Montana State University

MSU research project opens doors for Old Elk

December 15, 2008 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News

John Old Elk said his involvement with an MSU research project changed the direction of his life. Old Elk's poster on the project, a study that has potential applications in the treatment of stroke victims, netted him third place at a recent national American Indians in Science and Engineering Society contest. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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In a short time as a student at Montana State University, John Old Elk's work with some small animals has helped him make some big discoveries about brain chemistry and himself.

Old Elk, a sophomore from Billings majoring in cell biology, recently won third place and $200 in the American Indians in Science and Engineering Society's national contest for his poster and presentation about an MSU research project. The project, done under the supervision of Michael Babcock, professor of psychology at MSU, tested the effectiveness of a cocktail of common drugs in protecting the brains of gerbils from cerebral ischemia, a type of stroke. The study has potential applications in protecting human brains during certain types of strokes.

But even a year ago Old Elk, who transferred to MSU this fall from Little Big Horn College, had no idea how scientific research projects were conducted, or even knew he was capable of being a part of a research team.

"At first I was very intimidated," said Old Elk, who became a member of Babcock's research team last summer when Old Elk attended the MSU summer BRIDGES program. "I found (stroke research) pretty intense. But once I got into it and started reading journal articles and got into the actual research it became really fun."

Old Elk said he has always wanted to be a doctor and one of his professors at Little Big Horn encouraged him to apply to MSU's BRIDGES program. BRIDGES is a summer enrichment program that links American Indian students, many from the state's tribal colleges, with MSU professors and their research projects.

"I actually was going to go someplace else (after Little Big Horn) but the research opportunity weighed me to come to school here," he said. Old Elk then applied to MSU during the summer and returned in the fall. He said the other members of Babcock's research team took him under their wings and acquainted him with the project which is testing a cocktail of drugs developed by Dr. Walter Peschel of Missoula.

"There is a sense of family here," he said. "We look out for each other." Now that he's at MSU, Old Elk also works with American Indian Research Opportunities program, which provides tutoring, mentoring, "and they just look out for us."

"John is a valued member of my laboratory and we are all very proud of his accomplishments and this award," Babcock said. "He is wonderful example of how research experiences help students find a career path in science. This is something Montana State University does very well."

Old Elk helps conduct behavioral tests on gerbils used in the study. He said that preliminary results of tests indicated that the cocktail of common drugs, most of which are used now for other purposes, did protect the brains of the gerbils who were treated with the cocktail and sustained ischemic episodes. Old Elk said Babcock's team is now evaluating findings to establish a further round of testing and expanding the project.

"This lab offers hands-on research and practice," Old Elk said. "I think this lab will give me an advantage (in applying to medical school)."

Old Elk, who is an enrolled member of the Crow Tribe, grew up in Phoenix and Billings. He said the national AISES conference held in Anaheim, Calif., opened his eyes to the quality of work done by other Native American students and scientists nationwide. He said before his involvement with Babcock's team and competing at the conference with students from prestigious schools, he didn't realize that research and a career excelling in science was within his reach.

"I was really surprised when they called my name (as a winner)," Old Elk said. "Just to compete was good, but it put our school out there in a good way, too. It let me know that I could be at that level, too, one day. It gave me confidence."

To read other stories about Native American students who are excelling at MSU, go to:

Michael Babcock (406) 994-5175,