UM scientists reel in research dollars
UM researchers secured more than $62 million in external grants and contracts for fiscal year 2008.
The top five recipients were:
— Andrij Holian, Center for Environmental Health Sciences, $3 million.
— Jerry Bromenshenk, Division of Biological Sciences, $2.9 million.
— Jack Stanford, Flathead Lake Biological Station, $2.8 million.
— Rick Hauer, Flathead Lake Biological Station, $2.4 million.
— Mike Kavanaugh, Center for Structural and Functional Neuroscience, $1.9 million.
UM President George Dennison says that funding attracted by campus researchers contributes substantially to economic development in Montana, supporting student projects and keeping scientists on the cutting edge of research and development.
Degrees offered with international partners
The UM Department of Geosciences, with partner institutions in Germany and Ireland, has established UM’s first transnational dual and joint degree programs.
UM’s first dual degree program is a Bachelor of Science in international field geosciences, offered collaboratively with the University of Potsdam in Germany. Students graduating from the program will receive two separate bachelor’s degrees, one from UM and one from the University of Potsdam.
The University’s first joint degree program is a Bachelor of Science degree, also in international field geosciences, offered in cooperation with University College Cork in Ireland. Students graduating from the program will receive a single degree that is jointly administered and awarded by the two universities.
“Although dual and joint degrees involving institutional partnerships are relatively commonplace in Europe, these shared degree models have not been widely implemented in the United States,” says geosciences Professor Marc Hendrix, UM’s principal architect of the new international programs. “The greatest advantage for students in these programs is that they benefit directly from the unique educational resources available at each of the partner institutions.”
UM students seeking either of the new degrees are required to spend one year of overseas study in Germany or Ireland and engage in a curriculum that focuses on field-based geoscience learning with additional course work in natural science, language and cultural training. European students seeking either degree must spend one year of study at UM’s Missoula campus.
Glaciologist projects sea level rise
|UM’s Joel Harper inspects the underbelly of an ice sheet in Glacier National Park.
When Joel Harper talks about calving, it has nothing to do with cattle.
Harper, a UM glaciologist, studies the melting and movement of the world’s ice sheets. For him, calving is what happens when ice sheets meet the ocean and break apart to form icebergs.
Now Harper and his research partners suggest there needs to be a whole lot more calving going on to make the direst climate change predictions of sea level rise — sometimes suggested at 6 meters or more — come to fruition by 2100.
In fact, glaciers and ice sheets would have to reach never-recorded sustained speeds to make the most extreme ocean level rises come true according to the researchers’ new methodology, laid out in the Sept. 5 edition of Science.
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report projects between 18 to 60 centimeters (7.2 to 24 inches) of sea level rise by 2100. But Harper says that projection has come under criticism for not including ice dynamics — how ice sometimes speeds up and calves more icebergs in response to lubrication from meltwater or warming ocean temperatures.
“We simply don’t understand the physics of ice dynamics well enough to make accurate model predictions,” he says. “There are just too many uncertainties. So what we did is flip the problem on its head.”
Admitting ice dynamics is an unknown, the researchers worked the problem backward. They asked, “What would the glaciers and ice fields have to do to produce 2 meters of sea level rise by 2100? How about 5 meters?”
“We found you would need to have phenomenal calving,” says Harper, who has lived and worked on the Greenland ice cap the past two summers, studying the increased melting there.
He says for the Greenland ice sheet to produce 2 meters of worldwide sea level rise by 2100, the glaciers moving into the island’s calving fjords would have to increase their speed to 45.8 kilometers (28.4 miles) per year and sustain that speed until the end of the century.
“For some perspective, the mean velocity right now is about 1.2 kilometers per year,” Harper says. “So you would need a 40-something increase in the mean velocity. And this scenario includes increasing the surface melt rate by tenfold.”
He says scientists have never seen ice move 45.8 kilometers per year anywhere in the world. “But we can’t prove that it’s impossible,” he says. “What we can say is that it’s not a good working hypothesis. Fifteen kilometers per year is the fastest we’ve ever seen one of the Greenland outlet glaciers go, and that one already stopped doing that.”
So, armed with the new method for dealing with ice dynamics, how high do Harper and his partners think world oceans will rise by 2100?
“We think they will rise between .8 and 2 meters (2.7 and 6.7 feet),” he says. “That includes plausible ice dynamics scenarios.”
