Montana State University

MSU finishes another strong year in research

August 22, 2014 -- MSU News Service

MSU closed out another strong year of research successes with significant work in energy, agriculture, health and biomedicine, and the environment leading the way. The year included notable student successes, such as undergraduates Connor Murnion from Helena, Katherine Kent from Billings, and McLain Leonard from Post Falls, Idaho (from left), who each received a Goldwater Scholarship, the nation's premier scholarship for undergraduates studying math, science and engineering.

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Montana State University closed out another strong year of research successes with significant work in energy, agriculture, health and biomedicine, and the environment leading the way.

The university’s overall research enterprise did $109.6 million in work for the fiscal year ending June 30. That includes $90.5 million in competitively won federal funds, as well as $1.6 million in gift funds for research. It also includes $15 million in state and $2.6 million in federal funding both largely for agricultural research through the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station.

“MSU’s research enterprise has great breadth, but also great depth, and that’s illustrated by the many successes and advancements of our faculty in the last year,” said Renee Reijo Pera, MSU’s vice president for research and economic development.

For students, MSU’s research enterprise pumped $9.2 million into teaching and research assistantships, scholarships, and other student support – making it one of the largest sources of student support on campus.

“MSU’s research enterprise gives our students the opportunity to work side-by-side with the faculty who are working on the cutting edge in their fields – it’s research and teaching as one,” Reijo Pera said. “This is vital preparation for our future engineers, scientists, teachers, scholars and entrepreneurs.”

Those research opportunities translated into notable student successes in the past year: MSU undergraduates won three Goldwater Scholarships in 2014, the nation’s premier scholarship for undergraduates studying math, science and engineering. MSU is among the top universities in the nation for total number of Goldwater winners. Six graduate students won prestigious National Science Foundation fellowships, which can award more than $100,000.

In agricultural research, highlights included MSU’s development of a new variety of wheat resistant to the orange wheat blossom midge, a destructive pest that can ruin up to 90 percent of a wheat harvest. Research has also continued research on the wheat stem sawfly, which can cause millions of dollars of losses to Montana wheat producers. MSU received a $500,000 USDA grant to screen 4,000 to 5,000 varieties of wheat for sawfly-resistant traits, then identify the genes associated with those traits.

“Agriculture is our largest industry in Montana, and MSU is proud to provide research that is improving the bottom line for producers in many areas, from new crop varieties, to livestock forage, to pests, plant diseases, fertilization, and even threats to honeybees, which pollinate billions of dollars of crops across the nation,” Reijo Pera said. 

Internationally, MSU researcher David Sands received a $100,000 Grand Challenges Exploration grant from the Gates Foundation – the first at MSU – for his promising work on fighting a parasitic weed called Striga that chokes out 30 to 80 percent of corn, millet and sorghum crops used for food in Africa. If successful, Sands’ biological control method could greatly improve nutrition on the continent.

Just six months later, MSU learned Seth Walk and Blake Wiedenheft from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology also won a Grand Challenges Exploration grant for their work in the field of biomedicine. The pair are looking at disease-causing microbes in the human gut.

“These are extremely competitive and extremely prestigious grants,” Reijo Pera said. “To have two within such a short period of time speaks volumes about the quality of faculty we have at MSU.” 

In addition to Walk and Wiedenheft’s work, MSU’s work in biomedicine was also recognized when Josh Obar, also in Microbiology and Immunology, became one of only five scientists in the world to receive the Young Investigator Award from the American Society for Microbiology for his work on the secrets behind out-of-control immune systems, flu pandemics and other biomedical issues.

In energy, MSU became the lead on a new $10 million, four-year project focused on innovative energy research. The Biological Electron Transfer and Catalysis Energy Frontiers Research Center (EFRC) involves seven institutions and will look at fundamental biology and chemistry that could improve biofuel production. 

A major effort to study how to safely store carbon dioxide deep underground took a big step forward this spring when MSU researchers successfully drilled a pair of wells in northern Montana. The wells will offer a first test of the scientific principles behind the Kevin Dome Large Scale Carbon Storage Project, which is funded through an eight-year $67 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy. The goal of the project is to demonstrate that CO2 can be stored safely and viably in regional geologic formations.

Also in energy, a four-state team involving MSU received nearly $10 million to investigate the challenges of turning beetle-killed trees into biofuel. Led by Colorado State University, the academic, industry and government consortium will study the major challenges that limit the use of beetle-killed trees in the Rockies as biofuel.

In the area of the environment, MSU and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks are collaborating on a $1.2 million, six-year project to enhance bighorn sheep conservation and management in Montana.

MSU faculty member Ben Poulter’s paper in Nature on the role dry lands play in the global carbon cycle – a role larger than had been previously thought – received significant attention nationally and internationally.

MSU’s Western Transportation Institute continued to be one of the world’s leaders in road ecology, publishing findings on the value of wildlife crossing structures for maintaining the genetic diversity of black and grizzly bears

“Our faculty published findings in many of the major journals such as the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the Journal of Applied Ecology, the American Journal of Public Health, and the Journal of Animal Science as well as in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Cell, Nature, and Science,” Reijo Pera said. “Our faculty were tremendous this past year in terms of the quality and quantity of their work, and the coming year looks even more exciting.” 

Tracy Ellig, MSU executive director of communications, at (406) 994-5607 or tellig@montana.edu