Montana State University

Exotic research leads MSU student to Ecuador, discoveries

April 22, 2008 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Percy Nunez Vargas, left, Gary Strobel and Angie Mitchell examine the fruits of this tree in Ecuador. Vargas, a plant specialist from Peru, was an amazing resource, said MSU's Strobel and Mitchell. (Photo courtesy of Gary Strobel).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
msunews@montana.edu
BOZEMAN -- Angie Mitchell says she didn't know the first thing about working in a laboratory when she asked Gary Strobel if she could help with his research.

Strobel, a Montana State University professor in plant sciences and plant pathology, scours the world for exotic plants that might contain beneficial microbes. Mitchell, an MSU junior from Butte, asked at the beginning of her sophomore year if she could work in his lab.

"At first, I had no idea what to do or what I was looking for," Mitchell said.

That changed, however, and the work that once seemed complicated now seems easy. It's also rewarding, Mitchell said.

"I just really like it," she commented. "It's really, really fun."

Since she began, Mitchell has examined several plants that Strobel brought back from his journeys and discovered what appears to be a new species of fungus. She also traveled to Ecuador this spring, becoming the first MSU undergraduate to join one of Strobel's expeditions.

During the two-week trip through jungles, rain forests, tropical dry forests, cloud forests, and a mangrove swamp, Mitchell collected unusual plants of her own. She also spent part of her time advising 17 undergraduate students from Yale University on how to analyze the plants they collected. The students were taking a course from Gary Strobel's son, Scott Strobel, head of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor.

"They were pretty surprised that I had been doing this for so long and I was the same age as them," Mitchell commented.

Scott Strobel, as one of 20 new HHMI professors in 2006, received $1 million over four years to implement innovative ideas that would make science more engaging to a new generation of students. One of his ideas was developing an undergraduate course that allows his students to travel to rain forests of the world and collect plants that could contain beneficial microbes. The students then spend an intense summer session in the lab, culturing, purifying, analyzing and testing those plants.

"The main idea of the class is to get students involved in science by virtue of ownership," said Gary Strobel, a resource for his son. "They find the plants and isolate organisms in the plants. Anything they isolate, they can study. It's theirs."

MSU has done that kind of research for years without the $1 million from Hughes, Strobel added.

Mitchell's trip was funded by the Hughes Undergraduate Biology Program at MSU, however. Majoring in cell biology and neuroscience, Mitchell said the trip gave her five new plants to study, as well as friends and plenty of adventures. On a "slippery suicidal hike," for example, one of the students sliced his finger while chopping a tree limb in the jungle. Unfortunately, he happened to be a hemophiliac who needed medical attention the rest of the trip. Fortunately, the group included a physician's assistant, and the "Dragon's Blood" tree he was chopping had antibacterial properties.

The group also encountered monkeys, poisonous caterpillars and one of the most poisonous snakes in the world, Mitchell said. They hiked up to 15,000 feet, paddled canoes and rode motorized canoes, buses and planes. They spent time in cities, as well as jungles.

Grateful for the experience, Mitchell said she started working in Strobel's, partly to fulfill MSU's requirement for undergraduate research. Her time in the lab will benefit her beyond that, though. It will also prepare her for graduate school and a career in medical research, she said.

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