FROM THE VICE PRESIDENT
THE FOSSIL TRAIL
Sidebar: New center lands big grant
WOMEN OF SCIENCE
SCIENTIST Q & A
Cover: UM paleontologist George Stanley holds a rhinoceros jaw fossil in the storage room of the University’s paleontology research collection. Found in Montana, the fossil is from the Miocene epoch, which extended from 23 million to 5.3 million years before the present.
Vision is published annually by University Relations and the UM Office of the Vice President for Research and Development. It is printed by UM Printing & Graphic Services.
PUBLISHER: Daniel J. Dwyer. MANAGING EDITOR AND GRAPHIC DESIGNER: Cary Shimek. PHOTOGRAPHER: Todd Goodrich. CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Brianne Burrowes, Alex Strickland, Judy Fredenberg, Erik Leithe, Rita Munzenrider and Patia Stephens. WEB DESIGN: Patia Stephens. EDITORIAL OFFICE: University Relations, Brantly Hall 330, Missoula, MT 59812, 406-243-5914. MANAGEMENT: Judy Fredenberg, Office of the Vice President for Research and Development, 116 Main Hall, Missoula, MT 59812, 406-243-6670.
Women of Science
University pushes for more strong female researchers
By Beth Judy
Curiosity — the desire to know — can be a huge motivating force.
It certainly drives the work of five UM-affiliated scientists interviewed for this article — all of whom happen to be women. Says geologist Rebecca Bendick: “I didn’t set out to be a scientist, but I’ve always been curious. That leads either to a scientific worldview or a religious one.” Disease ecologist Vanessa Ezenwa says, “I have to pace myself. There are tons of things I’d like to study.” Each scientist spoke of asking questions, testing hypotheses and pushing findings further — the definition of science.
“Ideas create new ideas,” says Montana Tech biochemist Andrea Stierle, gesturing at large, glossy posters that display her lab’s work. Ezenwa echoes Stierle. All her work, she says, “builds on something that’s past.”
If these five women are any indication, science is alive and well at UM — and well contributed to by females of the species.
Women at UM have been involved with the sciences since Day One. UM’s first professor of mathematics — one of the original five faculty members — was a woman, Cynthia Elizabeth Reilly. Mary Elrod Ferguson, daughter of another original faculty member, Morton J. Elrod, received her bachelor of science in biology from UM, then returned to teach zoology. Jessie Bierman, one of Mary’s father’s students, went on to become a famous pediatrician. Later, Bierman gave a generous endowment to the Flathead Lake Biological Station, where one of our interviewees lives and works. The station’s research boat, the Jessie B., is named for Bierman.
the numbers of women involved in scientific research at the University,
some say, should be higher. At last count, of 1,451 faculty members
UM Professor Penny Kukuk set out to improve this situation. She applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation to enable UM to recruit and retain more women scientists. In 2003 her hard work paid off. Now the UM-Missoula Partnership for Comprehensive Equity, or PACE, helps bring women scientists to UM and keep them once they’re here. PACE does everything from helping with money for hires to bringing in speakers and encouraging networking among the women scientists at UM.
Women still face hurdles in the world of research, and at age 80, UM scientist Barbara Wright has seen too much to be surprised. “It’s tougher for women. We’re not as aggressive. If you have a family, you can’t compete as well. Sometimes a woman really does have to be twice as good as a guy to make it.”
Wright feels she has also experienced discrimination because of her age — but not from the granting agencies she deals with. “If they see a hot problem, they don’t care how old a scientist is,” Wright says.
Hot problems certainly abound in the world today. The cutting intelligence and articulate aplomb with which these five scientists are tackling them inspires hope. Judge for yourselves.
Stierle: Cures from fungi, bacteria and the Berkeley Pit
“No one thought anything could live in the pit,” says Stierle. “In the fall of 1995, 342 snow geese landed on that water and died.” But the simplest tests of the first water sample she received yielded three microbes. Stierle knew that meant there were more. Today, the counters of the lab she shares with her husband and collaborator, Don, are stacked with petri dishes — a happy family of approximately 132 Berkeley Pit microbes.
