Montana State University

MSU’s John Priscu named Montana University System Regents Professor

November 16, 2015 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

John Priscu, a Montana State University professor and renowned polar scientist who studies the microbial ecology of Antarctic ecosystems, has been nominated to be named a Montana University System Regents Professor, the most prestigious designation to be attained by a professor in the system. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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Nov. 19 update: The Montana Board of Regents unanimously approved the nomination of John Priscu as Montana University System Regents Professor during a meeting held Thursday, Nov. 19, in Bozeman. Priscu is MSU’s ninth Regents Professor.

John Priscu, a Montana State University professor and renowned polar scientist who studies the microbial ecology of Antarctic ecosystems, has been nominated to be named a Montana University System Regents Professor, the most prestigious designation to be attained by a professor in the system. His nomination is subject to approval by the Montana Board of Regents.

If approved during the board’s meeting this week in Bozeman, Priscu would become MSU’s ninth Regents Professor.

“I am honored to be considered to join other distinguished faculty at MSU who hold Regents Professorships and am grateful to the MSU administration for their nomination,” Priscu said. “MSU has grown in many ways since arriving here in 1984, and I am glad to have contributed in a small way to this progress. Little would have been accomplished without my undergraduate students, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, technicians and MSU collaborators for keeping things exciting both in the laboratory and under extreme conditions in the field.”

Priscu was nominated for the honor for his “outstanding contributions as a scholar, teacher and as an educator who has brought international recognition and attracted stellar students and colleagues to Montana State University and our great state,” according to the official nomination letter MSU President Waded Cruzado submitted to Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian.

Priscu “is a true pioneer in the spirit of the great discoverers and explorers and is most worthy of the recognition Montana Regents Professor,” Cruzado wrote.

A professor in the MSU College of Agriculture’s Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, Priscu investigates the biogeophysics of icy ecosystems. Research into the topic has taken him to Antarctica for more than three decades, to the Arctic for five years and to high altitude environments in the Himalaya. Priscu also serves as co-director of the MSU Subzero Science and Engineering Research Facility.

Since coming to MSU in 1984, Priscu has led numerous international research expeditions, including traveling to the Antarctic every year for the past 30 years. He also played a leadership role in developing programs and facilities to study life in extreme environments, and his graduate students are recognized as the next generation of leaders in cold science.

In addition, Priscu served as the chief scientist and one of three directors of the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling, or WISSARD, project. In 2013, Priscu and other WISSARD researchers embarked on a historic U.S. expedition to Subglacial Lake Whillans, a lake that lies beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The expedition took more than a decade of planning and included six field seasons in Antarctica.

The expedition required shipping more than a million pounds of equipment from the U.S. to Antarctica, where tractor-drawn sleds hauled the equipment hundreds of miles across the Antarctic ice sheet to the field site. Once there, the team melted holes through half a mile of ice to reach Lake Whillans, where they collected water and sediment from the lake. It was the first time that clean samples had been successfully retrieved from beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, Priscu said. From those samples, Priscu’s team found that there is an active ecosystem in the lake below the West Antarctic Ice Sheet – a lake that hasn’t seen sunlight or felt a breath of wind for hundreds of thousands of years.

“We were able to prove unequivocally to the world that Antarctica is not a dead continent,” Priscu said in a 2014 press release from MSU. “The research transformed the way we view the fifth largest continent on our planet.”

The discovery of microscopic life in the subglacial Antarctic waters was published in the journal Nature and received worldwide attention. It was also named one of the top science stories of 2013 by Discover magazine.

More recently, Priscu was part of a nation-wide team that published a paper in the journal Nature linking past climate changes in the Arctic and Antarctic. By comparing ice cores from the northern and southern hemispheres, the researchers discovered that past abrupt temperature changes at the North Pole affected the climate at the South Pole about 200 years later and learned that the climate signal was propagated to the Southern Hemisphere high latitudes by oceanic rather than atmospheric processes.

“(Priscu) has dedicated his life to addressing the big questions, and because of his studies, we know that the Earth contains greater diversity of life than expected – ‘of something rather than nothing,’” Cruzado wrote in the Regents Professor nomination letter. “We know that extensive communities of life exist in remote places and likely have been there for a very, very long time. In the future, we will learn more of the origins of these communities, their distribution and contributions to local and global carbon and microbiological pools.  We will also know whether these communities will provide clues to the identity and function of other similar communities in much more distant places in the universe.”

Cruzado added that Priscu’s contributions will continue with his subglacial research and as he pursues NASA-funded research to develop life-detecting instrumentation for the Mars 2020 lander and contributes to the development of life detection equipment to explore the icy ocean worlds in the outer solar system.

Priscu has a doctorate in ecology from the University of California, Davis, and bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Among many other honors, in 2006 Priscu was named a fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Sciences, and in 2010 he was named a fellow of the American Geophysical Union. In 2014, he received the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity and Technology Pioneer Award for seminal discoveries on Antarctic microbial life and the advocacy and public outreach of biodiversity, and in 2012 he received the SCAR Medal for Excellence in Antarctic Research. The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), a committee of the International Council for Science, gives the medal every two years to an individual who has made outstanding contributions to the knowledge and understanding of the Antarctic region, the link between Antarctica and the Earth system, and/or observations of and from Antarctica.

If his nomination is approved, Priscu will join MSU’s other Regents Professors: Gordon Brittan, philosophy; Anne Camper, engineering; John Carlsten, physics; Trevor Douglas, chemistry and biochemistry; Paul Grieco, chemistry and biochemistry; Jack Horner, paleontology; Michael Sexson, English; and Brett Walker, history.

Contact: John Priscu, (406) 994-3250, or