University scientists rack up record funding
UM researchers expended more than $67 million from external grants and contracts to support UM’s research enterprise in fiscal year 2009. Daniel Dwyer, UM vice president for research and development, says that the total is an institutional record that reflects an 8 percent growth rate from last year’s expenditures.
The top five new award recipients were:
• Andrij Holian, Center for Environmental Health Sciences, $2.9 million.
• Rick Hauer, Flathead Lake Biological Station, $2.8 million.
• Michael Kavanaugh, Center for Structural and Functional Neuroscience, $2.3 million.
• Tom Seekins, Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities, $2.2 million.
• Bernadette Bannister, Continuing Education, $1.6 million.
UM President George M. Dennison says the funds attracted by campus researchers contribute significantly to economic development in Montana, support graduate science students and keep UM faculty and researchers on the cutting edge of research and development.
Rising science stars capture prestigious grants
Scientists recently scored big for UM research by earning three prestigious Early Career Development Program grants from the National Science Foundation.
|Art Woods, Lila Fishman and Klara Briknarova each won an Early Career Development Program grant.
This is the second consecutive year that multiple UM researchers have earned the five-year awards. The latest honors went to assistant professors Klara Briknarova in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Lila Fishman in the Division of Biological Sciences and Art Woods in the Division of Biological Sciences.
Each year between 350 and 400 assistant professors nationally earn CAREER grants, which honor promising teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education for their institution.
A handful of UM researchers have earned the awards in the past, but last year was the first time the University had two awardees in the same year. Last year’s winners were biology assistant professors Vanessa Ezenwa and Creagh Breuner. (Breuner, incidentally, is married to Woods.)
“Having several CAREER awardees for two years in a row is simply outstanding,” says Daniel Dwyer, UM vice president for research and development. “I think this highlights the caliber of faculty we have at this University, and it bodes well that we have so many young rising stars in science.”
CAREER grants generally range from $500,000 to $1 million. Briknarova will receive $788,000, Fishman will get $636,000, and Woods will bring in $837,000.
Briknarova, a structural biologist, joined UM in November 2005. She uses a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to visualize the arrangement of atoms in complex biological molecules to explain how those molecules work. Her lab studies a soluble protein called fibronectin that is assembled by cells into insoluble fibrils. These fibrils are essential for embryonic development and wound healing.
Briknarova says a goal of her lab is to gain insight into the structural changes that occur when soluble fibronectin is converted into insoluble aggregates. “Studying such molecular transformations at the atomic level is challenging, but I love doing research, and I believe that research is an important part of science education,” she says. “However, research cannot be done without funding, so I’m very happy about the award and very grateful for it.”
Fishman, a plant evolutionary geneticist, came to UM in September 2003. She studies monkeyflowers – plants with small yellow blossoms found across much of the West – to understand the genetic mechanisms and evolutionary processes that lead to variation within and among species. The project funded by the CAREER award will focus on the detrimental trait of pollen sterility. It also will finance development of teaching tools based on monkeyflower research. (For more, see story below.)
“The CAREER award is wonderful because it enables us to study fundamental questions about natural variation, but also supports efforts to bring real research into the classroom,” Fishman says.
Woods, a physiological ecologist, came to UM in July 2006. He studies leaf microclimates – the temperature and relative humidity of areas adjacent to leaf surfaces – and how these influence insect-plant associations. He and his lab will study how different leaf microclimates are from the overall climate, how insects interact with these microclimates and how much plants’ chemical defenses depend on microclimates.
Woods says his study will illuminate basic questions of insect ecology and will serve as a platform for understanding the effects of global climate change on insect herbivores, including crop pests.
“I’m delighted to receive a CAREER award from NSF,” he says. “This grant will allow me to significantly expand my research, support a number of graduate and undergraduate students, and address a set of interesting, fundamental questions.”
UM scientist honored with pioneering award
|Steve Running (right) visits with “the father of biodiversity” E.O. Wilson (center) in Bozeman.
