Montana State University

MSU grad student heads to D.C. to talk to congressional leaders

March 11, 2011 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Rob Watkins was one of 16 grad students across the nation and the only student from MSU and Montana chosen to participate in Student on the Hill Day at Washington, D.C. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN - A Montana State University graduate student who studies invasive bacterial pathogens will travel to Washington, D.C. during spring break to speak with congressional leaders about the value of basic research and its relevance to human health.

Rob Watkins was one of 16 graduate students across the nation and the only student from MSU and Montana chosen to participate in Student on the Hill Day, said Ben Corb, director of public affairs for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Watkins will be paired with Angel Byrd, a graduate student at Brown University, Corb said. The two will attend an orientation session on Monday, March 14. They will then meet with U.S. senators and representatives from Montana and Rhode Island on Tuesday, March 15. U.S. Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., is chairman of the House Appropriation subcommittee that determines the National Institutes of Health budget levels for the coming year. On Wednesday, March 16, Watkins and Byrd will join U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester when the Montana senators meet with visiting constituents over coffee.

Geoffrey Hunt, Science Policy Fellow with the ASBMB, said in an e-mail to Mark Quinn, head of MSU's Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, that "Your laboratory's work studying the pathogenesis of, and immune response to, infectious diseases provides a wonderful example of how government funding of basic research produces significant scientific results that are relevant to human health.

"The significance of government funding for basic scientific research cannot be overstated," Hunt continued. "Congressional leaders rely upon input from their constituents when making decisions and look forward to meeting with residents from their district."

Quinn said he recommended Watkins for Student on the Hill Day.

"He was chosen because he presents himself well. He interacts with people well. He also has a good perspective on the importance of biomedical research to Montanans," Quinn said.

Watkins' selection is "good for MSU. It's good for the state," Quinn added.

Watkins, a native of Seattle, said before leaving for Washington, D.C., that "Scientific advancement in states like Montana is unique in that we do not possess enormous population centers and/or academic institutions with which to easily pool resources from a large consortium for research. Sure, MSU leads the way in many research areas, such as thermal biology and environmental microbiology, and that 'edge' stems from not only our talented research groups, but also from our premier northern Rocky Mountains location and specifically our close distance to Yellowstone.

"Biomedical research is a different story, though," Watkins said. "Whereas at a larger university, a single department may have 30-plus faculty members contributing federal dollars to core facilities and overhead costs, some MSU departments, like Immunology and Infectious Diseases, may have from 10 to 15 faculty members (perhaps less) doing the same. This means fewer total dollars going towards these facilities and usually at an increased cost to the individual faculty member.

"This does not mean our science has any less impact, just that the cost of doing business is increased on a per faculty member basis," Watkins said.

Watkins came to MSU with a Molecular Biosciences Program Fellowship, which pays his entire tuition for graduate school. During his first year at MSU, the fellowship allowed him to rotate through the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases to see which laboratory best fit his research interests. Watkins now works in the Jovanka Voyich Kane Laboratory where he studies methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA, which is sometimes known popularly as antibiotic-resistant staph infection, is of particular concern in health-care facilities, and its prevalence in community settings is increasing.

He is especially interested in basic research, specifically understanding mechanisms of bacterial pathogenesis, Watkins said. After earning his doctorate, Watkins said he will continue to conduct research, most likely in basic science and bacterial pathogens. He may carry that out in a university, government agency or the military.

Before coming to MSU, Watkins served almost five years in the U.S. Army. He was a communications system supervisor who was deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is covering the cost of Watkins' participation in Student on the Hill Day.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or