But the research has only begun. The Stierles’ greatest interest is the chemicals these organisms produce.
“Fungi and bacteria — microbes — elaborate a lot of chemistry,” Stierle says. “They have no immune system. Chemistry is how they interact with the world — how they communicate, fight off enemies, mate. If you find an interesting chemical in nature, there’s probably a microbe lurking in the background producing it.”
She knew this from experience. In graduate school at MSU, Stierle discovered a fungus that preyed on knapweed. A compound it produces kills the weed. Another compound isolated from a bacterium living in a Bermudan sponge is active not only against Staphylococcus aureus, but also HIV. In 1990, on the tip of a branch clipped from a yew tree along Glacier National Park’s Trail of Cedars, Stierle found a fungus that produces taxol, an important treatment for breast cancer. This came at a time when whole yews were being harvested for the drug, threatening the species with extinction and keeping the cost of treatment high.
The Berkeley Pit bacteria and fungi may not be new themselves, but many of the compounds they produce are. “It’s like different races in humans with different chemistry.” For example, people who evolved in Africa or Scandinavia produce more or less melanin in their skins, but “they’re both still homo sapiens.”
Testing so far has revealed strong anticancer activity in two of the Berkeley Pit compounds, one against type 3 ovarian cancer, and the other against non-small cell lung cancer.
Another slime in the pit also holds promise. It’s actually a yeast that pulls 90 percent of heavy metals out of water. Most organic materials can pull only 10 or 15 percent. It’s possible that, in the future, the yeast could help with cleanup of the pit and sites like it.
“The only place it was ever isolated before,” Stierle says, peering into a beaker of the liquid, “was in the rectums of geese. Geese tend to poop when they’re taking off from water. We call this little yeast the gift of the snow geese.”
Wright: Using stress to spur evolution
She has a lot of work to do. Recipient of a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health three years ago, Wright’s particular focus is the molecular mechanisms underlying evolution — specifically, mutagenesis, the processes by which genetic material in a cell changes. NIH is interested because Wright’s work could unravel the cause of cancer.
“Most people think cancer is due to damage to a cell’s DNA,” Wright says. “I think it’s due to transcription — a microbial mechanism gone wrong.”
Transcription is the process by which information in a gene’s DNA is copied to RNA, a similar molecule, in a cell. The cell uses that information to produce proteins. Proteins are vital to life. About 50,000 of them allow the human body to accomplish basic functions such as growth, movement, immune response and metabolism.
In earlier research Wright found that bacteria responded to stress — specifically, to being starved of a certain amino acid — by speeding up transcription in genes required to make it. A higher transcription rate increases chances of mutation — changes in DNA that, in this case, might solve or stop the stress. Wright saw her test bacteria — E. coli, which live very short lives — evolve the ability to produce the amino acid they lacked.
Wright came to her work on cancer through a back door. A human gene called p53 normally helps suppress tumors. It produces a protein that regulates cell division, among other things. But in many types of cancer, p53 is found to have mutated. Because of all the researchers studying cancer, p53 and these mutations are extremely well documented.
“On the Web, there are 25,000 cancers with known mutations in that gene,” she says. “There was great data.”
Wright and her colleagues plugged this data into a computer program that simulates transcription. So far, the results have fallen in line with Wright’s hypothesis. Carcinogens, she says, are stressors. They activate transcription, increasing chances that p53 will mutate, increasing chances of mutation in that gene. However, instead of this mutation providing the type of solution we might wish for, cell division goes awry.
“Transcription and mutation are linked,” Wright maintains. “Transcription separates the two DNA strands, so they become unprotected and mutable. My computer program simulates this process and can predict where the mutations occur.”
Wright also is looking at transcription and the immune response. “It’s a beautiful system because it has positive mutations. When the system is attacked, say by an infectious bacterium, the immune system makes an antibody to deal with the problem. Transcription goes up ten-thousand-fold. Mutation goes up a million-fold.”