Steve Running, UM Regents Professor of Ecology, was among six to receive the first-ever Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Technology Pioneer Award in April. The awards honor those whose scientific discoveries, inventions or work have helped advance the biodiversity of life on Earth.
Running was chosen for the award for his pioneering and seminal scientific work with climatology, global warming and other aspects of atmospheric science.
“Global ecologists have struggled for many decades to bring biology to the same scales as the atmospheric and ocean sciences,” Running says. “Our mapping at UM of daily photosynthesis with NASA satellites achieves some of that goal. I am pleased for (the award) to celebrate that success, and I’m especially honored to receive it personally from E.O. Wilson.”
Wilson, known as “the father of biodiversity,” presented his namesake awards at Montana State University-Bozeman.
Other recipients of the E.O. Wilson award are David Ward, MSU; Jane Lubchenco, Oregon State University; Benoit Mandelbrot, formerly of Yale University and IBM; Ignacio Rodriguez-Itrube, Princeton University; and Michael Soulé, University of California, Santa Cruz.
Host it and they will come
Missoula will be a hot science destination in 2010 with UM hosting two prestigious national conferences – the 24th annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research (April 15-17) and the 20th annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists (Oct. 13-17).
More than 2,000 undergraduate presenters are expected for NCUR, and when faculty mentors and university administrators are considered, that number swells to 2,500. Conference chair and chemistry Professor Garon Smith says about 1,500 attended when UM last hosted the conference in 2000, but the event has grown in popularity, and 2,400 participated in the 2009 NCUR at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
“People really liked our conference in 2000 and basically twisted my arm to bring it back here,” Smith says.
NCUR is the nation’s premier venue for undergraduate research. It typically boasts presenters from 45 states and 300 institutions. Besides traditional science topics and poster sessions, it includes fine arts, humanities and social sciences offerings such as student dancing, musical performances, plays and films.
“There is hardly a better way to showcase your university than hosting NCUR,” Smith says. “If you want to highlight UM as a place where undergraduate research is a hallmark, this is the way to do it.”
He says the last conference turned a profit, which was used to fund a program that offers $1,500 grants to UM undergraduate research and humanities projects. The program is administered by the Davidson Honors College.
UM never has hosted the SEJ conference, which will bring up to 1,000 reporters, editors, authors, researchers, public relations professionals and others to campus in October. SEJ is the only North American membership association of professional journalists dedicated to more and better coverage of environment-related issues, and several SEJ members have won the Pulitzer Prize.
Universities compete to host the national conference, which in recent years has been held at prestigious research institutions such as Stanford, Virginia Tech and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This year’s Wisconsin event drew 750 participants, and former Vice President Al Gore was a featured speaker, earning the conference national press coverage.
“This will be one of the most exciting conferences UM has ever hosted,” says Rita Munzenrider, director of University Relations and a primary conference organizer. “This is an excellent opportunity to gain national exposure for our University and the outstanding research being conducted here in Western Montana.”
SEJ conferences offer journalism training workshops, presentations by esteemed researchers on pressing environmental issues, networking opportunities and a variety of field trips into the surrounding area. Planning is under way for the 2010 event, but participants likely will visit the Milltown Dam removal site, Flathead Lake, burned forests and other environmental hot spots.
Skeleton research featured at Smithsonian
UM anthropology Assistant Professor Ashley McKeown has studied skeletons of early 17th-century Jamestown, Va., colonists. They now are featured in an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History through Feb. 6, 2011. The exhibition is titled “Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake.”
|Grins all around: UM’s Ashley McKeown contributed to a display at the Smithsonian.
Founded in 1607, Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in the New World. During a three-year postdoctoral fellowship prior to joining the UM faculty, McKeown worked with anthropology curator Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian and archaeologists at the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities’ Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeological Project to excavate and analyze more than 75 burials from Jamestown.
McKeown assisted with the excavation and analysis of more well-known individuals, such as Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold, one of the founders of the Jamestown expedition and the explorer who named Martha’s Vineyard after his daughter.
