholarships of its kind in the country. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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A Montana State University student whose focus from a young age has been telling the story of conservation issues through film has won one of the country's top scholarships for graduate students studying the arts.

Ingrid Pfau of Birmingham, Ala., is a recipient of Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Arts Award from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which she is using to attend MSU's Science and Natural History Filmmaking Program. The scholarship, which is worth up to $50,000 per year for up to three years of graduate study, is awarded to high-achieving students.

Pfau is the third student to be affiliated with MSU who has received a prestigious Jack Kent Cooke scholarship. Cooke recipient Dawson Dunning of Otter, Mont., is also a graduate student in MSU's Science and Natural Filmmaking Program. In 2005 Brian Brush, who graduated from MSU with a degree in architecture, received a Jack Kent Cooke Fellowship to Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation where he received master's degrees in both architecture and urban planning.

It is a long way from Pfau's sweet home in Alabama to the Big Sky state, and she had never set foot in Montana before she arrived in Bozeman this fall to attend graduate school, but has already found kindred spirits.

"While an undergraduate (at University of Alabama at Birmingham), I had made my own major combining documentary filmmaking with biology research," Pfau said. She said she stumbled on the MSU program at the beginning of her senior year, and she was surprised at how closely aligned it was with her interests. She had already made plans to attend MSU before she learned of her scholarship.

"I was just about ready to accept my loan (to go to graduate school) when I heard about winning the scholarship, so it was great news," Pfau said. "It's nice that someone has faith in your abilities to achieve your goals."

Pfau said she has been interested in combining science and the arts since she was admitted to Alabama School of Fine Arts in the eighth grade. Her teachers there motivated her by allowing her to use experimentation and creativity to solve math and science problems rather than by requiring memorization. As a result, she has conducted science research since she was in the tenth grade. She said her passion for telling stories about conservation through film began in her freshman year when she took an ethnographic filmmaking class and began to understand about the power of film to educate.

"Documentary filmmaking became something more than a filmmaking process for me," she said. "It became a way of life. I began to become more interested and more motivated to talk to strangers about all sorts of topics. I was still interested in scientific topics; therefore I found a way to meld my interests in science and filmmaking by making films about some of the research that was occurring at the university."

She was the first student at UAB to design a major combining documentary filmmaking and biology research. She has made films about diamondback turtles, watercress darter fish and a church that helped save the fish, the effects of ocean acidification on adult sea urchins, among other topics.

In addition, while at UAB Pfau won the Print for ColorsOfLife@University international photo competition, she won a university writers award, the Gilman International Scholarship and a silver medal in a national public service announcement competition. The director of UAB's University Honors Program called her "one of the most talented and creative students the program had recruited in recent years."

"She has a unique sensibility that is communicated in her films, and she has a strong passion for nature," said Michael Sloane, director of the UAB program. Pfau said her professors at UAB encouraged her to apply for the Jack Kent Cooke award. The JKC Foundation makes several awards, including the one Pfau received for graduate study in the arts.

Pfau's eventual goal is to make environmental films, perhaps starting at an organization such as National Geographic or the Discovery Channel and ultimately becoming an independent filmmaker. Ronald Tobias, a professor in MSU's School of Film and Photography, the founder of the Science and Natural Filmmaking Program and one of Pfau's professors, said that Pfau is a great addition for this year's entering class.

"Given the diverse fields from which students come from in the Science and Natural History Filmmaking program at Montana State, we've been lucky enough to attract superb thinkers such as Ingrid Pfau, who is the second Jack Kent Cooke scholar we've had in the program in the last four years," Tobias said. "The mix of diversity of talents in the program -- including medicine, law, philosophy, and virtually every scientific discipline -- make the learning environment an exceptional one not just for the students in the program but also for the faculty."

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation was established in 2000 through the will of prominent businessman, sportsman, and philanthropist, the late Jack Kent Cooke, former owner of the Washington Redskins.

Dennis Aig (406) 994-6216, daig@montana.edu