Montana State University

Hughes Scholar presentations, celebration combined in April 27 event at MSU

April 24, 2015 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

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BOZEMAN -- Thirteen Montana State University students who shared their enthusiasm for science with younger Montanans this school year will now share the challenges and accomplishments of that outreach.

A free public event that combines student presentations and a celebration of MSU programs funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) will be held from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Monday, April 27, in Ballroom B of MSU’s Strand Union Building.

Predicting lots of laughter, organizer Martha Sellers said students in the Hughes Undergraduate Biology (HUB) program have already presented their research at MSU’s recent Student Research Celebration and the National Conference on Undergraduate Research at Eastern Washington University. Eleven HUB students will also present their research April 25 at the West Coast Biological Sciences Undergraduate Research Conference in San Diego.

The upcoming event at MSU is different, however, because it focuses on outreach projects instead of research, Sellers said. Six teams of Hughes Scholars will give presentations lasting 10 to 15 minutes each.

“I don’t think we as a campus or country talk enough about how we reach out successfully or unsuccessfully,” Sellers said. “To me, that’s such an important piece.”

Two of the April 27 presenters -- Jennifer Burns and Kate McNamee – reached out this year to first graders in Ronan and high school students in Helena. To inspire the next generation of scientists, their outreach project focused on lice.

“The kids had a blast learning about louse as an organism instead of lice as a problem in hair,” Sellers said.

Students in Gardiner, Laurel, Livingston, Plenty Coups-Pryor and Bozeman also participated in MSU’s outreach projects this school year. Some learned about sewage, while others investigated bacteria, microorganisms or undergraduate research.

The Hughes Undergraduate Biology program, like other programs at MSU, gives undergraduates the opportunity to conduct research and present their findings, Sellers said. It is unique in that it also emphasizes developing novel outreach projects. Students who are selected for the HUB program plan to attend graduate school or pursue careers in the health professions.

Sydney (Reichhardt) Abbott, for one, worked in Christa Merzdorf’s lab in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience before graduating in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition science and dietetics. Her research focused on the genes that are involved when the spinal column closes during the early development of an embryo. For her outreach project, Abbott designed and implemented a series of hands-on workshops for mentors and children in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

“It was exciting to see the children learning and getting excited about biology with their mentor present for support,” Abbott said.

Abbott, a native of Butte, is now attending graduate school at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Nearly finished with her master’s program in nutrition and a graduate certificate in disability studies, she said, “One of the most obvious benefits I gained (from HUB) was being able to access and actively participate in research at the undergraduate level. This opportunity benefited me from the knowledge I gained of the research project, helping narrow down my future career plans and learning the ins and outs of working on a research team.

“One of the other benefits that I gained, and something I value tremendously, is the skill of discussing research and complex science topics on a variety of levels,” Abbott said. “… I find myself using this skill frequently in my field of nutrition as I translate the evidence-based nutrition knowledge into practical language that can be used by the general public to facilitate lifestyle modifications.”

Dema Alniemi, a 2012 MSU graduate in cell biology and neuroscience and currently in her third year at Mayo Medical School, said, “Being a part of the Hughes Scholars program had a large impact on my choice for a future career. Entering college, I knew that I enjoyed learning about the biological sciences and that I would likely pursue bench research during my time as a student with a possibility of continuing research after graduating. However, it was during my year as a Hughes Scholar that I realized that my real passion for science was in dissemination of knowledge -- an experience I would not have had without the outreach component of the Hughes Scholars program.”

For her outreach, Alniemi developed a project that had elementary school children growing glow-in-the-dark germs, letting them see that science exists everywhere, even when they were unaware of it.

“While creating my outreach project for elementary school students, I discovered a love for educating non-science audiences on ‘sciency’ topics and helping to teach the biological sciences in an understandable, non-threatening manner,” said Alniemi, a native of Bozeman. “Through this, I also realized that I thirsted for a career that would allow me to connect teaching of the biological sciences with education to people outside of the science world. I decided that a career in medicine would allow me to fulfill my passions for science and teaching, and it was from being a Scholar that I decided to apply for medical school.”

Ed Schmidt, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Agriculture and the College of Letters and Science, is one of several faculty members who have mentored Hughes Scholars.

Explaining why he is so supportive, Schmidt said, “Philosophically, I see an essential connection between higher education and independent creative activities.  This is why having productive cutting-edge research programs is essential for a university to be able to provide the highest quality of education.  The Hughes program has done an outstanding job of ‘brokering’ independent research opportunities for the most promising undergraduate students in the biomedical sciences.

“Thus, the Hughes selection process effectively identified the best students in a very competitive application and review process,” Schmidt said. “As such, when I accepted a Hughes student, I could be assured this is a very high achieving motivated student.  Also, the Hughes program does a good job of putting these students in active productive labs, so the Hughes students would have the greatest opportunity to get hands-on research experience and to attain and credentials that would help them in their future ambitions.  

He mentored those students by giving them independent “sub-projects” within larger ongoing projects that were being expanded to answer a wider question, Schmidt said. The Hughes Scholars were then paired with a more senior scientist to provide more training.

“I believe that, if you want somebody to be responsible, you need to give them responsibility, and this is how I try to mentor my undergraduate trainees,” Schmidt said.

Sellers said this is the final year of HHMI funding at MSU, so the April 27 event is also a celebration of the programs it has supported since 2002. Three four-year grants funded approximately 120 undergraduates who conducted research during the past 12 summers and 45 undergraduates – called Hughes Scholars -- who conducted research during the past six school years.

Principal Investigator John P. Miller, a professor in MSU’s Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, said he has seen the benefits of HHMI programs.

“Over the 12 years I have been involved with the HHMI-sponsored HUB program, I have seen substantial positive impacts on the biological sciences curriculum here at MSU, as well as on several core components of the AIRO and MAP programs,” he said.

AIRO refers to American Indian Research Opportunities, and MAP to the Montana Apprenticeship Program.

“Among other achievements, HHMI funds were absolutely essential in several faculty hires and in equipping undergraduate student labs, and in revising and implementing the core multi-departmental biology sequence,” Miller said. “The recent HHMI Undergraduate Scholars Program managed and directed by Martha Sellers is, I think, the crowning glory of the program."

Evelyn Boswell at (406) 994-5135 or