McKeown also analyzed the skeleton of a young female found buried under a theater in Williamsburg, Va., and, based on tooth modification, was able to determine that she was an enslaved African from the central West African coast.
The interpretation of the lives of 17th-century colonists, both the famous and the mundane, are presented in the wide-ranging exhibition that seeks to inform visitors about life and death in the early Chesapeake, an area that gave rise to many of the nation’s most prestigious leaders.
UM scientists help detect giant ring
at edge of solar system
Two UM researchers are part of a NASA team that has detected a vast ribbon of energized particles that surrounds most of the solar system.
The discovery resulted from data obtained by NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer spacecraft, or IBEX, which was launched last October to map the edge of the solar system. The results were published Oct. 15 in the online version of Science and were one of the prestigious publication’s print cover stories in November. (For more information, visit http://ibex.swri.com.)
|This NASA illustration shows the IBEX spacecraft and how the galactic magnetic field wraps around the interstellar boundary at the edge of the solar system. The lighter region reveals a ribbon of ionized energized particles surrounding our planetary system.
Dan Reisenfeld and Paul Janzen are researchers in UM’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. “This ribbon was certainly unexpected, and it’s pretty cool,” Janzen says.
The interstellar boundary is where solar wind particles from the sun, as well as the magnetic field they carry, encounter and interact with the atoms and magnetized plasma between the stars. In this interaction, some of the solar wind particles scatter back into the solar system where they can be detected by IBEX. The edge region is about 100 times farther out than the distance between the Earth and the sun and about 2.5 times farther out than the orbit of Pluto.
As the sun orbits through the local interstellar medium at 60,000 mph, the interstellar boundary forms a giant teardrop-shaped bow shock around our solar system – sort of like a rock in a stream. The edge region is rounded toward the front of the sun’s orbital path and elongated behind.
Reisenfeld says models from before the launch of IBEX predicted more energetic particles would be concentrated at the nose or tail of the interstellar boundary. However, when IBEX completed the first-ever, all-sky map of the boundary during a six-month period, something unforeseen
“There was a ribbon of denser ionized particles that surrounds our solar system,” Reisenfeld says. “It forms an almost perfect circle around us.”
Imagine that the interstellar boundary is a globe turned on its side, and the North Pole points down the sun’s orbital path. The particle ribbon is not located at the equator. Instead, it’s located more at the Tropic of Cancer. And the ring also is tipped upward slightly on the globe’s surface like a jauntily placed cap. Where does the ribbon come from? The scientists think they have the answer.
“We think it’s caused by the interstellar magnetic field, which threads through our Milky Way galaxy,” Reisenfeld says.
The sun produces a magnetic field that repels the galactic magnetic field at the interstellar boundary. Reisenfeld says that if one imagines that a magnetic field is like a forest of bungee cords, generally the cords want to hang straight.
“So now imagine that the bungee cords are wrapping around a sphere shape like the interstellar boundary,” he says. “Where are they going to squeeze the hardest on the sphere or have the most pressure? It’s where they are tangent to the sides of the sphere. So the ribbon we detected correlates to where one would expect the most amount of pressure to be exerted by these magnetic lines that are trying to be straight, but there is an obstruction – our solar system – that keeps them from doing that.”
He says the location of the ribbon has allowed them to determine the direction the interstellar magnetic field is coming from – at least locally – to a much higher precision than previously inferred.
The 5-foot-wide IBEX spacecraft has two primary instruments – IBEX-Lo and IBEX-Hi – that detect a range of neutral atoms that are energized at the boundary of the solar system. These instruments were necessary because the interstellar boundary emits no light that can be detected by conventional telescopes.
Reisenfeld designed a section of IBEX-Hi that ionizes, steers and accelerates the particles to where they can be detected. Janzen was a lead scientist for testing and calibrating IBEX, and he helps validate the data coming in from the spacecraft.
“Our instrument is essentially working perfectly,” Reisenfeld says. “That’s great, because we are getting really quality data.”