However, Harper stresses that a rise of even .8 meters is a huge deal. Raising the California Central Valley levees only .15 meter, for example, would cost more than $1 billion.
Harper’s partners in the study are Tad Pfeffer at the University of Colorado and Shad O’Neel at the University of California, San Diego.
University scientists help map edge of solar system
|A Hubble Space Telescope image of a crescent-shaped bow shock around a young star in the Great Nebula in Orion (NASA image)
As our sun rumbles around the galactic core at 486,000 mph — taking us along for the ride — it constantly emits particles called the solar wind. At the edge of the solar system, 100 times farther out than the distance between the sun and the Earth, this wind dies down as it hits the hydrogen and helium gas between stars. Interstellar space, it seems, is not totally empty.
This edge region, the interstellar boundary, forms a vast teardrop-shaped bow shock around our solar system as the sun moves along its orbital path. It’s not unlike a rock in a stream. Though astronomers have photographed the bow shocks around other stars, we know precious little about our own.
That started to change Oct. 19 with the launch of a NASA spacecraft called IBEX, the Interstellar Boundary Explorer. UM scientist Dan Reisenfeld helped design one of two primary instruments on IBEX, which will create an all-sky map of the interstellar boundary.
Both Reisenfeld and fellow UM researcher Paul Janzen are part of the core payload team for the spacecraft.
“It’s been fast and furious,” Reisenfeld says of the three years between project approval and launch. “It’s exciting that IBEX is ready to get to work.”
The spacecraft launched aboard a Pegasus rocket dropped from under the belly of an aircraft flying over the Pacific Ocean near the Marshall Islands. The Pegasus carried IBEX 130 miles above the Earth, and then a motor pushed the probe above low-Earth orbit.
“The spacecraft has a highly elliptical orbit that goes out almost to the distance of the moon,” Reisenfeld says. “It’s an eight-day orbit. The reason for that is it needs to get beyond the Earth’s magnetosphere — this collection of energetic particles surrounding our planet — that otherwise will swamp our signal.”
The two primary instruments on the 5-foot-wide spacecraft — IBEX-Low and IBEX-Hi — detect a range of energetic neutral atoms that are energized at the boundary of the solar system. Reisenfeld designed a section of IBEX-Hi that ionizes, steers and accelerates the particles to where they can be detected.
“Dr. Janzen and I have also been very much involved with the details of how the instrument will be operated in orbit,” he says. “In addition, we have been planning how the data are going to be binned and sorted out and sent down to the ground, as well as the sequences of commands that are used to turn on
and operate the instrument.”
Besides answering questions about the size and shape of the bow shock and “heliosheath” surrounding our planetary system, IBEX also may answer questions about how that region protects us from interstellar cosmic rays.
Reisenfeld says these rays are intense radiation that can damage DNA or knock out electrical gear on satellites and other spacecraft. Mainly because of the heliosheath, only about 10 percent of cosmic rays reach the inner solar system, and then the Earth’s magnetosphere offers another layer of protection that reduces the radiation further.
He says two NASA spacecrafts launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 and 2 probes, have reached the heliosheath on the border of interstellar space.
Reisenfeld became involved with the IBEX project while working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. His boss and mentor at that time, Dave McComas, is now the IBEX principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.
The IBEX proposal was submitted in 2004 as part of NASA’s competitive Explorer Program. Five proposals were funded for a concept study, and then IBEX was finally selected to become a low-cost, rapidly developed Small Explorers spacecraft in 2005.
Reisenfeld came to UM in 2004, remaining heavily involved with NASA projects while teaching Montana students courses such as Modern Physics and Quantum Mechanics.
Research center earns grant to assist rural people with disabilities
A UM research center that works to improve the ability of people with disabilities to live independently in rural America has been awarded a five-year, $4.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
The funding went to the Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities (RTC:Rural). Established in 1988, the center is part of UM’s Rural Institute, which supports the independence, productivity and community inclusion of persons with disabilities.
“Some 56 million Americans live in rural areas, and nearly 20 percent of those live with a disability,” says Tom Seekins, director of RTC:Rural. “While rural America is their home, living there can place them at a disadvantage compared to their urban counterparts.”
