Montana State University

MSU researcher receives NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to study fish and algae

April 25, 2017 -- By Evelyn Boswell for the MSU News Service

Isaac Miller, a research assistant at the Montana State University Center for Biofilm Engineering and MSU alumnus from Helena, inspects a media vial on Tuesday, March 28, 2017, in Bozeman, Montana. Miller recently received a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation. The fellowship provides a stipend of $34,000 per year for three years. MSU photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez.

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BOZEMAN — Isaac Miller has spent enough time around fish to know that washing with lemon is the only way he can remove the stink from his hands and hair.

Not only has he caught Montana's trout, catfish and walleye, but Miller worked for two years at the Bozeman Fish Technology Center while studying ecology at Montana State University. The center raises everything from minnows to cutthroat trout to pallid sturgeon.

"I like fishing. I like working with fish," said Miller, an MSU alumnus from Helena who is currently a research technician in MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering (CBE).

And now, Miller has received a prestigious fellowship that will allow him to build on that background while earning his Ph.D. in microbiology.

Miller, who will enter graduate school in the fall, is one of MSU's latest recipients of a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation. The fellowship will give Miller $34,000 a year for three years to investigate, among other topics, the bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms that live inside the gastrointestinal tracts of fish.

Learning more about the complex microbial communities that live in fish, the fish microbiome as it's called, can help scientists understand how fish digest food and use their nutrients. That knowledge can help in the management of fish nutrition and growth, lead to the discovery of unique natural products and provide basic knowledge that lays the foundation for future research projects applied to water and food needs for society.

Among other things, Miller and his collaborators at the CBE and Bozeman Fish Technology Center will grow algae from fish wastewater, turn the algae into fish food, feed the food to fish and compare the algal-fed fish with fish on other diets.

"It's going to be a big project," Miller said.

Matthew Fields, director of the CBE and head of the laboratory where Miller works, said, "Some of the major challenges that society faces today include clean water, food and energy, and we are interested in developing solutions for water and nutrient recycle with algal and microbial biofilms. We want to find ways to re-use water and waste products to produce value products (food and energy), while also consuming sunlight and atmospheric carbon dioxide."

Miller credits both Fields and postdoctoral researcher Heidi Smith for their roles in his success. Smith, in particular, encouraged Miller to apply for the NSF fellowship.

"This program is an amazing opportunity for students to get experience in grant writing and obtaining their own funding to study a project of their choice," Smith said. "After working with Isaac for only a few months, it was obvious that he had an incredibly strong and tireless work ethic. He also possesses a genuine curiosity for science and learning.

"Isaac had voiced his desire to study the fish microbiome from day one and had some really unique, exciting ideas that sounded like a great fit for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship," Smith added.

Fields and Smith both said they could see why Miller was selected for the NSF fellowship.

"Isaac is a smart and hard-working student," Fields said. "Moreover, he has worked hard to learn laboratory research skills in different fields – ranging from fish biology to molecular microbiology. His interest in fish biology, microbiology and water quality allows him to uniquely combine laboratory skills to research novel solutions to societal challenges in food, energy and water."

Smith said, "Isaac stands out because he is an exceptionally dedicated worker and has had a lot of prior research experience. ... All of these experiences make him qualified to be successful with his project, and I am sure that his commitment to science and learning was evident to the review panel."

While working at the Bozeman Fish Technology Center as an undergraduate, for example, Miller published a scientific paper on temperatures that are lethal for pallid sturgeon in the larval stage. His NSF project will fit into another area of focus for the center – fish nutrition and diet. The Bozeman Fish Technology Center works with federal, state and private partners on a variety of projects that deal with the recovery and restoration of sensitive, threatened and endangered aquatic populations.

Miller earned a bachelor's degree in 2015 from MSU, where he majored in organismal biology in the College of Letters and Science’s Department of Ecology and minored in microbiology. He began working as a CBE research technician in 2016. He is currently researching microbial communities that live below the ground in contaminated sites and radioactive waste at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

After earning his Ph.D. in MSU's Molecular Biosciences Program and completing his NSF research, Miller said he could see himself working in academia, a nonprofit organization or the aquaculture industry.

"I would like to stay in the field of studying fish, using microbiology and fish as the interface," Miller said.

He enjoys microbiology, Miller said, because "You can connect every problem or solution with microbiology in the natural world."

The National Science Foundation selected this year’s 2,000 recipients of the Graduate Research Fellowship from a pool of more than 13,000 applicants. According to the NSF, the Graduate Research Fellowship Program is critical in the agency’s overall strategy to develop a globally engaged workforce necessary to ensure the nation's leadership in advancing science and engineering.

Contact: Isaac Miller,