IBEX orbits in a highly elliptical eight-day orbit that takes it closer to Earth and then five-sixths of the distance to the moon. The orbit takes the spacecraft beyond the Earth’s magnetosphere, which otherwise would drown the signals it receives. At times the moon would block IBEX’s view as it created its map of the boundary, which led to an unintended consequence.
“Our team made the first detection of the solar wind scattering off the moon,” Reisenfeld says. “We even have a number for the percentage of particles that bounce off the moon. It’s about 10 percent.”
That discovery made the cover of Geophysical Research Letters.
IBEX is the latest in NASA’s series of low-cost, rapidly developed Small Explorers space missions. Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio leads and developed the mission with a team of national and international partners, including UM. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.
University offers climate change minor
John Warner, former U.S. senator and secretary of the Navy, launched the nation’s first interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in climate change at UM during an October lecture titled “National Security and Climate Change.”
The new UM Climate Change Studies Program combines rigorous training in sciences with course work in ethics and policy to offer students a unique, multidisciplinary understanding of climate change. The minor prepares students for the challenges and opportunities presented by global climate change and involves them in developing potential solutions.
“The climate change topic is rapidly evolving from only an earth science issue to a technological, economic and sociological issue,” says Steve Running, UM’s Climate Change Studies Program director and a lead author with the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “We have designed a broad interdisciplinary curriculum to reflect this expanding focus.”
For more information about UM’s Climate Change Studies Program, visit http://www.cfc.umt.edu/CCS or call Nicky Phear, program coordinator, at 406-243-6932.
Montana, Kentucky share big water-quality grant
The National Science Foundation has awarded Montana and Kentucky a $6 million grant to install and monitor water-quality sensors in freshwater lakes and streams in both states.
The project – developed and funded through NSF’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR – will manage new and historical data at two of the country’s most successful biological field stations, UM’s Flathead Lake Biological Station in northwestern Montana and Hancock Biological Station on Kentucky Lake in western Kentucky.
Richard Hauer, UM limnology professor, and Barbara Kucera, deputy director of the Center for Computational Sciences at the University of Kentucky, will head up the project, which will include faculty, staff and researchers from six universities. This consortium, called the Virtual Observatory Ecological Information System, will serve as a test project for similar ecological information systems around the nation.
The water-quality sensors at Flathead and Kentucky lakes will provide researchers with key data on climate factors, such as temperature, precipitation and snow dynamics, and on the impact of human land use and environmental changes on freshwater lakes and streams.
The consortium will partner with software experts at the Illinois-based National Center for Supercomputing Applications and the UK Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments to analyze the data, and Cisco Systems Inc. will develop environmental data routers for the project.
The new computer network system also will help researchers in both states enhance graduate and undergraduate education and research. The system will develop ecological education courses and offer condensed versions of the data on the Internet. The program will involve underserved and underrepresented students in science and engineering, such as students at Montana’s tribal colleges and economically disadvantaged students from eastern Kentucky.
UM research reveals chromosomes at war
In a simple world, natural selection would efficiently remove detrimental traits from animal or plant populations. If inherited DNA causes sterility, for example, evolution by natural selection should quickly remove that trait.
The world is a complex place, however, and most populations include stubborn detrimental traits that won’t disappear. How does this happen? New UM research may have solved part of the puzzle.
Lila Fishman is a plant evolutionary geneticist in UM’s Division of Biological Sciences. While studying monkeyflowers – plants with small yellow blossoms found across much of the West – she uncovered a case in which the detrimental trait of pollen sterility persisted in a population.
|A monkeyflower blossom
Under normal circumstances, genes that cause pollen sterility would fail to transmit to the next generation and be eliminated. However, Fishman discovered that while the sterility hurts the plant, it is caused by a chromosome that selfishly helps itself.
Fishman’s work on this topic was published in a December 2008 issue of the journal Science. Her co-author is Arpiar Saunders, who did postbaccalaureate work at UM. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation and enabled by a Joint Genome Institute effort to sequence the genome of the yellow monkeyflower.
“We tend to think about natural selection among individuals shaping traits to fit the environment,” Fishman says, “but natural selection can also occur at the gene or chromosome level. Genes that can out-compete other genes will spread, sometimes to the detriment of the individual. The basic biology of most plants and animals actually sets the stage for this kind of genetic conflict.”
In plants, as in humans, each individual carries two copies of every chromosome (which contains the genes) – one from mom, one from dad. During the first step of sexual reproduction, called meiosis, these paired chromosomes divide to provide a single set of chromosomes for each egg or sperm.
Generally, it is a random coin flip that determines which of the two copies of each chromosome gets transmitted to the offspring. The newly discovered monkeyflower chromosome, however, somehow outraces its partner during meiosis in females and thus manages to get into more than its fair share of the next generation’s seeds.
“If a variant chromosome can bias its own transmission during meiosis, it can become common, even if it has negative effects on other traits,” Fishman says. “So, the sterile pollen is collateral damage from a hidden war between chromosomes.”
Fishman showed that nonrandom chromosomal transmission likely results from competition between structures called centromeres, which are regions of chromosomes that mediate their division during meiosis. While other researchers have shown that genes often behave selfishly, this research offers some of the first evidence to pinpoint selfish centromeres.
“Our work shows for the first time that something associated with centromeres can strongly bias chromosomal segregation and also has fitness costs in natural populations,” Fishman says. “This process could be important for bringing deleterious traits into any population, including human populations.”
Bringing home all the honors
Dan Flores, the University’s A.B. Hammond Professor of Western History, has earned multiple accolades for his article “Bringing Home All the Pretty Horses: The Horse Trade and the Early American West, 1775-1825,” which was published last year in Montana: the Magazine of Western History.
His article won the magazine’s Vivian A. Paladin Best Article for 2008 award and the Western Heritage Association and National Cowboy Museum’s Outstanding Magazine Article 2009 Wrangler Award. “Bringing Home All the Pretty Horses” also earned the 2009 Friends Choice Award from the Friends of the Montana Historical Society, the Western History Association’s Ray Allen Billington Prize for Best Article on the West 2009, and a Finalist Award for 2009 Best Western Short Nonfiction from the Western Writers of America.
In the article, Flores argues that trade in wild and Indian horses was one of the earliest economies in the West, funneling western horses to the American frontier east of the Mississippi River.
Freak storm topples biological station trees
A winter storm that rolled across northwestern Montana last December hammered the 80 acres of old growth forest at the University’s Flathead Lake Biological Station, located 18 miles north of Polson on the east shore of the lake.
|Two ponderosa pines crushed the bio station’s travel trailer, which was used for research around the state.
Many of the ancient ponderosa pines that gave the station grounds its character were blown down.
“We lost 30 or more of our biggest p-pines, and about a third of the larger grand and Douglas firs on the entire grounds went down,” station Director Jack Stanford says. “We had thousands of board feet of solid old timber on the ground. It is very sad.”
Stanford has taught ecology among those trees for nearly 40 years.
“I thought their greatest danger was bugs, not wind,” he says. “Some of these trees were over 400 years old. Certainly there is no record of a windstorm causing this kind of damage in the 110-year history of the station.”
Stanford says most of the trees were uprooted rather than snapped off – perhaps because the ground was very dry and not frozen.
“Fortunately none of our buildings were seriously damaged by falling trees,” Stanford says. “Roofing of the Freshwater Research Lab was blown off and two cabins got direct hits from trees, but otherwise we are in pretty good shape. But the biological station has a vastly different look with all the big trees down.”
Nitrogen buildup impacts mountain ecosystems
A recent study involving researcher Cory Cleveland contends that many mountain ecosystems, hammered by years of pollution, may be approaching toxic conditions.
Cleveland, an assistant professor in UM’s College of Forestry and Conservation, was part of a team that studied nitrogen pollution in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia. Atmospheric deposition of nitrogen was heavy there during the 20th century because of the industrialization of Eastern Europe.
As deposition of atmospheric pollutants, especially nitrogen, are projected to increase dramatically during the coming decades, the researchers wanted to understand how a high-country ecosystem already impacted by decades of pollution would respond to new inputs. So they purposely added varying levels of nitrogen fertilizer to several study plots above the tree line in Tatra National Park.
“We added nitrogen at rates that are essentially equivalent to what you might expect going into the future,” Cleveland says, “and we saw big changes in the ecosystem. Plant growth decreased, and soil chemistry was altered.”
Results of the study were published in Nature Geoscience.
Nitrogen makes up 78 percent of the atmosphere, where it’s a harmless gas. However, human activities such as burning fossil fuels or manufacturing fertilizers can turn nitrogen into forms with a host of negative environmental consequences.
If leeched into streams, lakes and ultimately the ocean, nitrogen can cause algal blooms, oxygen deprivation and aquatic dead zones. Human infants drinking nitrate-laced groundwater can get blue baby syndrome, a blood disorder that prevents hemoglobin from carrying oxygen to the body’s cells and tissues. Nitrogen compounds emitted from many human activities can rise into the atmosphere and fall downwind as precipitation. Because mountains get more rain and snow, and alpine ecosystems above the tree line don’t produce the biomass to take up the nitrogen, it builds up in soil.
“It’s kind of scary when you consider how much we depend on mountain ecosystems,” Cleveland says. “A lot of places obtain all of their drinking water from the melting of mountain snow.”
The study started in the summer of 2002. After arriving in Slovakia, it took three hours for the UM researcher and his partners to backpack to their study area, carrying both fertilizer and the water needed to mix it.
“We added three levels of nitrogen, and under every treatment we saw declines in plant biomass,” Cleveland says. “There were few significant changes in the composition of species, but the species that were there grew a lot less.”
He believes that with increasing nitrogen deposition, the acidity of the soil is increased. This causes some of the essential nutrients plants need to become mobile and leech out of the system.
“We saw declines in things like calcium and magnesium,” Cleveland says, “and we saw increases in iron. Iron only becomes detrimental to plants growing in extremely acidic soil because acid can convert iron into a form that plants can take up. So we saw iron increases in the plants as well, and at high concentrations this can become toxic to plants.”
So are alpine areas in Western Montana currently threatened by nitrogen deposition? No, Cleveland says, because the mostly sedimentary rocks of Big Sky mountains are buffered pretty well against inputs of acidity. Montana also is fortunate to lack major industrial centers due west that send high levels of nitrogen up into the high country. However, many other mountain ranges around the globe may be on the brink of big changes.
Cleveland’s study partners were William Bowman of the University of Colorado, Luboš Halada and Juraj Hreško of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, and Jill Baron of the U.S. Geological Survey.
Research finds beetles with three male types
|UM's Doug Emlen and one of his research subjects
Doug Emlen, a UM evolutionary biologist, has helped discover that several beetle species produce three varieties of males. The typical male dung beetle, for example, grows large horns to use as weapons to battle sexual rivals. A second smaller variety of male doesn’t grow large horns – perhaps because of environmental deprivation – and has to employ sneaky tactics to mate with females. And now a third type of male has been discovered – those that resemble females. Researchers suspect this female-mimicking adaptation allows the beetles to use deception to evade combat and earn sexual encounters
Emlen and Mark Rowland of the University of New Mexico used National Science Foundation funds to study the development and evolution of male dimorphism in insects. They were surprised to find that many species of beetles are capable of producing not only two but three different types of males. These three male forms differ widely in the weapons they employ in competing with other males for mating opportunities.
The study first discovered male trimorphism in dung beetles, but once recognized, the researchers found it in other families of beetles as well, involving different weapon systems – head horns in dung beetles, mandibles in stag beetles and ventral spines in weevils. A common feature in these trimorphic species is that one of the three male forms is always female-like in morphology.
Their work was published in the Feb. 6 issue of Science.