Seekins says the grant will fund a sustainable plan for quality research and training that will continue to enhance state-of-the-art practices in rural disability and rehabilitation. It also will finance a variety of activities, such as evaluating rural health promotion strategies that could lead to improved employment outcomes, conducting a randomized controlled trial to evaluate ways to improve rural consumers’ use of health care services or identifying strategies to improve rural transportation.
“We really believe this grant gives us the ability to improve the lives of rural Americans with disabilities,” Seekins says.
The grant also will create a program to disseminate RTC:Rural’s research findings and spark the use of evidence-based rural practices by policymakers, advocates, service providers and others.
RTC:Rural has made myriad discoveries in its field during the past two decades. For example, it learned that people with disabilities are self-employed at higher rates than the general population and that people with disabilities in rural areas have the highest rates of self-employment.
UM releases report on campus greenhouse gas
In response to growing concerns about the impacts of climate change, UM has completed its first-ever campus greenhouse gas inventory.
The 38-page report, available online at http://www.umt.edu/urelations/greenhouse.html, is an effort to detail and understand the carbon footprint of UM’s central campus and College of Technology.
In February 2007, UM President George Dennison became a charter signatory of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. By signing the agreement, Dennison pledged to make UM more sustainable, with the ultimate goal of neutralizing greenhouse gas emissions on campus.
The UM inventory is an initial step toward achieving that goal and will lead to a campus action plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The report was submitted to the ACUPCC’s online greenhouse gas reporting system on Sept. 15.
“In my view, this report illustrates quite well the campuswide commitment to sustainability and bodes well for the future of the University,” Dennison says.
The inventory studied the years 2000 to 2007. During that span, UM emissions increased 16.4 percent. There are many reasons for the increase, including a growing student population and more campus buildings.
The report outlines how total campus emissions come from three main sources: on-campus steam production (36.1 percent), transportation (31.6 percent) and purchased electricity (30.8 percent). Solid waste contributed 1.3 percent of emissions, and fertilizer application added .2 percent.
The inventory found UM emitted 42,690 metric tons of carbon dioxide at its two Missoula campuses in 2007. The average full-time UM student contributed about 3.8 metric tons in 2007.
The inventory resulted from a campuswide cooperative effort directed by Jessie Davie, the Associated Students of UM sustainability coordinator, with a full-time graduate student and four interns. This group was advised by Phil Condon, an environmental studies associate professor, and member of UM’s Sustainable Campus Committee.
Davie and her partners started working on the report in October 2007.
MonTEC laboratory named for energetic campus contributor
|Inge Rudbach accepts a plaque honoring her husband, Tony, from Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Tony would have been proud.
On Oct. 10, family, friends and colleagues of Jon “Tony” Rudbach gathered across the river from campus to dedicate a laboratory in his name at MonTEC, the business incubator Rudbach helped create in cooperation with UM and the Missoula Area Economic Development Corp. The many dignitaries at the event included Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who said, “Tony brought together two worlds — science and economic development.”
Rudbach was UM’s associate vice president for research and development. He passed away Aug. 10 following complications from an automobile accident.
In the ’70s and early ’80s, Rudbach served as a UM microbiology professor for several years. During that time and the ensuing decades, he worked in the private sector with several companies, including his own consulting firm. Perhaps his crowning achievement was creating a test used worldwide that protects vaccines, drugs and other injected substances from dangerous endotoxins.
In 1995 Rudbach joined the Office of the Vice President for Research and Development, where he passionately worked to spur the Montana economy. He created and oversaw many projects designed to revitalize the economy of Eastern Montana and was committed to a project to spread business incubators across Western Montana. He also helped create a tech-transfer program that ensured both inventors and campus benefited from intellectual properties developed at UM.
Fire center develops new Web site
Summer in the Northern Rockies means camping, fishing, hiking and other activities on public lands. It also means an increased risk of wildfire, which can lead to restrictions and closures on those same areas.
Now through a new Web site, http://www.firerestrictions.org, the public can check on the restrictions and closures that are in place during the wildland fire seasons in Montana, Idaho, North Dakota and northwestern South Dakota.
The Web site is a cooperative effort between the Northern Rockies Coordination Group and UM’s National Center for Landscape Fire Analysis. NCLFA uses science and technology to make wildland fire management more efficient and effective.
