MSU records yet another strong year for research
BOZEMAN – Montana State University recorded one of its strongest years ever for research, fueled by the groundbreaking work of students and scientists in fields such as microbiology, immunology, chemistry and agriculture.
For the fiscal year that ended in June, MSU’s research and contract expenditures from state, private and federal funding sources totaled $126.5 million, according to Vice President for Research and Economic Development Renee Reijo Pera. It marks the fifth year in a row that research expenditures at MSU have topped $100 million.
“There is intense competition for research dollars nationwide,” Reijo Pera said. “The fact that our faculty continue, year after year, to compete so fiercely is further evidence that MSU is home to some of the best and brightest minds in the world.”
MSU’s research activity also saw a record year. Faculty members submitted an all-time high number of grant proposals: 1,235 — up 6 percent over the prior year. And more faculty members than ever, 590, served as principal investigators or co-investigators on grant projects. In all, some 85 percent of MSU’s tenure-track faculty were involved in at least one grant-funded research project.
In total for the year, MSU researchers were awarded grants and other funding totaling $453.7 million. In contrast with money expended during the year, this sum reflects the total value of grants and awards won by MSU faculty during that time but which will be expended over time frames ranging from months to years. The figure is an indicator of the quality of the university’s overall research enterprise, Reijo Pera said.
“Research is deeply ingrained into MSU’s academic culture, and our faculty’s dedication to that enterprise creates opportunity — for to share its research with Montana and the wider world and for students to get hands-on experience on the frontiers of science,” Reijo Pera said.
Research expenditures supported students to the tune of $10.2 million. Those funds included research awards for students as well as support for graduate teaching and research assistants and undergraduate researchers.
Research opportunities led to major scholarship wins for MSU students over the past year. In March, Ryan Mason and Cara Robertus were selected as recipients of the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s premier scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering.
Both students are majoring in chemical and biological engineering. Robertus has worked in the laboratory of chemical and biological engineering professor Stephanie McCalla since she was a freshman, investigating the disease-detecting qualities of microRNA. Mason has researched applications in renewable energy since starting in the laboratory of chemical and engineering professor Paul Gannon as a freshman.
Their scholarships push MSU’s total number of Goldwater Scholars to 70, making the university one of the nation’s top institutions in the number of scholarship recipients.
In April, students Haley Cox and Connor Hoffman each won the Truman Scholarship, a highly competitive and prestigious scholarship given to college juniors who have demonstrated leadership potential and commitment to public service.
Cox has been a research assistant in the lab of Christa Merzdorf working on neuroectoderm cells. Hoffman has been working on CRISPR gene editing research in the laboratory of Blake Wiedenheft since his freshman year.
Other MSU students won Fulbright research grants and awards and multiple Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation.
Of the expenditures across MSU, the College of Agriculture had the largest share of the total with $35.6 million in expenditures, led by its departments of plant sciences, land resources and environmental science, and microbiology and immunology — which is also housed in the College of Letters and Science.
Letters and Science, MSU’s largest college, had research expenditures just over $21 million, led by the departments of chemistry, physics and ecology.
The Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering rounds out the top three colleges for research expenditures with $15 million, led by its Center for Biofilm Engineering, Department of Electrical Engineering and the Western Transportation Institute.
Research highlights from the past year include:
- Physicist Neil Cornish and other MSU scientists played a key role in the discovery of a fourth black hole merger and its resultant gravitational waves. The gravitational wave discovery won the Nobel Prize in physics.
- Epidemiologist Raina Plowright and political scientist Elizabeth Shanahan were awarded a $1.65 million grant from the NSF to study how human behavior contributes to the spread of emerging infectious diseases from animals to people.
- Economics professor Carly Urban presented research to federal policymakers at the U.S. Treasury showing how high school students who were required to take financial education courses had better credit scores as young adults than their peers who did not take the courses.
- MSU gravitational physicist Nicolas Yunes received funding from NASA to explore the extreme gravity of neutron stars, black holes and gravitational waves.
- Earth science professor Jordy Hendrikx and political scientist Jerry Johnson formed the White Heat project to understand why outdoor recreationists take risks in the backcountry that could cost them their lives — in the hopes of developing educational materials that will save lives.
- Connie B. Chang, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, received an National Institutes of Health Career Award for her work entitled “Understanding Spatial Heterogeneity in Biofilms Using Colloidal Engineering.”
- Students and professors in the School of Music and the University of Missouri at Kansas City developed and built an immersive installation that merged ideas of ancient cave art with cutting-edge brain research. The exhibit was displayed at Helena’s Holder Museum of Art.
- Nursing professor Peter Buerhaus published research indicating that an expected national shortage of nurses has likely been averted.
- The work of chemical and biological engineering professor Darla Goeres and others in MSU’s Center for Biofilm Engineering over more than a decade became the scientific backbone for new federal antimicrobial testing standards released by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2017.
- Computer science professor Brittany Fasy used a $1.2 million NSF grant to study ways to use storytelling — an important part of American Indian tradition — to engage American Indian and other middle school students with computer science.
- Brock LaMeres, professor of electrical and computer engineering, received a grant from NASA to test a promising new radiation-resistant computing technology by launching it from the International Space Station.
- Stephanie McCalla, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, is researching disease-detecting potential of microRNA, which could ease the diagnosis of malaria and other diseases and improve treatment for millions around the world.
- Education professor Nick Lux received a NSF grant to develop ways to help middle schoolers develop visual and spatial judgement skills that are indicators of future achievement in science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields.
- MSU polar scientist John Priscu contributed new research on how an abnormal season of intense glacial melt in 2002 triggered multiple, distinct changes in the physical and biological characteristics of Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys over the ensuing decade.
- Mary Burrows, professor of plant pathology and Extension specialist, received more than $1 million in federal grants to bring safer, more effective pest and disease management strategies to Montana farms and ranches.
- William Inskeep, professor of land resources and environmental sciences, discovered a new lineage of microbes living in Yellowstone National Park’s thermal features that sheds light on the origin of life on earth.
Also in the past year, MSU broke ground on its new Applied Research Lab, which will provide a secure facility that will allow university faculty, students and industry partners to work on energy- and defense-related research projects.
“The Applied Research Lab will expand MSU’s long-standing expertise in lasers, photonics, advanced manufacturing and cybersecurity,” Reijo Pera said. “The lab will also provide great opportunities for graduate students and undergraduate students to work on projects related to America’s energy and defense programs.”
--- From MSU News Service