Montana State University

From Montana to Mali, students present research at conference

April 5, 2006 -- By Evelyn Boswell and Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


Civil engineering student Stacey Hellekson presents her research on building rainwater harvesting systems for a village in Mali during Montana State University's Undergraduate Scholars Conference on April 4. Photo by Jay Thane.    High-Res Available

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Helping an African village get water; revealing Montana's problems with childhood obesity; basic research into gene expression and the history of America's post-WWII merchant fleet were just a few of the projects Montana State University students presented Tuesday at the school's annual Undergraduate Scholars Conference.

More than 1,200 MSU students are currently supported by a variety of undergraduate research programs, according to Greg Young, vice provost of Undergraduate Education.

Among those are history majors Meekyung MacMurdie and Katrin Dougherty who are mentored by professor emeritus Jeff Safford in a pilot program that pairs students with retired faculty members.

MacMurdie and Dougherty are examining old periodicals, newspapers and government documents to see how everyone from Congress to the general public felt about the issue of surplus merchant ships after World War II.

The country had nine million deadweight tons before the war and 50 million afterwards, or 60 percent of the world's entire supply of merchant ships. The experts said 12 to 15 million deadweight tons -- the weight of unloaded ships -- was plenty in peace time.

Everyone agreed that the United States had too many ships, but deciding how to reduce the surplus wasn't easy. Should the country sell some ships to trim the national debt? Should it keep the ships and monopolize world trade? Should it share the ships with its Allies to strengthen Western alliances?

The debate captivated the nation 60 years ago, and it's now fascinating MacMurdie and Dougherty.

"I really think it's interesting," said Dougherty, a senior from Bozeman. "I'm interested in 20th century U.S. history quite a bit."

"It's history, and history is all about people," MacMurdie, a junior from Whitehall.

No one else has researched the shaping of the Merchant Ship Sales Act, so the students have no textbooks to make things easy, Dougherty said. That means they're reading magazines, newspapers and the Congressional Record for themselves and drawing their own conclusions. They're pursuing information and tangents so intriguing that they said they can't limit themselves to the six hours they expected to spend on the project each week.

"You try to keep it reasonable because you have other classes, but there's a point you could just go crazy with it," MacMurdie said.

Dougherty joked that she lives at the library and admitted to having a sore neck from leaning over the microfilm machine. But she said she still enjoys research and has gained a deep respect for historians.

"It really makes you appreciate the effort that goes into historical research, the detail," she said.

Other student presentations at Tuesday's Undergraduate Scholars Conference covered a huge number of topics. Michael Faul of Sidney did basic research into the expression of two genes in the plant, Arabidopsis.

"I learned that not everything goes right in research," said Faul, who is studying cell biology and neuroscience. "But this pushed me to think outside the box. It really opened my eyes to different aspects of research."

Marion Maina, a computer science major from Kenya, studied Alaska's 511 system for alerting travelers to weather and road conditions. She sent out 6,000 surveys and found that most people didn't even know the system existed.

"I think I know how to do research now," Maina said. "If I did a master's degree, it would be easy."

Knowing how to do research wasn't the only benefit of the student's projects. Some are poised to provide international humanitarian aid or important health information for Montana.

Civil engineering student Stacey Hellekson of Billings has been researching a rainwater harvesting system for a village in the African country of Mali.

The village has one water source for its 575 inhabitants, a well that is a 10-minute walk from town. Hellekson is working on creating a way for the villagers to harvest rainfall from their rooftops into cisterns that would supplement the well.

Though rainwater harvesting has been around for hundreds of years and is currently used in India and China, it is virtually non-existent in Mali. Though wells can provide water, they are prone to contamination and many communities lack funds to repair a mechanical well if it breaks.

Hellekson interviewed women - the primary water gatherers in the community - about how much water their families used and what kind of water system they would like. She also brought back a Mali-made brick for testing as a possible material with which to build cisterns.

Erick Tombre, a nursing student from Missoula, surveyed 1,979 first through fifth graders in seven Missoula-area schools in a pilot study of childhood obesity in Montana.

"Most people think Montanan kids are healthier on average than the rest of the nation," Tombre said. "The perception is that Montana kids ski, hike and are more active."

But Tombre's data suggest that's a myth.

"I couldn't believe it at first," he said of the results. "I was so shocked I rechecked all the data."

In the seven Missoula-area schools, 30.7 percent of the children were either at risk of obesity or were, in fact, obese. Those numbers put Montana in line with national averages that signal a crisis in childhood health.

"It was a huge surprise to educators," Tombre said. "But not to Missoula's health-clinics, which are now treating children for things that have traditionally been associated with adults, like high blood pressure and Type II diabetes."

Steven Holmgren, MSU Undergraduate Scholars Program director, (406) 994-6833 or usp@montana.edu.