Montana State University

Crash dummy, bison birth rates all part of MSU student research

April 14, 2009 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

MSU student Scott Larson studied the best places to locate a car crash dummy when conducting avalanche research in the Bridger Mountains near Bozeman. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- A 200-pound man dressed for the ski slopes sat silently Tuesday while Montana State University student Scott Larson explained his significance at the annual Student Research Celebration in the Strand Union Building.

The man -- actually a car crash dummy named Homer -- is used in MSU studies to understand avalanches. Larson from Bozeman, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, had to manhandle the dummy last year so he focused his research project on it this year. He wanted to determine the best places in the Bridger Mountains to set Homer to be hit by an avalanche and the logistics to get it there.

Access roads, trucks and snowmobiles can get the dummy to the general area where it needs to be, but someone still has to use a rope and multiple pulleys to move Homer to a specific spot, Larson said. The locations have to make sense for the scientists, as well as for those who would lug Homer around the slopes, especially since the research could span many years.

"A 200-pound dummy can't move itself," Larson commented.

Larson was one of more than 200 undergraduate and graduate students who conducted research projects this year and explained their findings at the annual research celebration. The students represented every college on campus, so their projects ranged from the humanities to physical sciences. Jessica Pickens and Preston Nelson, for example, displayed photographs and a shadow box they made for their project on the broken dreams of homesteaders who built, then abandoned, structures on the Haymaker Ranch near Two Dot. Pickens, from Bozeman, is a senior in American Studies. Nelson, from Billings, is a junior majoring in marketing.

Andrew Creighton of Kalispell, a junior in chemical engineering, saw how temperature, time and ultraviolet light affected the corrosion inhibitors found in road deicers. Nicole Lerner of Bozeman, a junior majoring in electrical engineering, analyzed data to figure out why surface water interferes with lidar readings of Yellowstone Lake. Lidar detects and locates objects by using laser beams. A specially-equipped plane flew over the lake in 2004, using lasers to gather information about lake trout. Lerner studied secondary data from that flight to understand why the lake slowly darkens during the day. She believes it's related to wind speed and air bubbles moving around the surface of the water.

"It's been a really neat project to work on," Lerner said. "Hopefully, I might get a flight in sometime."

Other students explored the declining birth rate among bison in the National Bison Range near Moiese, a new way to teach two Japanese alphabets, innate immunity, the effects of microgravity on yeast, and sustainable waste treatment in Khwisero, Kenya.

Brock Alonzo of Missoula, a junior in cell biology and neuroscience, looked through 200 years of data to help MSU researchers who are developing new varieties of wheat that can thrive in Montana despite drought and warmer temperatures. Next year he plans to participate in genetic research that relates to his mother's lupus. The techniques he learned this year will be the same ones he uses next year, Alonzo said, adding that he enjoys genetics.

"Research is one of the most challenging and frustrating things, but I really like it," Alonzo said.

As Steve Holmgren, director of MSU's Undergraduate Scholars Program, looked over this year's projects, he said, "It's fun to see the breadth of projects that students are doing and reporting on."

MSU has long held a spring conference where undergraduate students used posters or oral presentations to explain their research. Last year, the conference expanded to include graduate students. This year's event consisted of 42 graduate presentations and 168 undergraduate presentations. Most of the students presented their work with posters and informal conversations.

Student researchers conducted their research through the Undergraduate Scholars Program, the Division of Graduate Education, core class requirements or independent arrangements with MSU mentors.

Event sponsors were the American Indian Research Opportunities Program, Hughes Undergraduate Biology Program, Center for Biofilm Engineering, Montana EPSCoR Program, Montana INBRE Program, Montana Space Grant Consortium and Big Sky Institute.

The Undergraduate Scholars Program, Office of the Provost and Office of Graduate Education organized this year's celebration.

For more information, go to

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or