Montana State University

Provost's Distinguished Lecturer Series continues March 4

February 18, 2014 -- By Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

Joe Seymour, Montana State University professor of chemical and biological engineering, will be the speaker in the Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series on Tuesday, March 4 at 7 p.m. in the Hager Auditorium at the Museum of the Rockies. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571

BOZEMAN – Montana State University professor of engineering Joe Seymour has spent a lot of time in one frozen landscape or another – up and down the Continental Divide, in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, out on the Siberian tundra and atop the Antarctic sea ice. Whether it’s the cold air or the stark beauty or the fact that he loves having skis under his feet, Seymour says those extreme environments, where the technological world recedes, offer good places to get some thinking done.

Seymour will be the speaker in the Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series on Tuesday, March 4 at 7 p.m. in the Hager Auditorium at the Museum of the Rockies (a reception will follow). Lectures from the series are free and open to the public. Seymour’s talk, “Chaos and Randomness: the global climate, technological development and a career in science,” will draw on lessons learned during a career that began take shape on the Antarctic sea ice.

Seymour said a post-graduate research project in the Antarctic to explore the fundamental nature of sea ice with New Zealand’s renowned physicist Paul Callaghan turned him into a true scientist. Prior to that venture Seymour had planned to get the kind of doctorate that would put him into the corporate boardroom rather than the laboratory.

“Working with Paul Callaghan out on the ice showed me a way of doing science that was collegial and full of passion,” Seymour said. “That was the experience that really got me into the beauty of pure science and exploring how the world works.”

Studying sea ice – which plays a vital climate role by reflecting sunlight that would otherwise be absorbed into the ocean – also began a career-long appreciation for the complexity of global climate, Seymour said. Climate science underscores the fact that the interactions and connections scientists explore are often not linear in nature, but exhibit chaotic dynamics due to the interactions of variables like concentration and temperature, Seymour added.

Seymour, now co-director of MSU’s Magnetic Resonance Lab, said his career has continued to be animated by a Callaghan-esque passion for searching out greater understanding, even if that means wading into the chaos. Seymour added that he hopes that he can pass along an appreciation for the intrinsic beauty of science to his students, as well as to the attendees of his lecture.

The mission to bridge the gap in scientific understanding has never been more important, Seymour said.

“Here we are living in the most technologically advanced period in time, but as a society we have little real understanding, or technological literacy, about the scientific concepts that drive the development of new technologies,” Seymour said. “This can be directly related to the widespread limitations we see in understanding scientific concepts such as global climate change.”

The examples he uses to explain some of these concepts come straight from the undergraduate courses he teaches in MSU’s Chemical and Biological Engineering Department and his research on the flow of turbulent fluids and particles suspended in fluids, Seymour said.

The history behind magnetic resonance imaging – commonly known as the non-invasive medical technique for taking pictures of the body’s soft tissues – provides another example of the value of basic scientific research. The MRI story shows how individual, non-concerted inquiries into fundamental scientific questions about the physical world can compound to grow into an advancement that can change the practice of modern medicine.

In fact, knowledge fundamental to MRI technology began to take shape early in the 20th century with investigations into the electromagnetic structure of atoms by physicist Neils Bohr (the research eventually won Bohr a Nobel Prize for physics). Subsequent scientists working independently, namely Isador Rabi, Edward Purcell and Felix Bloch (each of whom also won a Nobel Prize for physics), brought forward the technology to read the nuclear magnetic resonance signal given off by atoms, whether those are found in the human brain or in manufactured ceramic filter used an industrial process.

“People often have this misconception, a hubris really, in thinking that you can sit down and simply design the next technological advancement,” Seymour said. “Given how technologically advanced we are, there’s an illusion of control.”

Now, Seymour and his colleagues working in MSU’s Magnetic Resonance Lab are pushing the technology in new directions, often using instruments that allow MRI to be applied with a finer resolution akin to that of microscopy. These so-called magnetic resonance microscopy applications allow researchers to examine the structural workings of materials at a molecular level.

Seymour, a recipient of the National Science Foundation Career Award, uses the techniques to study the motion of fluid molecules in complex materials. In the field, Seymour has employed MRI to study the subsurface hydrology of Siberia. He has also used it to examine the properties of Antarctic sea ice, where his career path took its first unexpected turn.

The Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series, which is free and open to the public, is part of MSU’s Year of Engaged Leadership, which highlights the university’s events and activities that develop leadership skills of students, faculty, staff and community members. Events throughout the academic year are intended to inspire engaged leaders on campus and in the community. For more information about the Year of Engaged Leadership, visit

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371,