Montana State University

Popular Science: MSU has one of nation's most amazing college labs

August 18, 2010 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


MSU's SubZero Science and Engineering Research Facility and its directors have garnered extensive national attention in recent years. Popular Science, for example, included the lab on a list of the 15 most amazing college labs in the country. Ed Adams, co-director of the facility, is shown here in a big-screen video that's part of a permanent exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Science and Industry).    High-Res Available

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Editor's note: MSU's SubZero Science and Engineering Research Facility and the researchers who use it have garnered extensive national attention in recent years. Read "MSU avalanche expert in permanent exhibit in Chicago" about how MSU avalanche expert Ed Adams is now part of a permanent exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

For more about MSU's SubZero Science and Engineering Research Facility, visit:

"At MSU snow, ice and cold are hot science"
Fall 2008 issue of Mountains and Minds
"Solving Avalanches' Mysteries"
New York Times, Jan. 20, 2009
"Massive Antarctic project takes MSU to one of Earth's final frontiers"
MSU News, Nov. 4, 2009
"What lies beneath; Miles below Antarctica's icy surface, scientists are finding abundant life in liquid lakes and rivers"
Washington Post, March 23, 2010
Explore the MSU's SubZero Science and Engineering Research Facility.


BOZEMAN -- Montana State University is one of the coolest schools in the United States with a laboratory that will blow your mind, according to the September issue of Popular Science.

For the second time in three years, MSU's SubZero Science and Engineering Research Facility is included in a Popular Science feature. In its latest appearance, the lab that allows students and researchers from all over the world and across disciplines to conduct research in extreme cold is described as one of 15 "mind-blowing college labs" in the country. Popular Science said the featured universities -- listed under a heading of "coolest schools" -- offer "amazing, hands-on programs that are almost too fun for credit."

Popular Science noted that MSU's lab allows students to look for life in 250,000-year-old ice cores and prepares them for a career as avalanche forecasters. Other featured labs let students set off explosions in a private mine, climb 150-foot-tall trees to collect leaves for a shaman, invent toys, solve murders and swim with sharks. Among the other featured schools are Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University and Carnegie Mellon University.

"I have read Popular Science for more than 40 years, and it is a great honor to have our subzero facility highlighted in this magazine," said John Priscu, long-time Antarctic researcher who co-directs MSU's cold lab with avalanche expert Ed Adams. "Popular Science has always highlighted innovative one-of-a-kind technology, which I believe describes our lab perfectly."

Researchers in the College of Engineering, College of Agriculture, College of Letters and Science, and College of Health and Human Development all use the SubZero facility, a suite of labs located in Cobleigh Hall. Priscu is a professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture. Adams is a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering in the College of Engineering.

MSU's SubZero Science and Engineering Research Facility first appeared in Popular Science in September 2008 when the magazine ran a feature called "A Geek's Guide to Colleges -- where to go if you want to clone mules, hunt aliens, or just build a better video game." MSU, at that time, was one of 10 universities listed under the heading of "Smartest Schools." Readers learned that temperatures in MSU's lab can reach minus 80 F. Those who used the lab studied ancient ice cores from underneath the Antarctic, the best way to keep ice off roads, and the flow of snow to better predict avalanches.

The lab was also featured Aug. 18 on ESPN.com and Jan. 20, 2009 on the front page of The New York Times science section. The lab is expected to be featured sometime this fall or winter on the Weather Channel.

The cold labs draw so much attention because of the type of research they support, Priscu said. The studies he conducts involve the oldest ice on the planet and ice from polar ice sheets, which tells us about past climate conditions and potential life in and beneath the ice sheets.

"This is in addition to the cutting-edge research being conducted on snow mechanics and avalanches," Priscu said. "As such, this facility breeds interdisciplinarity and provides students with an environment to exchange ideas and develop new ideas among their professors and peers."

Priscu's National Science Foundation- and NASA-funded programs are currently studying ice cores from West Antarctica that span the last glacial maximum to reveal the microbial record as the Earth went from an ice age to its current interglacial period, Priscu said. They are also examining ice, water and sediments collected in arctic lakes beneath a large ice stream in West Antarctic and in the Arctic in search of novel microorganisms with novel metabolisms, which may provide them with clues about life on other icy worlds such as Mars, Europa and Enceledus.

Adams said he is currently working on NSF-funded projects in the areas of snow metamorphism and material properties. Other researchers in the lab are studying "green" concrete to see how the cold affects concrete that contains crushed glass and fly ash. They're also studying the performance of glue-laminated beams in the cold. They're researching the rock glacier at Big Sky. John Seifert and Dan Heil in the Department of Health and Human Development are using the lab to conduct a variety of studies, that include the effect of cold on athletic performance, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and clothing designed for cold weather.

Adams said he believes the subzero facility -- built with funds from the NSF and M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust -- is popular because it deals with environmental issues and topics that have "sex appeal." Antarctica, avalanches, snow and mountains all appeal to the media and general public, he said.

In addition to MSU faculty, the subzero facility serves high school students and MSU undergraduates and graduate students who are interested in pursuing careers in subzero science, Priscu said. Adams said two visiting scientists from Switzerland recently arrived at the lab and will conduct snow studies there for the next two years. They are funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

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