Montana State University

Drinking water study unites MSU, Little Big Horn College

June 7, 2006 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Richard Monroy collects a water sample from the Little Big Horn River on the Crow Indian Reservation. (Photo courtesy of Mari Eggers).   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- Once a month, Crystal Richards and Emily Colgate head to the Crow Indian Reservation where they spend the day swabbing faucets and collecting water from taps and streams. One afternoon a week, students at Little Big Horn College leave the classroom for similar reasons.

Together, the MSU and Little Big Horn College students are monitoring drinking water on the reservation, learning more about research and enjoying each other's company, according to students and an instructor in the INBRE-funded project. INBRE in Montana is a statewide network of universities, colleges and research institutes who want to expand biomedical research and improve opportunities for students seeking careers in the medical professions.

"It's really the first opportunity we have had to offer our science majors research experience here at home on issues relevant to the local community as opposed to going away for a summer, working on issues in somebody else's community. They seem to be really loving it," Mari Eggers said of the project that sends her students around the reservation every Thursday afternoon. Eggers teaches biology and environmental science at Little Big Horn College.

Little Big Horn College students have been monitoring water quality for several years during the summer, Eggers said. But INBRE allowed her to expand the program so students could participate during the school year, learn new research techniques, have more opportunities for inquiry-based research and explore environmental health issues beyond drinking water. Mercury, for example, is a concern since it has been found both upstream and downstream from the reservation.

"It's a cool project -- very interesting and getting bigger all the time," said Richards, an MSU senior in cell biology and neuroscience.

Colgate is an MSU graduate student in microbiology. She and Richards are supervised by Tim Ford, head of MSU's microbiology department and program director for Montana INBRE.

Students from both schools are looking at pathogens and chemical pollution in the reservation's water, Eggers continued. The Little Big Horn College students are testing for coliform bacteria and other water quality parameters like pH, nitrates, dissolved oxygen and conductivity. The MSU students take the water samples back to MSU, where they test for Helicobacter pylori which is associated with stomach ulcers and other gastric problems. Students from both schools will eventually look for two additional bacteria, known as Mycobacterium and Legionella. The students are also collecting sediment cores, which will be tested at MSU for mercury and other contaminants.

The MSU students said H. pylori appears to be more prevalent in Native Americans than the general population, but they don't know if that's true of the Crow Reservation. They hope their project will help discover the answer. In the meantime, they are trying to find the best technique for monitoring H. pylori.

"There is not presently a standard procedure for testing for H. pylori," Eggers said. "That's what Emily is working on. She's developing a genetic technique to identify it. There's a lot that's not known."

The project addresses environmental health on a reservation-wide scale and may expand to reservations across the state, Richards and Eggers said. But they added that it has affected their own lives, as well.

"Since I started this project, I pretty much fell in love with microbiology and decided I wanted to go to grad school," Richards said. "I didn't know that before."

Colgate said, "I think I'm becoming a lot more interested in the public health side and would like to get into medicine maybe and combine the clinical and research."

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