Montana State University

Two MSU departments to merge: microbiology and immunology, infectious diseases

November 22, 2013 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

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BOZEMAN – Two Montana State University departments that give students a strong foundation in microbiology will be merging.

The Montana Board of Regents learned at its Nov. 22 meeting in Bozeman that the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education has approved MSU's request to merge the Department of Microbiology in the College of Letters and Science and the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases in the College of Agriculture. Supporters said the union will enhance teaching and research in biomedical and environmental microbiology, two of MSU’s major strengths.

The new department, which will be part of both colleges, will be called the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. The main office will be in Lewis Hall, where the main office of the microbiology department is now located. A national search for a department head is under way. The departments have already started integrating, but efforts to move faculty members closer to each other will continue.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for bringing faculty with this complementary expertise together into one department,” said Anne Camper, interim vice president for research, creativity and technology transfer. “I think there’s a lot of chance for growth and synergy. I’m excited about it. It’s a great opportunity for the campus and for the students.”

For the past 10 years, the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases has been either first or second for the MSU department bringing in the most grant dollars. In Fiscal Year 2013 alone, it brought in $6.2 million, second only to the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, which brought in $8 million.

Both departments – microbiology and immunology/infectious diseases -- are key contributors to the overall mission of MSU, according to university officials. Faculty members in each department carry out internationally recognized research and teaching programs, providing the foundation for undergraduate and graduate education in all fields of microbiology and many areas of biomedical sciences.

By merging the departments, MSU said in its request to the Commissioner of Higher Education, “MSU has the unique opportunity to build an extremely strong, balanced and diverse academic program in microbiology.”

The Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, directed by Mark Quinn, currently has 30 to 40 undergraduates, 11 grad students, nine tenure track faculty members, four non-tenure track research faculty members, three non-tenure track research scientists and one adjunct teacher. The microbiology department, headed by Matthew Fields, has 170 undergraduate students, about 25 grad students, 10 tenure track faculty members, 10 tenure track research/teaching faculty members, two non-tenured research faculty and three non-tenured teaching staff.

Both department heads said the merge is important for MSU’s biomedical and environmental microbiology programs.

“The merged department will facilitate new interactions between environmental and biomedical microbiologist, including the development of unique research programs for the state, region and country,” Quinn said.

The union will particularly benefit Montanans who are in their first year of medical school or veterinary school, as well as students in the Medical Laboratory Sciences program, the directors said. The WWAMI Medical Education Program, which has turned Montanans into doctors for more than 40 years, allows students to attend their first year at MSU. The Montana Legislature, in its last session, approved a similar program for veterinary students.  The Medical Laboratory Sciences program allows students to study either three or four years at MSU before entering a training program elsewhere. All three programs require students to take a variety of microbiology courses.

The merge will also benefit biomedical and environmental research, among the top research focuses at MSU.

Several graduate students in microbiology support the research enterprises of other “environmental” departments and centers that include the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology, the Center for Biofilm Engineering and the Thermal Biology Institute.

Faculty and students with a biomedical focus study everything from influenza, to heart disease, to using parts of viruses for pinpoint delivery of drugs, to examining plants for medicinal properties, to exploring ways to keep horses and cattle healthy and safe from a variety of infectious agents.

Many of those researchers work in Cooley Laboratory, a building that underwent $17 million in renovations to become a state-of-the-art biomedical hub in the center of campus. The building houses research teams from three departments -- microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases, and cell biology and neuroscience.  Since the building reopened in the fall of 2012, six teams from immunology and infectious diseases have moved into it from the Molecular Biosciences Building west of the main campus. The microbiology department is currently housed in Lewis Hall and Leon Johnson Hall.

“The goal is get everybody as close together physically as possible,” Fields said.

Neither Quinn nor Fields plans to apply to become head of the new department.

“We are at the point of growing and building something stronger. We would like to have new vision and leadership to come in with that,” Fields said.

Quinn said the merger was faculty driven and long discussed.

Mark Jutila headed the Department of Veterinary Molecular Biology (the previous name of the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases) from 1994 to 2000 and served as interim head of the Department of Microbiology from 2010 to 2013. When he headed the VMB, the two departments took steps to bring them closer together, Jutila said. As a first step, they proposed the formation of an institute, but never discussed an actual merger.

“However, I have believed that combining the departments offer tremendous benefits to our students, research programs and service activities,” Jutila said.

Fields said the collaboration will promote better learning for students and better research opportunities for faculty and students. It will promote collaborations inside and outside of the department.

 “Microbiology is many different things to many different people,” he said. “We want a strong broad department to support that.”

Quinn said he is looking forward to the merger and added that the departments have already started holding joint meetings. They have combined their seminars.

“There are lots of opportunities for growth. I think that’s the main reason,” Quinn said. “Doing this is for both departments to benefit.”

Two colleges sharing a department isn’t unprecedented, said former Vice President for Research John Jutila. The Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics is also housed in both the College of Agriculture and College of Letters and Science.  

John Jutila said that that merger is working well, and he predicted that the new merger will do the same.

“I’m very optimistic about the outcome,” he said.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu