Campus researchers continue strong performance
University scientists expended nearly $67 million from external grants and contracts to support UM’s researcher enterprise in fiscal year 2010. Daniel Dwyer, UM vice president for research and development, says that total is down slightly from the institutional record set in 2009 but still represents a strong year considering the current economic climate.
The top five new award recipients were:
University professor churns out major climate change news
To say Steve Running has been busy generating climate change headlines during the past year or so is like saying Missoula is surrounded by mountains. In other words, it’s pretty obvious.
First, UM’s Regents Professor of Ecology was a key player in creating a new worldwide climate change index unveiled at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009.
The new index distills the complexity of the Earth’s climate down to one number –much like the Dow Jones industrial average condenses volumes of data from the business world into a single figure. The index uses key indicators of global change – carbon dioxide, temperature, sea level and sea ice – to obtain its results.
"Some people still question whether the Earth’s climate is changing as rapidly and profoundly as the majority of climate scientists suggest,” Running says. “I think this index will help nonscientists understand why people in my line of work are so concerned about the major planetary-scale changes taking place.”
The index was produced by a group Running is affiliated with, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, which studies the phenomenon of climate change. IGBP is headquartered in Stockholm, and Running was among a core group of eight who developed the idea.
He also was with an international team that noted if a bright spot can be found in the economic downturn that has hammered economies around the globe, it’s this: Scientists have detected a small yet discernable slowing of the growth of climate change emissions in 2008. Emissions grew only about 2 percent in 2008 instead of the 3.6 annual growth experienced during the previous seven years.
But don’t get too excited. Based on projected changes in gross domestic product worldwide, emissions in 2009 are expected to fall to their 2007 levels and then jump back up again in 2010.
So when the economy finally heats up again, so will the world.
That’s just one of many study findings outlined in an article titled “Trends in the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide” that appears in Nature Geoscience. Running is a co-author of the article, which presents the strongest evidence yet that the rise in atmospheric CO2 emissions continues to outstrip the ability of the world’s natural “sinks” – things such as the oceans, vegetation and permafrost – to absorb carbon.
Running and his UM research group also released results of a new study that shows climate change will increase drought stress in northern Rocky Mountain forests, leading to increased potential for insect infestations and risk of more frequent and severe wildfires.
The peer-reviewed study, conducted by UM forestry researchers, finds that longer periods of drought will stress the forest ecosystem that includes areas in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, with increased insect epidemic and wildfire disturbances. The economic impact of highest concern is the potential of a catastrophic wildfire in the region, which could affect more than 360,000 people who live in homes in the forest-urban interface that are valued at $21 billion.
"As temperatures rise, we will see about two months of additional drought stress each year by late this century,” Running says. “And the worse global warming gets, the more significant the consequences for forests.”
For more UM climate change news, see Dramatic Drought.
Drug may limit brain injury damage
UM has been awarded a $1.5 million federal grant to support the preclinical development of low-dose methamphetamine as a treatment to limit the damage caused by traumatic brain injuries.
The Department of Defense grant was awarded by the Office of Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs to David Poulsen, a researcher in UM’s Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
“This grant will help us optimize the dosing regimen and determine the maximum window the drug can be therapeutically applied,” Poulsen says.
His research has demonstrated that rats suffering severe traumatic brain injuries show behavioral, cognitive and neuromotor problems 30 days after the injury. However, injured rats treated with low-dose methamphetamine experience profound improvements.
“After 30 days, we can’t differentiate them from normal rats,” he says. “It’s like they never had an injury.”
Poulsen’s lab has discovered that low-dose methamphetamine administered to rodents soon after strokes or traumatic brain injuries offers neuroprotective properties. Brain damage affecting normal behavior, learning and memory is greatly reduced.
He says the military seeks a drug that can be administered to soldiers exposed to blast-force energy waves from explosions such as those experienced in warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such therapies would be applied within hours of exposure to a significant blast.
“This is primarily coming from the Air Force – especially the Air Force Special Operations Command,” Poulsen says. “They envision a drug available for special forces personnel who are forward deployed in areas where medical attention may be hours or days away.”
Military planners hope to develop a drug that lessens the incidence of complications associated with brain injury such as learning and memory deficits, neuromotor impairment or epilepsy. Poulsen says military personnel who suffer traumatic brain injuries develop seizures at 20 times the rate of the civilian population.
“If we can protect the neurons, there is a really good chance it could prevent them from developing seizures,” he says.
Poulsen and his partners formed a UM spin-off company in 2009 called Sinapis Pharma Inc. (http://www.sinapispharma.com), which intends to bring the low-dose methamphetamine product to the marketplace.
“This drug application could profoundly affect the quality of patients’ lives if the neuroprotective properties we see in rodents can translate to humans,” Poulsen says.
The company has successfully completed Phase I clinical trials on human subjects and expects a Phase II trial to commence in 2011.
“This latest grant will allow us to learn how long after the injury we can use the drug and still see a therapeutic effect,” Poulsen says.
Joe Fanguy, director of UM’s Office of Technology Transfer, says, “Dave’s efforts offer a prime example of how technology developed in a University research lab has the potential to become a life-saving or life-improving product.”
Poulsen says he sometimes encounters resistance to his scientific work because homemade meth is an addictive scourge when abused. However, he says prescription methamphetamine has many positive clinical uses and has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration since 1944.
"Very little work has been done looking at the low therapeutic dose of methamphetamine,” he says. “Take Coumadin for example: At low doses it’s a life-saving anticoagulant, but at high doses it’s rat poison.
"The difference between a poison and a cure is the dose,” he says.
Pharmacy school rakes in the grants
UM’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy ranks No. 7 nationally for earning grants and contracts from the National Institutes of Health.
According to figures from the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, the UM school raked in $11.2 million in NIH funds in 2009, earning a top-10 ranking among 112 pharmacy schools and colleges across the nation.
“We have been ranked in the top 10 since 2003,” says Dave Forbes, dean of the College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences, which includes the pharmacy school. “I think this ranking shows we have world-class researchers here in Montana doing great work to advance the frontiers of science.”
When individual faculty members are considered, UM also ranks No. 7 nationally for garnering NIH research funds. The pharmacy school has the equivalent of 30 full-time Ph.D. faculty members who successfully competed for an average of $374,000 apiece in 2009.
“Two of UM’s top-three funded scientists are in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy,” says Vernon Grund, associate dean for research and graduate education. “They are Dr. Andrij Holian, who directs UM’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences, and Dr. Michael Kavanaugh, who directs UM’s Center for Structural and Functional Neuroscience.”
The UM school was unranked in 1990 but has since seen a meteoric rise in total NIH research funding. It was ranked 37th in total funding in 1998 and averaged a ranking of 21st between 1998 and 2002. Its average national ranking has been No. 8 since 2003.
The University of California, San Francisco, was ranked No. 1 on the list for earning NIH funding last year with $28 million.
New company produces brain-imaging agents
Two new patents for brain-imaging agents discovered at UM have produced a company called Rio Pharmaceuticals, which offers specifically designed molecules to image select biomarker proteins in the brain.
The new technology may help understand, diagnose and follow new therapies for neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and neuropsychiatric conditions such as depression.
The lead inventor of the brain-imaging agents is John Gerdes, an associate professor in UM’s Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences. Gerdes’ work was funded partially by the National Institutes of Health.
Gerdes, whose department is based in UM’s College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences, has developed tracer molecules that target specific transporter proteins in the central nervous system. These molecules have quick-decaying radioactive atoms attached to them that allow for Positron Emission Tomography scanning. The PET scans detect the tracer molecules when they are bound to the biomarker protein inside the brain, allowing the biomarker proteins to be quantified.
Neurotransmitters released from nerve endings often are recycled by a specific transporter protein. Such proteins typically pump the released transmitter molecule back into the nerve cell that released it. The PET scanning tracer molecules developed by Gerdes target this class of proteins.
If both the PET scan tracer molecule and a new drug interact at the same protein, the imaging agent also can determine to what degree the new drug occupies the target protein in the brain.
"We basically put a camera around whatever you administer this molecule to and then you are able to see how the molecule functions,” Gerdes says. “We can see exactly where it goes in the body. It’s real-time biochemistry.”
He says UM is in the final stages of patenting the chemical entities that interact with brain transport proteins. One patent was issued during October, while the other is expected to issue in 2011. Gerdes says there are two distinct transporter proteins in the central nervous system that are being targeted by two different PET scan tracers he has discovered and initially developed.
The new PET imaging tracers offer tremendous clinical, commercial and drug-discovery opportunities, Gerdes says. So in 2008, he and his partners started Rio Pharmaceuticals to market the agents. The company now includes a strong team of scientists and physicians and employs nine people. More information about the firm is available at http://www.riopharmaceuticals.com.
Major computer network connects to campus
A blank spot on the map of major research and education computer networks was officially filled in last summer with the completion of a new digital pathway across the northern states between Chicago and Seattle. The network offers a huge increase in bandwidth for research, education, health care and government uses, with speeds 10,000 times greater than the typical broadband connection.
A Northern Tier Network Consortium “Golden Spike Event” was held at UM’s School of Law to celebrate the new computer pathway.
About 60 attendees discussed the possibilities of the new 10-gigabit-per-second system, with other participants added via crystal-clear videoconferencing sessions between UM, North Dakota State University and Indiana University.
“This new network is 10,000 times faster than what people have in their homes,” says Ray Ford, chief information officer for UM Information Technology. “It will allow Montana researchers and educators to do well-known things much faster and also inspire creativity in our students, faculty and researchers to invent uses that haven’t been invented yet.”
He says the network is only available for educational and research functions so they don’t compete with private telecommunications businesses.
Jason Neiffer, curriculum director for the Montana Digital Academy, says the new network will be vital to his organization, which offered 47 online classes to students across Big Sky Country last fall. (For more information, visit http://www.montanadigitalacademy.org.)
“Our courses will take on a different tenor with the video conferencing and multimedia assets we will now have available,” Neiffer says. “Our students will be able to experience virtual labs from 1,000 miles away.
As an example, Jayme Moore at the NDSU Electron Microscopy Center operated a microscope at Fargo, N.D., while using the high-speed Internet connection to display at UM the image one would normally see in the microscope eyepiece. Using a mosquito under a powerful magnification, individual hairs and eye facets instantaneously became visible to the watching Missoula audience as Moore zoomed into the image. She says that once an object was loaded, the microscope could be operated and the image displayed any place that had the proper bandwidth available.
In August, UM and the U.S. Forest Service Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory announced an agreement to use the new high-speed network to augment area research activities.
For more information on the Northern Tier Network Consortium, visit http://www.ntnc.org.
Team discovers new anemone fossil
An international team of scientists from China, the U.S. and Japan have discovered tiny, tentaculated anemone fossils from the Lower Cambrian strata of South China that may change our whole understanding of how modern corals evolved and their relationships with sea anemones.
The rare fossils were named Eolympia pediculata, and their discovery in 535-million-year-old phosphorite deposits of Shaanxi, China, makes them the oldest fossils of their kind.
The fossils are only half a millimeter in diameter, but researchers were able to peer deeply into these once-soft bodies using a new computer-aided technology called microtomographic analysis. It revealed three-dimensional details of the fossils, allowing researchers to better understand their anatomy and relationships with living counterparts.
“The quality of the preservation of this ancient soft-bodied fossil and its tiny size is pretty unusual, but what is even more amazing is what the morphological features are telling us about evolution,” says UM geosciences Professor George Stanley, a member of the research team that made the discovery. “They are telling us that it is a possible stem group to all later corals and soft anemones – a group we collectively refer to as Hexacorallians.”
The discovery was reported Oct. 13 in the science and medical journal PLoS ONE, which is online at http://www.plosone.org.
UM hosts successful undergraduate research conference
Nearly 2,500 of the nation’s top young scientific minds and their faculty mentors roamed campus April 15-17 for the National Conference on Undergraduate Research. NCUR is the nation’s top venue for undergraduate research, and the UM event included 1,300 oral presentations, 1,000 poster presentations, 60 dramatic presentations and 42 visual arts presentations. Nearly 200 of the presentations were by UM students.
“There is hardly a better way to showcase your university than hosting NCUR,” says Garon Smith, the conference chair and a UM chemistry professor. “If you want to highlight UM as a place where undergraduate research is a hallmark, this is the way to do it.”
UM last hosted NCUR in 2000, when 1,500 people attended.
