Montana State University

Research takes undergrads to Antarctica and beyond

February 8, 2006 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


MSU student Brianna Arnold by Taylor Glacier at the west lobe of Lake Bonney in Antarctica. (Photo courtesy of Brianna Arnold).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- Brianna Arnold drilled deep through the Antarctic ice to collect samples of water, while Vincent Martinson analyzed bacteria that orbited18 days on an unmanned Russian satellite.

Shaun Frank examined red algae that thrives in the thermal pools of Yellowstone National Park, while Paige Nelson investigated the use of maggots to treat wounds. Selita Ammondt saw what happened after two dams burst or were removed in southwest Montana. Francoise Saurage used her Cajun background to induct Cajun women into Third World feminism.

"I truly enjoy doing research. No one ever needed to encourage me to do research," said Saurage of Sheridan, Wyo.

Those are among the approximately 1,000 undergraduate students at Montana State University who conduct research projects every year. They are also some of the 150 to 200 students a year who receive support through MSU's Undergraduate Scholars Program, said Steve Holmgren, program director. The university's largest formal program for undergraduate research builds upon Core. 2.0, which took effect in 2004 and requires all new undergraduates to be involved in an independent research project or take at least one approved course that offers them a research and creative experience. Continuing students can complete their original core curriculum or switch to Core 2.0.

"I really look at these research courses as an opportunity for students to get an initial sense of what it means to do research," Holmgren said. "Out of that, I hope students will say, ‛This is really cool. How can I continue this research project?' That's where USP can step in and support them."

Students in the Undergraduate Scholars Program work with a faculty mentor and spend at least one semester investigating a topic of their choosing, Holmgren said. The students are paid up to $1,500 per academic year, and most present their findings at the annual Undergraduate Scholars Conference in the spring. Some present their work at regional or national conferences, too.

"Often research is intimidating and seems out of reach. By making research available for undergraduates to participate in a mentored format, they realize it is doable and are able to go on for a masters or doctorate," said Karen Zulkowski, a faculty mentor who has supervised numerous USP students over the last eight years.

Susan Broadaway, an MSU microbiologist who works with Martinson and Ruhani Amin on space-related projects, said, "We have had many talented undergrad researchers working in the lab through the Undergraduate Scholars Program since the outset of the program. Since many of them have been associated with Dr. Pyle's NASA research, some students have been directly involved in the preparation and analysis of experiments launched on the Space Shuttle, which gave them a unique experience at the Florida launches.

"I have always believed that our USP scholars receive practical knowledge that isn't available to them in the classroom," Broadaway added.

Arnold, a senior from Sheridan, Wyo., went to Antarctica to take water samples for John Priscu's Long-Term Ecological Research in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. The Antarctic summer was so windy that her tent ripped in half. She caught "the polar crud" and endured minus-40 degree temperatures in the early days of her stay. But the microbiology major said she values the rare experience and would definitely go again.

"When people see it on my resume, I think it will give me an advantage over somebody who doesn't have any field experience," Arnold said, adding, "It's a once in a lifetime experience that most people don't get."

Frank, a senior from Laurel, went to Yellowstone National Park during the summer to collect samples of Cyanidioschyzon merolae, a type of red algae that lives in the thermal springs. It is one of only a handful of red algae that can stand the high temperatures and low pH conditions found in the park, Frank said. Frank is analyzing the algae to see what genes it expresses at different times of the year.

"Research is very important to me because I am able to gain experience in a lab setting and with lab procedures," said Frank who hopes to win a fellowship with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Also, research has helped me greatly with thinking creatively and having a greater understanding in my field of study."

The USP supports, encourages and enhances undergraduate research in all disciplines, including arts and architecture, the humanities, nursing, education and health and human development, Holmgren said. It also works closely with other organized programs that support undergraduate research on campus. Those programs include the Montana INBRE Program, American Indian Research Opportunities and various summer programs known as Research Experiences for Undergraduates.

USP funding comes from MSU's Provost; MSU's Vice President for Research, Technology Transfer & Creativity; the National Science Foundation Montana EPSCoR Program and the Montana Space Grant Consortium.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu