By Deborah Richie
Competition is the name of the game between The University of Montana and Montana State University, right?
For the first time in U.S. history, two public universities from the same state, in this case UM and MSU, have formed a grand consortium for ecosystem science. In fact, the Montana Institute on Ecosystems spans the entire higher education system, involving faculty, undergraduates and graduate students from Montana’s two larger research universities, as well as the state’s two-year and tribal colleges.
The institute breaks traditional boundaries right and left, leaving the Griz-Cat rivalry behind to reach across disciplines such as agriculture, geology, dance and journalism. Working together to understand and sustain the ecosystems that support Montanans is all about being on the same team.
“We have some of the best people in the world at these two universities,” says Ric Hauer, UM’s institute director. “The two administrations, the Board of Regents and the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education all came together to develop a clearly good idea.”
Cathy Whitlock, the MSU institute director, chats with her counterpart Hauer multiple times a week to co-steer the fledgling program, which was formed in November 2011. She credits MSU President Waded Cruzado and UM President Royce Engstrom for their openness to new ways of doing business since they took their respective leadership reins in 2010.
“We see it as a grand experiment,” Whitlock says. “We’re excited to have the opportunity to guide the institute through these initial stages.”
The two directors point to the impressive speed of the institute’s growth soon after the National Science Foundation awarded it $20 million over five years. In its first month, the institute attracted 200 faculty affiliates. By summer 2012, the new organization supported research for nearly 60 faculty, some 40 graduate students and upward of 25 undergraduates.
The NSF funding comes from the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program, dedicated to helping smaller-population states compete with states such as California, New York and Michigan. Montana has received EPSCoR funding since 1980, when the program started, and has the best track record for using its funding to increase its percentage of the overall NSF money.
Take that impressive grant record. Add nearby breathtaking ecosystems that include the Crown of the Continent and the Greater Yellowstone. Then top it off with renowned scientific faculty and strong schools of forestry, journalism, agriculture, the arts, engineering and more. Ice the cake with federal, state and nonprofit ecosystem partners located in Montana. Perhaps it’s not so surprising NSF chose to fund the new institute.
“What could be more important to the state of Montana than a place-based location for big-scale ecological research?” Hauer asks. “This is as good as it gets anywhere on the planet.”
Hauer and Whitlock believe that the research coming from the collective and brilliant minds in Montana will have far-reaching positive effects beyond the state.
“NSF looks at the institute as a new model for how a small-population state with more than one university, like Idaho or the Dakotas, would be able to coalesce around a theme to be regionally important and nationally significant,” Hauer says.
Thinking big and interdisciplinary comes easily to Hauer, who has spent the past 27 years as a professor of stream ecology at UM’s Flathead Lake Biological Station, one of the most highly regarded centers for freshwater research in the world.
Hauer and colleague Gary Lamberti co-edited the widely used textbook “Methods in Stream Ecology.” To conduct his own research, Hauer flies a plane above the Flathead River, where he observes the interweaving of Montana’s waterways.
“Freshwater is one of those areas that tends to lead to highly interdisciplinary and large-scale research and thinking,” Hauer says.
To understand rivers, you have to look at huge landscapes from the headwaters to the oceans, he explains. Rivers form the backbones of whole systems. On every stream and river, you find a tight coupling between water and land where a huge amount of biological activity takes place. Rivers are magnets for people, too. Their valleys have long offered the best places for roads, such as Interstate 90 that follows the Clark Fork, and for farm irrigation. The highest-value real estate lies close to their shores, where people in turn try to control the natural dynamics of water flows to stave off flooding.
To address complex ecosystem themes, the institute has formed unusual teams of faculty for incubator grants. Wildlife biologists, foresters and geologists are putting their heads together with journalists, artists, musicians and anthropologists.
Asking new research questions based on fresh perspectives is just what’s needed in an era of great challenges, agree Hauer and Whitlock, who point to climate change as the strongest interacting theme.
“Climate change is the environmental issue for Montana, because it will affect everything, particularly our water,” Whitlock says.
Hauer gives an example based on scientific data showing that Montana’s snowpack melts sooner in spring. The change of timing, in turn, can lead to earlier and longer wildfire seasons and less water available in late summer for fisheries and agriculture.
“If people are not concerned about climate change and how it’s going to affect the hydrology of Montana and our forests, our agricultural lands, our recreation, tourism and our economy, they aren’t paying attention,” Hauer says.
Making science relevant and engaging is a critical part of the institute, Hauer stresses. That’s where mediums such as dance and music can play a pivotal role.
The “Sound of Rivers” exemplifies an institute research theme that cuts across disciplines. UM physical scientist Mark Lorang, stationed at Flathead Lake Biological Station, studies sediment motion and the complex sounds created by river flow as waters rush over and move rocks of different sizes. He discovered in earlier work that rivers with the least amount of human impact tend to have the most complex soundscapes. All along a river are riffles, pools and eddies that create melodies with a purpose. The underwater tunes help guide fish and smaller aquatic life to the places they need to survive.
The new team from UM and MSU takes Lorang’s research in new directions that can help guide how we care for and restore our rivers. An aquatic biologist who studies insects living in the subsurface aquifer away from rivers works with Lorang to see if sounds are important to how these miniscule creatures navigate from the near-river aquifer to the river channels. An outside partner, S&K (Salish and Kootenai) Electronics, provides software for buried fiber-optic cables that can pick up noise coming from waters below ground.
Then comes the arts piece. A UM music professor plans to write a composition using the sound of rivers as inspiration. Dancers will choreograph a piece to accompany the music. The idea is to share the sound of rivers with Montanans to reveal the wonders of the science. The research has revealed that rivers sing for those who listen. It just may be that preserving their song will be critical to river health in a changing climate.
Whitlock offers another example of an institute team formed to study the effects of climate change on forest health, comparing tribal and nontribal lands. Professors from Salish Kootenai College, UM and MSU are working closely with tribal elders to gain insights on indigenous traditions of managing forests with fire.
The institute does more than set up teams as incubators of new research for expanded funding. In the future, it may be possible for students to sign up for courses at both universities via distance education. Meanwhile, autumn 2012 kicked off a seminar series titled “Rough Cut Science.” Each week, a faculty member from UM or MSU delivers a seminar at each campus. They share research and also get to know one another.
At UM, a new graduate program called Systems Ecology applies the cross-discipline principles of the institute, ensuring the research reflects what’s taking place in the real world in a meaningful way, Hauer says.
Ultimately, the work of the institute has to make a difference for Montanans and its children if it’s going to be successful, Hauer and Whitlock say. They are committed to putting the institute on a sustainable pathway that offers a national model of how to do research by pooling resources and talent.
“All of these people have very well-recognized careers in their own right,” Hauer says of the faculty who participate in the institute. “To be able to bring them together in an institute that fosters collaboration instead of individual scientists doing their own thing provides a structure for doing what they would really like to do anyway.”
Hauer believes that the incubation grants today will lead to fully funded research with the capacity for major “ah-ha!” discoveries of great significance to Montanans.
“Something that’s fundamentally transformative is not going to come buried deep within a discipline,” he says. “It’s at the edges where disciplines interact. That’s where transformative science and understanding comes about.”
For more information, email Hauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or Whitlock at email@example.com.
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