Work by Montana State University students and scientists in fields such as biochemistry, the environment, health and physics pushed the university to one of its strongest years ever for research.
Research and contract expenditures from state, private and federal funding sources topped $130.8 million for the fiscal year that ended in June, according to Renee Reijo Pera, MSU vice president for research and economic development. It marks the largest yearly total on record and a $12 million increase over the year before.
“This is an impressive total that sums up an impressive year,” Reijo Pera said. “It shows not only MSU’s dedication to sharing its knowledge and resources with the state of Montana and the wider world but also how passionate our faculty are about teaching and discovery.”
MSU researchers were more aggressive in pursuing grant funding in fiscal year 2017 than in any recent year. Faculty members wrote 1,729 grant applications over the past year, an increase of more than 100 over the previous year’s total. From those proposals, the university opened 562 new grant awards worth some $75.5 million, up more than 8 percent over the prior year.
“Writing and submitting a single grant proposal is no small feat, so the fact that the faculty have so aggressively pursued grant funding from a variety of sources is a tribute to their commitment to academic research at MSU,” Reijo Pera said.
Out of MSU’s research expenditures, $22.2 million was credited to the College of Letters and Science, the university’s largest college, with the departments of chemistry and biochemistry, cell biology and neuroscience, and ecology contributing heavily to total expenditures. The Department of Microbiology and Immunology, which is also included in the College of Agriculture, saw its total alone exceed $8 million.
MSU’s College of Agriculture accounted for $19.4 million of the total. The college houses the departments of plant pathology and land resources and environmental sciences — two of the biggest contributors to research spending university-wide. The Montana Agricultural Experiment Station program also expended $16.7 million on research.
The College of Engineering accounted for $17 million in research spending, chiefly in electrical and computer engineering, the Center for Biofilm Engineering and the Western Transportation Institute.
Highlights from the past year’s research and scholarship include:
- In September, MSU launched its Montana Engineering Education Research Center in the College of Engineering. Its goal is to make MSU a national leader in research on the motivations of students pursuing engineering degrees and careers.
- In October, a regional team led by MSU environmental science professor Paul Stoy in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture received $6 million from the National Science Foundation to research how biofuels and carbon capture technologies can be sustainably introduced into the Upper Missouri River Basin.
- The College of Nursing’s Caring for Our Own Program, designed to help Native Americans succeed in nursing, received a grant worth nearly $1 million in October from the Indian Health Service.
- MSU's Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity received $2.1 million from the National Institutes of Health for conducting health equity research in tribal and non-tribal rural communities across Montana.
- MSU’s Western Transportation Institute, part of the College of Engineering, won a $7.5 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant in December to lead research to improve the mobility of people and goods in small urban, rural and tribal areas.
- In January, Blake Wiedenheft, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology in the College of Agriculture and the College of Letters and Science, was one of only 102 scientists and researchers in the nation to win a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. The award honors the pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology.
- Connie B. Chang, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering in the College of Engineering, received a $1.3 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in January to push the boundaries of a new approach for treating the flu and other fast-evolving viruses that resist traditional vaccines.
- Also in January, two MSU projects in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering received $400,000 from NASA for work on radiation-resistant computers and the study of gamma-ray bursts in thunderclouds. Another College of Engineering-built computer traveled to the International Space Station in December for testing.
- In March, the Montana State University Wind Symphony performed in the 2017 Sousa Band Festival and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The concert was the international debut of the “Rocky Mountain Elk Suite for Wind” by Greg Young, professor of music in the College of Arts and Architecture.
- In April, MSU virologist Michelle Flenniken in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture won a National Science Foundation CAREER Award of more than $500,000 that will fund her research into the ways that honeybees fight off viral pathogens, an important topic since pollinators like honeybees are vital to agricultural production of many fruits, nuts and vegetables.
- In June, Erik Grumstrup, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the College of Letters and Science, was one of eight in the U.S. to win a 2017 Young Investigator Award from the Arnold O. and Mabel Beckman Foundation. The four-year, $750,000 award will further his study of nanomaterials, which are critical to cellphones, solar cells and other advanced electronics.
- NASA awarded MSU physicist Nicolas Yunes in the College of Letters and Science a $750,000 grant in July to study the extreme gravity of neutron stars and black holes. The grant came from the EPSCoR program and will help expand research in MSU’s eXtreme Gravity Institute.
- Filmmakers in the College of Arts Architecture produced a full-length documentary, “Charged: The Eduardo Garcia Story,” which premiered in July. The film, by School of Film and Photography graduate Phillip Baribeau and film professor Dennis Aig, tells the story of a courageous Montana chef facing the dual challenges of losing his hand in an accident and being diagnosed with cancer.
- Holly Hunts, an associate professor of economics in the College of Education, Health and Human Development, received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in May that will fund research into problems of food, health and agriculture on the state’s Indian reservations.
- MSU’s Winifred Asbjornson Plant Sciences Chair Hikmet Budak in the College of Agriculture was a member of an international team that for the first time ever decoded the complete genome of wild emmer wheat, the original form of nearly all domesticated wheat in the world. The research, published in July in the journal Science, may lead to more nutritious, drought-tolerant and disease-tolerant grain.
MSU’s research enterprise also directly supported undergraduate and graduate students with $10.5 million in teaching assistantships, research assistantships and scholarships.
Research experiences at MSU led to undergraduate students receiving a number of major scholarships and awards. In November, senior Josh Carter became the 11th MSU student to be awarded the Rhodes Scholarship, considered to be one of the oldest and most prestigious international academic awards. Carter plans to use his time at England’s Oxford University to earn a master’s degree in neuroscience, which he hopes will help him better understand how to build smart prosthetics.
In February, MSU student Montana Wilson won a Gates Cambridge Scholarship to fund his graduate work at the University of Cambridge in England. Wilson, an enrolled Gros Ventre of the Fort Belknap Indian Community and a member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, was the first ever Native American Gates Cambridge Scholar in the program’s history. He plans to use the scholarship to earn a master’s degree in development studies.
In April, Magdalena Russell of Bozeman was named MSU’s 68th recipient of the Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s premier scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering. Russell, a junior, worked in the laboratory of MSU Letters and Science Distinguished Professor Frances Lefcort researching familial dysautonomia, a genetic disease that devastates the sensory and autonomic nervous systems.
Fiscal year 2017 was also the second year for the Montana Research Initiative, which was funded for $15 million from the 2015 Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock. Out of the 150 projects submitted for the initiative, MSU had six funded for $9 million in the areas of optics and photonics, agriculture, immunology and infectious diseases, mental health, and energy.
Contact: Michael Becker, director, MSU News Service, 406-994-4565, firstname.lastname@example.org