In the meantime, people as far away as India have begun using Wright’s computer program. Ultimately, she believes, that’s what it will take for her theory to gain acceptance. “People have to understand and use the program to become convinced.”
Ezenwa: Pursuing the parasite path
Ezenwa’s research has practical, even urgent applications. Lately, it seems, a startling number of “new” pathogens have spilled over from animals to humans. AIDS. West Nile virus. Avian flu. “We don’t have quantitative data to know if there’s really an increase in new diseases,” Ezenwa says, “but public interest in them is certainly greater.”
As a disease ecologist, Ezenwa looks at disease organisms as part of an ecosystem. Specifically, she examines interaction between three sets of factors. First, characteristics of the host — for example, where it lives and its social behavior. Next, characteristics of the parasite — a worm, say, or a virus — such as life cycle or which hosts it affects. And finally, environmental factors such as climate and landscape.
Before she came to UM, Ezenwa investigated whether biodiversity in birds affected rates of West Nile virus infection in mosquitoes — the vectors that pass infection from birds to humans. In Louisiana she and a team of U.S. Geological Survey researchers found higher infection rates when species diversity was lower.
“It’s simply a matter of numbers,” she explains. “Say an intact bird community has 20 species, only two of which are good disease hosts. Reduce that number to 10. Rarer species are usually the first to go, but they were bad disease hosts anyway — parasites tend to use abundant ‘generalist species’ as hosts — species that thrive in almost any habitat.”
These days, Ezenwa says, with increasing development and habitat fragmentation, generalist species are being favored. “Two out of 10 of the species can still transmit the disease, and now a greater proportion of mosquito bites will be taken from the ‘right’ species, and you’ve increased the chances of disease transmission.” First observed with Lyme Disease, this paradigm also described West Nile, the scientist found.
Today, Ezenwa concentrates on ungulates — hooved mammals. “It’s difficult,” she says, displaying the cartridge-sized cattle dewormer she had to stick down the throats of hundreds of African buffalo recently during field work in South Africa. She and a collaborator there are studying how multiple parasites in a host — in this case, worms and the tuberculosis bacterium — affect one another and the host.
“If your body has responded to one infection,” she says, “that response might protect you from a second, similar parasite.” But with dissimilar parasites, infection with one may increase chances of infection by the other. “There’s been work on this in humans in Africa. Simply treating people for worms may reduce susceptibility to HIV or TB.”
Ezenwa will continue her studies at the nearby National Bison Range. Collecting samples at the annual round-up, she will see how interaction between ungulate species affects the transmission of parasites.
She ends, “We need to stop and think about how a parasite becomes a problem. There needs to be a general awareness about why some diseases are expanding their geographical and host ranges.”
Ellis: Saving our watery world
“Two flies commonly used by fishermen in rivers with rainbow trout and steelhead are the egg-sucking leech fly and a flesh fly, which mimic the eggs and flesh of salmon.” The abundant carcasses of salmon at spawning time also provide food not only for numerous other fish in these river systems, but for the whole ecosystem. During floods, the carcasses fertilize surrounding land. Vegetation soaks up their nutrients through underground water. And terrestrial animals also benefit.
“But it’s a scary place to work, with all the bears,” Ellis confesses.
The limnologist has studied rivers in Kamchatka with scientists from Russia’s Moscow State University and others since 1999. Kamchatkan rivers — and their salmon populations — remain some of the most natural in the world because, for decades, the vast region consisting of volcanoes and wilderness was a military base.
“Stories have been told of the Russians sinking illegal fishing vessels in the Sea of Okhoskt,” she says.
To Ellis, “natural” means unmanipulated by humans. “So many rivers in the world are regulated now,” she says. “They’ve been transformed.” Studying river and lake systems in their natural state informs Ellis as she looks at manipulated systems like most of those in North America — and certainly, Flathead Lake.
“The lake is really just a wide spot in the Flathead River, which is huge,” Ellis says. “If you pulled the plug on the lake and drained it, it would take two and a half years to refill. In comparison, Lake Tahoe would take 700 years. The health of the lake is really tied to what we’re doing in the watershed.”
