Quick Looks

Evolutionary Biologist Elected to Elite Academy

Doug Emlen’s election to the AAAS is a first for Montana.Doug Emlen, a UM professor, researcher and evolutionary biologist, recently was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Emlen is one of 213 new members who constitute the Academy’s 236th class, a group that includes some of the world’s most accomplished scholars, scientists, writers and artists, as well as civic, business and philanthropic leaders. The new class will be inducted Oct. 8 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Emlen is the only member of the academy ever elected from Montana. Founded in 1780, AAAS is one of the country’s oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers.

“It’s a great honor to be named an AAAS Fellow,” Emlen says. “I’m stunned and thrilled. Now that the shock is wearing off, I have to admit it feels incredible.”

Emlen and researchers in his UM lab study the development and evolution of animal weapons. He often uses horned beetles as an animal model for his research. He teaches Behavior and Evolution, Insect Biology and several graduate courses.

“Election to this academy is highly selective and considered a mark of exceptional distinction,” says Charlie Janson, associate dean of UM’s Division of Biological Sciences. “We couldn’t be more proud of Doug and look forward to his continued success here at UM.”

University Students Create Astronomy Teaching Tool

The student-designed website allows viewers to track planetary orbits.Six UM computer science seniors have reached for the stars by launching an interactive website (shown right) to help teach physics and astronomy.

The website allows faculty to load a solar system to the page and have their students adjust the size, density, gravity and more of the stars and planets to learn about orbits and habitable zones around stars. Site visitors also can zoom in and out and track orbits on the simulation.

The UM students worked on the project as part of a programming class taught by computer science Professor Joel Henry. They also collaborated with Diane Friend, a lecturer in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

To view the project, visit https://demo.orbitable.tech/#/s/random.

Pictured left to right are Berryman, McCutcheon and Smith.

Trio of UM Researchers Lands Prestigious CAREER Grants

UM researchers received three CAREER grants in the past year from the National Science Foundation. CAREER grants are the most prestigious award for junior faculty, and 2009 was the only other year UM received three such awards.

The recent awards went to:

  • Orion Berryman, a chemistry assistant professor, whose $675,000 award will design molecules to serve as catalysts in chemical reactions containing sulfur and other polarizable molecules.
  • John McCutcheon, a biological sciences assistant professor, whose $746,000 grant will help investigate the origins of mitochondria and chloroplasts and how they integrate with cells.
  • Robert Smith, a computer science assistant professor, who will use $742,000 to improve mass spectrometry, a technique used to identify the chemical makeup of a given sample.

Amy Ratto ParksParks’ Poem Tops National Competition

A UM faculty member’s poem rose to the top of more than 50 submissions from across the country in the 2016 Phi Beta Kappa Arts & Sciences Poetry Contest.

The Phi Beta Kappa Society, the nation’s oldest academic honor society, asked for poems to reflect a favorite discipline in the liberal arts and sciences. Amy Ratto Parks, UM’s assistant director of composition in the English department, chose a middle school Latin lesson for the backdrop of her poem “Verb of Being,” and the society members selected it as the winner.

To read the poem, visit http://bit.ly/1YUfsdE.

University Climate Change Studies Coordinator Wins National Award

Nicky Phear, UM’s Climate Change Studies coordinator, recently was named the 2016 recipient of the Clean Energy and Empowerment Education (C3E) Award from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The national award recognizes Phear’s leadership in education about clean energy and her mentorship of students in th field.

Nicky Phear“It’s a great honor to receive this recognition,” Phear says. “I can’t think of a more worthy goal than empowering our youth to tackle our planet’s energy and climate challenges.”

C3E was launched in 2010 to promote women leaders in the clean energy fields. It is led by the U.S. Department of Energy in collaboration with the MIT Energy Initiative and the Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy.

Each year awardees are selected in eight categories to recognize midcareer women who have demonstrated outstanding leadership and accomplishments in clean energy.

Phear accepted the award May 31 at the C3E Women in Clean Energy Symposium at Stanford University.

In 2008, she helped develop one of the nation’s first and only academic programs to focus on climate change. She now oversees the interdisciplinary Climate Change Studies minor at UM. She also has advised and mentored nearly 150 students through this program.

Research Reveals Island Trend in Bird Evolution

An island bananaquit (Photo by Natalie Wright)In groundbreaking new work, Natalie Wright, a UM postdoctoral fellow, and her partners have discovered a predictable trend in the evolution of bird shape.

Her research showing that birds on islands have evolved toward flightlessness was published April 11 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Evolution tends to be unpredictable, leading toward different forms in different places,” Wright says. “So it was gratifying to discover this trend among island birds.”

Wright says it is widely known that particular types of birds tend to become flightless after they colonize islands that have no predators.

Her team found that flying birds evolved smaller flight muscles and longer legs on islands, just as occurred in flightless birds, but to a lesser extent.

On islands with fewer predators, this evolutionary trend toward flightlessness was more pronounced. The trend held for bird species that rely upon flight for finding food, including those representing families of birds that have never had a member completely lose flight, such as hummingbirds, kingfishers and flycatchers.


  • In May, the University hosted a traveling exhibit of the First Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays that was published in 1623. More than 3,300 people visited the exhibition, including about 1,200 middle- and high-school students. UM’s Montana Museum of Art and Culture, in partnership with the Mansfield Library, was the only site in Montana to host the Folio.
  • An international team that includes UM researcher Jesse Johnson has learned that Earth’s internal heat enhances rapid ice flow and subglacial melting in Greenland. Johnson, a UM computer science professor and ice-sheet modeler, helped discover that about half of the ice-covered area in north-central Greenland rests on a thawed bed and that the meltwater is routed to the ocean through a dense hydrological network beneath the ice.
  • Emilie LeBel, assistant professor of composition at UM’s School of Music, became the first woman to win the Land’s End Ensemble’s Composer Competition. The Land’s End Ensemble, dedicated to excellence in performance and recording of new music, as well as to enriching collaborations with eminent composers and artists, holds an annual national composer competition in Canada. This year’s competition was March 6 at the University of Calgary.
  • UM forestry Professor Beth Dodson is the project director of a grant recently funded for $1.4 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Energy’s Biomass Research and Development Initiative. Researchers will use the grant to identify and overcome the barriers to using biomass from fuels-reduction and forest-restoration treatments.
  • Researchers in UM’s College of Forestry and Conservation recently earned more than $1 million in funding from the Joint Fire Science Program through five separate awards involving faculty from all three departments in the college. The federal Joint Fire Science Program funds scientific research on wildland fire.
  • UM’s Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, in partnership with the Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities, has been awarded a $1.2 million grant. It will train professionals to become competent, certified speech-language pathologists and contribute to the speech, language and literacy needs in their respective rural communities. The grant is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.
  • Two UM professors are listed as “highly cited researchers” in the 2015 edition of “The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds.” The publication includes UM Regents Professor of Ecology Ragan Callaway and conservation ecology and genetics Professor Gordon Luikart under the Environment/Ecology section. The publication analyzes data to determine which researchers have produced work that is most frequently acknowledged by peers.