Invading honeybee virus discovered
UM researchers and their campus-affiliated company, Bee Alert Technology Inc., have employed a powerful new tool created by a U.S. Army lab to discover a honeybee virus invading North America.
The new virus does not cause Colony Collapse Disorder — a mysterious malady depopulating beehives around the globe — but the method used to find the virus may help scientists unravel the CCD mystery in the future.
The invading bee virus is called Varroa destructor virus-1. First definitively identified in Europe in 2006, VDV-1 is carried by both honeybees and the tiny varroa mites that afflict them.
The invading virus was discovered in two honeybee samples collected by UM scientists in the southeastern United States. Jerry Bromenshenk, a UM biology research professor, and his colleagues gathered the incriminating samples as part of a larger sampling effort in bee yards affected by CCD across the nation.
Bee Alert had the samples analyzed at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, a U.S. Army-backed laboratory based at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. Edgewood has developed a liquid-chromatograph proteomics mass-spectrometry device, which can identify all the peptides (short lengths of proteins) in a given sample.
“Every virus, every fungus, every bacteria has its own group of peptides that are unique to it,” Bromenshenk says. “We provided bee samples from a wide area and a number of colonies, and they very quickly produced a fingerprint of every pathogen that the honeybees are carrying.”
The Edgewood analysis didn’t provide a smoking gun for what causes CCD, but it did reveal that a European bee virus had “jumped the pond,” Bromenshenk says.
“What’s significant about this is typically we don’t know about new pathogens arriving on U.S. soil until there is some sort of outbreak and significant loss of colonies going around,” says Colin Henderson, a Bee Alert employee and UM College of Technology faculty member.
He says an exciting aspect of Edgewood’s new technology is that it reveals everything contained in a sample. Using typical genetics-based methods like the polymerase chain reaction laboratory method — the same type used in the 1990s O.J. Simpson trial — scientists must specifically target genes and match those with the sequences they are searching for. This is expensive and time consuming. The Edgewood method identifies all the peptides, which then are cross-referenced with an index of millions of peptides stored at the National Center for Biotechnology Information and other databases.
Building brings more lab space to UM
In a continuing quest to provide more modern laboratory space for University researchers, another science building is rising on the south side of campus.
Construction began on the 61,500-square-foot Interdisciplinary Science Building adjacent to the Health Sciences Building in the summer of 2007. The first phase of the project — the outer shell and first floor — will be completed by the end of fall semester 2008. The second phase — the second floor — should be completed during spring semester 2009. Additional phases have not been scheduled.
When completed, the building will cost about $14.7 million. It will include four research floors and a basement.
Charlie Janson, associate dean of the Division of Biological Sciences, says the new structure will provide improved lab space for externally funded biology and biochemistry researchers now housed in the Charles H. Clapp Building, as well as room for the new Center for Biomolecular Structure and Dynamics. The first floor will contain a 120-seat lecture hall, a 30-seat computer classroom, a conference room, office space and more. The upper floors will each contain four research laboratories and offices for faculty, postdoctoral associates and graduate students. Plans for the basement include a teaching lab and room for high-tech instrumentation.
Janson says the name of the building may change if a generous donor comes forward with funding to help finish the research floors.
UM study: Polluted city air may predispose
children to diseases later in life
Exposure to severe air pollution at a young age may predispose people to develop Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s later in life, according to new research conducted by UM and the National Institute of Pediatrics in Mexico City.
Published in Toxicological Pathology, the research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Dr. Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas, an assistant professor in UM’s Center for Structural and Functional Neuroscience, studied the brains of 47 young people who died of causes unrelated to neurological conditions. Thirty-five came from Mexico City — one of the most polluted cities in the world — while the rest were from two Mexican cities with relatively clean air.
Calderón’s research group found that brains from the Mexico City area — even one from a 2-year-old child — showed evidence of neural inflammation and features common to those with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases. The average age of those studied was 25.
“This suggests that harmful environmental exposures very young in life can be significant for your brain later when you reach a certain age,” she says. “But it may be 50 years before you exhibit symptoms. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases are not sudden. By the time you develop symptoms like cognitive alterations ... you probably have lived with the disease for decades.”
Calderón conducted the study in Mexico because people there are less likely to move. In the United States relocation is more common.
