Montana State University

MSU graduate student receives more than $60,000 scholarship from National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

February 14, 2017 -- By Evelyn Boswell for the MSU News Service

Emery Three Irons, a graduate student in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, has received a scholarship worth $67,390 from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Three Irons will use the scholarship to continue researching water quality on Montana’s largest Indian reservation. Photo courtesy of Emery Three Irons and Lakisha Flores.

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BOZEMAN — A Montana State University graduate student with a passion for serving his tribe has received another major scholarship to continue researching water quality on Montana's largest Indian reservation.

The plan is to combine his findings with others in a multi-institutional effort to reduce health risks on the Crow Reservation in southcentral Montana.

"I'm grateful for it," Emery Three Irons said of the $67,390 scholarship he received from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

The two-year scholarship – the latest in a series of awards for Three Irons, a member of the Apsaalooke tribe – will allow Three Irons to investigate and analyze factors associated with coliform bacteria that contaminate home well water and how that relates to metals contamination.

"His results will help us to better mitigate home well water contamination and thus reduce health risks to the Crow Tribal community," said collaborator Mari Eggers, a research scientist in environmental health in MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering.

Another collaborator, tribal elder John Doyle, said researchers and tribal leaders have long tried to understand the connection between water quality and health problems on the Crow Reservation.

"We have looked at nearly all sources of our water from wells to springs, our rivers and creeks and what contamination is present," Doyle said. "This broad look is what will help give direction as Emery and other young tribal members work to address them."

In his newly funded project, Three Irons will work most directly with Eggers, Doyle and other members of the Crow Water Quality Project based at Little Big Horn College.

"He is an outstanding student and scientist and is committed to using his expertise in geospatial and environmental science to benefit his tribe and community," Eggers said. "We are thrilled to be collaborating with both Emery and his adviser, Dr. Scott Powell, on our Crow Water Quality Project."

Doyle said, "Emery has worked very hard to get where he is now. He is very connected to our Apsaalooke community and has made every effort to be fully aware of all the challenges that we need to address.

"What makes him stand out is his clear vision and willingness to step in and find solutions," Doyle continued "I can see his leadership ability and believe that will continue to develop with the knowledge he gains at MSU."

Eggers said Three Irons' research  will supplement work being conducted through a $500,000 grant awarded last summer to MSU and Little Big Horn College. That award was the result of a collaboration with the University of New Mexico, which received a five-year, $5 million award to open a Center for Native American Health Equity Research (Native HE Equity).

UNM directors Johnnye Lewis and Melissa Gonzales said the major goal of the center is to build a strong body of scientific data to understand how environmental contaminants affect Native American health.

"Correcting this gap in current research into the future requires building a long-term network of Native American scholars and peers," they said. "By supplementing Emery's research through the center, the NIEHS and the center can help to build this network.

"This network also benefits the work of the center by bringing Emery's interest in bacterial contamination of water together with the center's work on metal contamination in water and our interest in exposures to metals in mine waste," the directors said.

"Bacteria in the environment can act much like bacteria in humans to change the chemical form of contaminants and thereby alter their toxicity," they explained. "Adding Emery's work to Native EH Equity will help us to understand how metals in water may be altered by bacteria and the ultimate impact on toxicity, while also broadening Emery's understanding of toxicology. Native EH Equity is very excited to have this opportunity to support such a promising new Native American scientist."

Three Irons earned his bachelor's degree in geospatial and environmental analysis from MSU in 2015. He is currently working on his master's degree in MSU's Department of  Land Resources and Environmental Sciences (LRES) in the College of Agriculture. Last fall, he was selected for a $20,000 scholarship from the A.P. Sloan Foundation and a $5,000 scholarship from the Montana Institute on Ecosystems. As an undergraduate, he received the prestigious Udall Scholarship from the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation.

"Emery is a very motivated, sincere individual," said Powell, Three Irons' adviser and an assistant professor in LRES. "This (new) grant will lay the foundation for his master's degree and position him well for future endeavors. He aspires to be the lead GIS/geospatial analyst for the Crow tribe and without a doubt, this grant and broader master's degree experience will set him up perfectly to be in a strong position to attain that role for his tribe.

"Moreover, the NIH grant will provide him an even broader context of Native American science and research -- allowing him to establish contacts beyond MSU and Crow," Powell said. "He is a very worthy candidate for this grant and degree. He works extremely hard, and he is also very committed to his family and community in Crow."

Three Irons is married and the father of four children, the youngest born three days before the beginning of the 2017 spring semester. After he completes his degree, Three Irons said he will return to the Crow Reservation to serve his people. Water quality may be his first focus, but he can see himself branching off into other issues.

"He truly wants to help his community, and he is committed to his community," Powell said. "He is uniquely in a position to gain an education and tools that will help his community."

Three Irons' award was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under award number P50ES026102. The P50 award is jointly funded by NIEHS and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the NIH and the Environmental Protection Agency. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH.

Contact: Emery Three Irons, bad_war_deed@outlook.com