Monitoring and analyzing the lake’s water quality is Ellis’s other main research thrust. While Flathead is one of the cleanest lakes of its size in the world, “we still don’t think of it as pristine,” she says. Development in the watershed contributes not only to greater levels of phosphorus and nitrogen from run-off, but also affects how chemicals from smoke and car exhaust, pollen and dust are able to filter — or not filter — into the lake. One of the lake’s saving graces, Ellis says, is that 40 percent of its basin lies in wilderness and protected areas.
“There’s a dilution to our pollution,” she quips.
The introduction of nonnative species of fish and, in 1981, opossum shrimp, hugely and inexorably altered the lake’s existing food web, creating a cascade of consequences to the lake’s overall health.
Since 1980 Ellis and colleagues have measured such indicators of water quality as the lake’s ability to produce algae, oxygen levels in bottom waters of the lake and blooms of toxic algae. Now she is synthesizing 25 years of data. So far, measurements show water quality has declined. The information should help managers in charge of water quality.
Ellis knows the public is interested too. “The tribes and other groups have done surveys,” she says. “Most people around the lake value water quality over other things, including fishing. Clean water is a good thing.”
Bendick: Mapping earthquake probability in Pakistan
That’s something Bendick still does. Since the Kashmir Earthquake in October 2005 that killed at least 75,000 people, Bendick has been to Pakistan twice. Her work has helped measure exactly where the Earth slipped and where energy is still being stored — thus, where another earthquake might take place. She and colleagues eventually will provide the Pakistani government with a new seismic-hazard map for zoning and emergency preparedness.
But the other side of Bendick’s research is theoretical geodynamics. “I try to understand why the huge features on Earth are the shape they are. For example, where mountains come from, starting with basic physics. Even though the Earth is huge, it still has to follow rules. I try to figure out what those rules are and how they constrain what we see around us.”
Some of those rules, Bendick is finding, are surprising. To ferret them out, she applies theory from other fields of physics and math. Fluid dynamics — usually applicable to things like water in pipes or air over an airplane wing — has been useful. Bendick explains it this way: “Suppose the Earth’s crust were made of honey. You could build up a mountain, but it would go away over time without any erosion. There’s some evidence the Tibetan Plateau is doing exactly that.”
Similarly, even as she made her measurements in Pakistan, Bendick was observing “how the Earth was relaxing after the earthquake; how stiff it was — where it lies on the honey-to-rock spectrum.”
Bendick works in three mountainous areas: Central Asia, particularly the Himalayas, which she says are “still growing”; East Africa, where the Earth’s crust is stretching apart; and Montana. “One of the cool things here,” she says, “is that the Rockies aren’t growing anymore. It’s nice to compare with the Himalayas. Which features persist after you shut off the tectonic driver? Which features go away fast? I look at which features are common to all these mountains and which are unique.”
“The Bitterroots are a window into deeper Earth,” Bendick muses. “Erosion’s removed a lot of layers, so what you see used to be deep under the crust. The same things happening under Tibet now probably happened here under the ancestral Rockies millions of years ago.” Bendick notes evidence of fluid dynamics in the Montana range. “You can see rock with crystals in it that have been stretched and smeared like fluids. Not liquid, mind you. There’s a difference. These rocks deformed like a fluid, but did so in a solid state. It’s a weird concept.”
The Earth also obeys simple rules from geometry. For example, Bendick is investigating why so many island chains are arc-shaped — places such as Sumatra, Japan and the Aleutians. These islands are really mountains, she points out, with their base underwater.
The shape of those mountains is controlled in part by simple geometry, she says. Hollow spheres, or even parts of spheres, can only change their shape in a few limited ways in response to forces. “It turns out that certain mountain chains are curved for the same reason that Venus Flytraps can close quickly, because of the requirements of geometry. I find it utterly fascinating that the Aleutian Islands are governed by the same rules as a Venus Flytrap.”