Blossoms signal changing climate
Every spring for the past decade, UM forestry Professor Paul Alaback has studied plant cycles on Mount Sentinel. Alaback found that the plants have started to flower earlier — two weeks earlier in some cases.
Alaback describes his research, the science of phenology, as observing “nature’s clock.” He’s concluded that the clock is resetting sooner and ticking faster because of climate change.
Previous U.S. and international studies also have found that plants are flowering three to five days earlier each decade.
“We’re getting so much evidence, it’s getting harder and harder to argue with the fact that things are changing,” Alaback says. “Similar patterns found all over are pretty convincing. Rapid changes have been noticed in climate, ecological and biological responses.”
The case of the buttercup is the most poignant. Bitterroot-area researchers have found the blooms in January instead of the normal mid-spring. Alaback found them in February. “That’s the earliest I’ve seen them in 12 years,” he says. “Our spring temperatures have risen quite a bit.”
But science isn’t always as complicated as most think, Alaback says, “It’s all about consistency.”
So to recruit more researchers, Professor Carol Brewer, associate dean of the UM College of Arts and Sciences, and Alaback joined partners who represent the Chicago Botanical Garden and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.
Their venture — Project BudBurst — asks “citizen scientists” across the nation to follow a few phenological steps each spring and submit their findings online.
More than 3,000 people nationwide gathered data for spring 2008, an increase from 2007, Alaback says. Montana’s participation has risen too, with citizen scientists in Missoula and Choteau.
But the project won’t be able to yield conclusive evidence about nature’s clock until a few more growing seasons pass. Decade-long studies like Alaback’s Mount Sentinel project are necessary to find constant change over natural variation.
That doesn’t mean, however, that phenologists have to wait 10 years to make valuable comparisons, Alaback says. Part of Project BudBurst research will look at how susceptible different U.S. regions are to the same conditions.
BudBurst researchers found that climate patterns are much more complicated in the South, which has less prominent season changes than the rest of the U.S. Researchers there have seen a plant response “more to drought than temperature,” Alaback says, “which reflects on the regionalization that will be necessary to studying the effects of climate change.
“Response is going to take different forms wherever you are.”
In Montana, plant response may be due more to temperature and how that affects how early snowpack collects and melts, he says. “One of the first places we’re going to see the effects of climate change is in the dry valleys of Western Montana [like Missoula].”
But what Project BudBurst needs is time and participation. “The more people who are a part of this, the better job we’re going to do. This is a resource that will take some time to develop,” Alaback said.
“This is an investment in our future.”
To participate in BudBurst 2009, which kicks off Feb. 15, 2009, go to http://www.windows.ucar.edu/citizen_science/budburst/. Project Budburst is funded with a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
— By Ashley Zuelke
Kids enjoy science fun center
|Focused on learning
UM celebrated the grand opening of its spectrUM Discovery Area last fall. Located in Room 166 of the Skaggs Building addition, this College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences center is devoted to inspiring a culture of learning and discovery for kids of all ages.
Holly Truitt, spectrUM co-director, says the center’s outreach efforts reached close to 39,000 students during its first year. This included taking fun science activities to schools, fairs, festival and powwows. In addition, 4,700 students visited the center on campus during its first eight months, and a similar number is expected during the latter half of this year. “So usage is really accelerating,” Truitt says.
The center is open from 3:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday and from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $3.50; children ages 3 and under are free. Free passes often are available through the YWCA, Missoula Public Library and other means. “We disseminate about 1,000 free passes every month,” Truitt says. “We also just had our first birthday party with 227 kids.”
The center’s current main attraction is a weather exhibition from the San Francisco Exploratorium, which offers an 8-foot tornado, sea of fog and swirling turbulent orb.
SpectrUM is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. More information is available at http://www.spectrum.umt.edu.
Lab engages American Indian students
UM has established a Native American Research Laboratory dedicated to training Native students in basic sciences. The lab is the first research facility at any university in the nation developed specifically to provide hands-on, cross-disciplinary research training opportunities for Native American undergraduate and graduate students.
The goal of the lab is to provide a cultural “comfort zone” where Native students can learn how to use
state-of-the-art instrumentation and modern laboratory techniques to study research questions.
Michael Ceballos, a UM biology research assistant professor, helped develop the laboratory. A former tribal college faculty member, he says the idea is to create learning opportunities for Native science students so they are more competitive in applying for graduate science programs and positions.