"I figured if the kids I taught were becoming teachers, I should too," recalled Failing.
Inspired by his students' success, the 54-year-old Sioux-Assiniboine Indian from Fort Peck, Mont., decided to pursue his own career in education by applying to Montana State University's BRIDGES (Bridging Tribal Colleges to MSU) program.
The BRIDGES program aims to increase the number of Native American students successfully transferring from two-year tribal colleges to MSU for studies in biomedicine and other health related sciences. Native Americans have historically been underrepresented in those fields.
BRIDGES students take one 3-credit class (along with tutoring for the class) with tuition and books provided by the program. They work in a research laboratory under the mentorship of a faculty mentor. BRIDGES students also attend study skills seminars that reinforce training offered at the tribal college and introduce students to university resources such as the library.
While BRIDGES students aren't guaranteed entrance to MSU, the program gives them coursework and research experience to improve their chances of acceptance and ease their transition into a four-year university.
By the end of the summer, Failing was not only ready to attend MSU full-time, he had presented his research at two conferences, won an award for his work and changed his focus to teaching science.
Through BRIDGES, Failing worked with Christine Foreman, assistant research professor at MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering, and her graduate student, Markus Dieser. Foreman looked at Failing's interests and strengths, and crafted a program for him. She incorporated lab techniques and skills that Failing can use in the classroom as a teacher.
Since Failing was also interested in film, she provided him with a camera attached to a microscope that allowed him to take images of bacteria as they froze. Failing learned that when subjected to harsh conditions, such as freeze/thaw cycles, bacteria produce a biofilm--an arrangement of cells that increases their chance of survival.
"Working with them (Foreman and Dieser) really changed my focus," said Failing. "I learned so much about science and polar research."
Failing incorporated the images of freezing bacteria into a PowerPoint presentation that he gave at the National Leadership Alliance conference in Connecticut in July.
After his success in Connecticut, he created a poster based on the PowerPoint presentation. He entered the poster at the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) where he won the outstanding poster award.
Nearly 600 students entered the competition at the SACNAS meeting held in Salt Lake City Oct. 9-12. The winners were from a mix of Ivy League schools, large universities and smaller schools like MSU-Bozeman, said Marjorie Old Horn, American Indian Research Opportunities (AIRO) program director.
"Through Dr. Foreman, Mervin was able to perform cutting-edge research on how bacteria survive in the Antarctic," Old Horn said. "It's unique research and an outstanding opportunity for Mervin."
According to Old Horn, Failing is a model of what the BRIDGES program is meant to do. He was selected from a remote reservation and exposed to a variety of science techniques and methodologies that he otherwise may not have had the opportunity to experience. He started the program without an undergraduate degree and is now considering graduate school to continue his science studies.
"The premise of BRIDGES is to help and engage tribal students and to motivate them to go to graduate school and continue in research fields," Old Horn said.
Failing will receive his teaching credential at Fort Peck Community College this spring and hopes to enroll at MSU next fall to become a science teacher. Math and science weren't part of Failing's original plan, but after a summer in the BRIDGES program, he shifted directions.
"Participating in BRIDGES and winning at SACNAS was the experience of a lifetime," Failing said. "I'll never forget it. It changed my life and steered me toward science."
Marjorie Old Horn, American Indian Research Opportunities (AIRO) program director, (406) 994-5847 or firstname.lastname@example.org.