Montana State University

Ski bum detour leads to doctoral degree

May 7, 2007 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


Whitehall native Jennifer Brown has distinguished herself in the field of magnetic resonance microscopy at Montana State University, where she will finish her doctorate this fall. In the background is the MRM device with which Brown works. (MSU photo by Jay Thane.)    High-Res Available

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It's a joke with Jennifer Brown and her parents that they don't know where she and her big science brain came from. Her father is a life insurance agent and her mother a retired elementary school teacher, but Butte-born, Whitehall-raised Brown has become a doctoral standout doing ground-breaking work in magnetic resonance microscopy at Montana State University.

"Jennifer is just a classic Montana student, hard working and highly ethical," said her advisor, Joe Seymour. "She has really developed into a top scientist. She's going to do really well."

Magnetic resonance microscopy (MRM) is based on the same principles as its better-known hospital cousin, magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. However, MRM technology lets researchers see much smaller things: fluids, gases and particles moving inside objects down to one-tenth of a millimeter in size.

Brown's work has taken her to Sweden to learn MRM techniques; to Japan to give a paper on her research; and this fall she's headed to Germany to present another paper.

Her work focuses on colloidal suspensions, tiny particles suspended in fluids. It's a job that comes with a unique occupational hazard:

"I try to describe what I'm working on at a party and I can just see people's eyes begin to glaze over," Brown said.

But colloidal suspensions are everywhere and understanding them could have far-reaching implications for food, medicine, pollution cleanup, even ink-jet printers.

Colloidal suspensions include blood, paint, medicinal lotions, coffee, bacteria in the bloodstream, sediment in rivers and the ink in printers.

"Things work differently at this extremely small scale," Brown said. "There were theories about how these particles would behave, but now with MRM we can see what's really going on."

In Brown's research, tiny, oil-filled beads spun in fluids didn't behave as theorized.

"Prior to this research, the thinking had been that the velocities of the particles and the fluid may be different and that the particles would be evenly dispersed in the fluid," Brown said. "But the particle motions are complicated and the beads migrate to a very specific distribution."

Such a result is as surprising as watching the start of the Boston Marathon and suddenly seeing all the runners immediately clump to the left-hand side of the course, leaving the rest of the race course empty.

It's an important discovery if you're trying to deliver a drug to stop a bacteria or a protein to test for a disease in a red blood cell. If the bacteria or the blood don't touch the intended target, then the whole process won't work.

"This is looking at the fundamental nature of things," Brown said. "I want to do this because it's cool. It's interesting."

And keeping it interesting is important to Brown, who admits that she needed 18 months of recuperation after burning out from her undergraduate degree.

"When I came to MSU, I knew I enjoyed physics, math and chemistry, but engineering seemed the most practical way to have a job and enjoy those things," she said.

She majored in chemical engineering and had a vision of herself wearing a hardhat, steel-toed boots and working in a fertilizer plant or oil refinery.

"Wearing steel-toed boots is kind of fun," she said. "But I had an internship at a phosphate fertilizer plant and I didn't enjoy it. I just didn't find it interesting. After four years, I realized I didn't want to be a process engineer. It didn't sound like fun at all. So I became a ski bum and worked at Colombo's (a local pizzeria)."

She stayed connected to campus by working as a teaching assistant in the chemical engineering department. She'd show up to teach wearing ski pants, having just come from a few hours of telemarking at Bridger Bowl. Being a serious skier himself Seymour took notice -- his office is papered with ski terrain maps and he hikes Bridger Bowl's ridge.

"We'd talk about skiing," Brown said. "Then he started to tell me about all the interesting things that could be done with MRM."

MRM got to sounding so interesting that Brown enrolled in a doctoral program in 2002. She'll finish this fall.

"Jennifer has really grown from being fairly shy to running our lab," Seymour said. "She's a linchpin for us. I think her down-to-earthness brings a good insight into the science as well. She doesn't act like she knows it all. She's willing to do hard work to learn."

After graduation, Brown is hoping to find a post-doctorate research position in either New Zealand or Germany.

"I'd like to continue in MRM," she said. "It's a conglomeration of things I like. It's math and physics, yet the problems we apply it to are engineering problems. It pulls together a lot of things I'm interested in."

Joe Seymour, (406) 994-6853 or jseymour@coe.montana.edu; Jennifer Brown, (406) 994-9578 or jennifer.brown@myportal.montana.edu.