Montana State University

MSU filmmaking students win Fulbright Scholarships

October 29, 2007 -- Anne Pettinger, MSU News Service


Maria Tucker Frostic and Kelly Matheson, two recent graduate students in MSU's Science and Natural History Filmmaking program, recently have been awarded Fulbright Scholarships. Frostic is shown here shooting a film in Iceland. (Photo courtesy of Maria Frostic.)   High-Res Available

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Maria Tucker Frostic and Kelly Matheson, two recent graduate students in Montana State University's Science and Natural History Filmmaking program, recently have been awarded Fulbright Scholarships.

Frostic, a graduate of the program, has been awarded a Fulbright to make a film about puffins in Iceland. Matheson, who is completing her degree, will go to the Republic of Congo to study films' effect on policy, practice and law.

Though Frostic had long been drawn to volcanic regions and always wanted to go to Iceland, she initially had planned to make a film that examined the various ways Icelandic people depend on the sea.

A chance meeting with puffin biologist Erpur Snćr Hansen inspired Frostic to change focus, and the Icelandic Fulbright Commission supported the new direction.

"The puffins' story really grabbed my attention," Frostic said. "The Vestmannaeyjar Marine Research Center provided me with all of the science resources I needed, and Erpur welcomed me into the field with him to document his work. Everyone on the island was so supportive of the project, it was one of those beautiful situations when everything works out."

Frostic was stationed south of Iceland in the Westman Islands, home of the largest breeding colony of puffins in the world.

When people first settled the Westman Islands, they depended on puffins for food, Frostic said. Now, puffin hunting is more of a sport in the area, though townspeople still feel a sense of connection to the birds.

"The puffins are kind of the town's mascot," Frostic said.

But the birds' food supply -- a small fish called the sand eel - has disappeared in the last three years. The cause has not been determined, but some people speculate that it might be related to climate change.

A lack of food seems to be affecting the puffins' reproduction, too.

"Scientists are noticing the pufflings are hatching later and later in the season," Frostic said. "The puffins are putting off laying their eggs, since they're not finding their usual food source. Stronger birds are still flying a long distance to find sand eels, but puffins are generally not strong fliers, and the weaker birds can't make the long trip."

With data still being collected, though, it's too soon to say what the future holds for puffins.

"Sometimes erratic events happen in nature," Frostic said. "The scientists are hoping that maybe this has just been a strange three years and maybe next year things will go back to normal."

Frostic received a Fulbright-Ambassador and Mrs. Day Olin Mount Scholarship, a unique short term grant that enabled her to complete filming in Iceland in July and August and edit her footage this fall in the U.S. She hopes that Save Our Seas Foundation will support post-production funding of the film and that it will air on National Geographic's "Wild Chronicles" series.

Frostic's background is varied, which she thinks helps in her work.

She studied biology at the University of Virginia and became interested in wild, pristine environments after spending a college semester backpacking, winter camping, rock climbing and caving with the National Outdoor Leadership School.

Science wasn't Frostic's only interest, though. She also studied English at Virginia, and wavered between pursuing journalism, research or teaching.

By chance, she heard about MSU's graduate program in Science and Natural History Filmmaking. She thought it sounded like a perfect fit.

"It combined all the things I love doing: writing, traveling, conducting scientific research and creatively communicating science," she said.

Now, Frostic works as an earth science producer for NASA. She's happy that the job combines her myriad interests.

"Being a science communicator is ultimately a creative task," she said. "I studied many different subjects and took many varied jobs after college that seemed disconnected at the time. In retrospect, I think I was preparing myself for this career all along without realizing it."

Matheson's Fulbright is different than Frostic's in that her main project will not be a film. Instead, she will focus on studying films' ability to change policy, practice and law.

She will work with The Central African Regional Program for the Environment and the International Conservation and Education Fund while in the Republic of Congo.

"Ideally, I will be enabling people to make their own films and get literate in a digital sense, and also evaluate the impact of being able to use video in rural communities to effect change," Matheson said.

Matheson will accompany several co-workers on trips to villages in the Republic of Congo, where they will show educational films, such as a film about Ebola, and teach people about making films themselves.

"It's called video advocacy," Matheson said.

In addition, Matheson will make a film while in Africa, which will likely be tied to the focus of her study. She will be in the Republic of Congo for five months beginning in January, but would like to stay longer and plans to apply for an extension of her Fulbright.

Like Frostic, Matheson's background is varied. She taught environmental education for seven years, then attended law school at the University of Oregon and practiced law for four years, with much of her work associated with media.

Matheson decided to pursue a filmmaking degree at MSU because it combined many of her interests.

"It just made sense," she said. "I knew I wanted to make films and protect the environment and human rights."

Matheson's Fulbright is tied to her law degree, but it will draw on her diverse knowledge and skills in film, law and education.

"It just doesn't get any better," Matheson said. "It combines everything I love."

Though she's not sure what her job will be when she returns from the Republic of Congo, Matheson is confident that she has chosen a career that is right for her. She currently works at WITNESS, an organization that teaches human rights advocates how to integrate video into their campaigns.

"I intend to work with films forever," she said. "I feel like I'm on my path. It's absolutely perfect."

Frostic's and Matheson's Fulbright awards reflect well on MSU's Science and Natural History Filmmaking program, said Sally O'Neill, the Fulbright Program adviser at MSU.

In fact, Frostic and Matheson are not the only students from the program who have been awarded Fulbrights in recent years. In 2005, Anne Devereux won a Fulbright to make a film in Kazakhstan about a former Soviet atomic testing site and the effects of nuclear proliferation.

"Fulbright now knows our school very well, and they're very impressed with it," O'Neill said. "The (MSU Filmmaking) program has a lot of people applying for Fulbrights, and they're getting them."

Maria Frostic, mariafrostic@gmail.com; Kelly Matheson, Matheson.kelly@gmail.com.