Montana State University

Wireless Snow Cats and solid-stemmed wheat were among projects showcased at the Capitol

February 16, 2005 -- by Annette Trinity-Stevens

Rhea Poole of Townsend talks with Rep. Harry Klock in the Capitol rotunda about her independent industrial design project at MSU. (MSU photo by Annette Trinity-Stevens)   High-Res Available

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Rep. Bob Lake of Hamilton has worked in agriculture his entire life. He's familiar with its high-tech side that includes global positioning systems, moisture sensors and irrigation controls.

So he stopped recently in front of a display in the Capitol rotunda in Helena showing how Snow Cats at Bridger Bowl could connect via a wireless network.

The project, by a group of current and former students at Montana State University, modeled how wireless communication could work amid the tricky mountainous terrain and tree-filled landscape of the Bozeman-area ski hill.

"Bridger was selected because it's the worst possible place [for wireless systems] and we showed it could be done," said Marshall Overcast, a senior in computer engineering from Sunburst.

Overcast was one of about 30 university and College of Technology students statewide who set up posters in the rotunda Feb. 4 to show legislators--especially those from their home districts--the benefits of their research projects.

Lake, who recognized Dustin Dunkle of Ronan, one of the wireless system presenters, said he liked what he saw.

"The students have results," Lake commented. "It's not all just dream work. It's really happening."

Several tables away, Julie Elser and Phil Fox said their display on lines of wheat that have solid rather than hollow stems resonated with legislators who know full well the $30-million annual impact of the wheat stem sawfly in Montana.

The insects burrow into wheat stalks and clip them off near the base. MSU breeders have developed one line whose solid stems resist the fly, and Elser and Fox are working on more.

"We had to clarify that this isn't genetically modified wheat," said Fox, an MSU sophomore from North Dakota. "They would say, 'We're not so sure about GMOs'."

The project, intriguing from a genetic standpoint and definitely useful to state farmers, also will help the students with their career goals. Both have their sights set on graduate school.

"This will definitely help us out," said Elser, a junior in plant biotechnology from Ennis.

The same is true for Mindi Picotte, a senior in nutrition from Absarokee. A summer internship in a hospital left Picotte thinking that a career as a registered dietician wouldn't be enough for her. Her MSU advisor suggested she try some research. Now Picotte's hooked.

"I've learned so much in the last semester," Picotte said. "It's amazing."

Undergraduate Scholars Program director Steve Holmgren said this is the second time he's brought MSU students to Helena to showcase their hands-on projects.

"We want the students to make connections with their local legislators about what's going on in the Montana University System in terms of research and the positive effects that can have on their education and careers," Holmgren said.

"Plus," he added while standing in the Senate balcony, waiting for the students to be briefly recognized from the floor, "it lets the students see the legislative process."

Before loading into vans for home, the students met with Gov. Brian Schweitzer, whose Border collie Jag twined between the governor's legs before disappearing.

The students applauded Schweitzer's proposal to pump $5 million into college scholarships over the next four years. And they liked his idea of providing tax credits to graduates who stay in Montana.

Contact: Steve Holmgren, (406) 994-5393