UM fire analysis group earns center designation
The National Center for Landscape Fire Analysis at UM was approved as an official Montana University System center at the May 28 Board of Regents meeting.
The approval formally establishes the center to provide research, service, education, training, and technology and application development to help active, on-the-ground natural resource managers make more effective and safe fire and land management decisions. The center designation gives UM regional stature as an innovative hub of wildland fire research, application development, outreach and education.
“It formalizes our commitment to the University, to the region and to fire and land management,” says center Director LLoyd Queen.
In 2001 the Montana congressional delegation saw the need for a university-based fire research program to complement fire research conducted at federal agencies. The National Center for Landscape Fire Analysis was formed as a program in UM’s College of Forestry and Conservation to develop a research relationship between the University and the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station.
Since 2001, the center has built a program of research and education in the areas of remote sensing, geospatial data management and information technology.
In 2008 the National Center for Landscape Fire Analysis entered into a new, long-term partnership with the University of Idaho and the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station. The Wildland Fire Science Partnership provides base funding for the center and positions the center as a significant contributor to national fire research.
Visit http://firecenter.umt.edu for more information about the center.
Organization highlights Glacier National Park region
UM has launched the Crown of the Continent Initiative to act as an educational catalyst between UM and Glacier National Park. More information about the initiative and the organization’s full-color publications are online at http://crown.umt.edu.
Rick Graetz, a UM geography faculty member and initiative co-director, says the Crown region offers an amazing natural laboratory that extends from the Elk River headwaters and Crowsnest Pass in Canada to Rogers Pass and the Blackfoot River drainage in Montana. He says the initiative focuses on the issues driving conservation decisions in the region and the important research happening there.
“We have grown to include groups beyond the park – notably The Nature Conservancy, the Glacier Institute, Flathead Valley Community College and more,” he says. “We all realize the Crown is a special place.”
He and fellow co-director Jerry Fetz say the organization’s publications offer everything from the physical and historical geography of the Crown to interesting scientific research on the region’s climate, rivers and glaciers.
Paleontology teaching tool honored by NSF
“DinoMap: Spatial Analysis of Fossil Finds in the Northern Plains” was named one of 69 Highlights for 2010 by the National Science Foundation’s Directorate of Education and Human Resources. “DinoMap” is a project of UM’s Paleo Exploration Project.
Highlights showcase exceptional NSF presentations and serve to inform a diverse national constituency about the project’s work and impacts.
Led by UM College of Arts and Sciences associate researcher Heather Almquist and geosciences Professor George Stanley, who directs the University’s Paleontology Center, the Paleo Exploration Project taught K-12 teachers and middle school students from eastern Montana to use geographic information systems as a paleontological prospecting tool.
The novel approach resulted in the discovery of important dinosaur fossils, as well as many reptiles, invertebrates and plants. Participants also discovered evidence of ancient environments, including rivers, swamps, beaches and shallow seas.
During a series of workshops, UM Paleontology Center staff provided teachers with background on eastern Montana’s geologic history, formations and fossils. Professor Lisa Blank of UM’s Phyllis J. Washington School of Education and Human Sciences used a curriculum customized for K-12 teachers with little computer experience to build their competence in geospatial technologies. Teachers then were able to use GIS to evaluate geologic formations, topography, land ownership and road access to identify sites with potential for significant fossil deposits.
“The crux of the program has been to give teachers the opportunity to take what they had learned in the workshops into an authentic, field-based summer research experience with University scientists and students,” Almquist says. “The excitement around ‘doing real science’ was truly inspiring for teachers and students alike.”
UM lands Central and Southwest Asia studies center
The Montana Board of Regents unanimously approved the creation of the Center for the Study of Central and Southwest Asia at UM during its Sept. 23 meeting in Butte.
UM currently is the only American university that offers an undergraduate degree in the field through its Central and Southwest Asia Program, and the new center will expand on the program’s success and bring in more federal funding. Since the program’s inception in 1997, interest in the region, which encompasses the Middle East, north Africa, western China and five former Soviet republics of Central Asia, has grown exponentially, and demand for graduates and research in the field has as well.
UM currently offers a major and a minor in Central and Southwest Asian studies, and more than 300 students take classes in the program each semester. Grants and projects from federal agencies have largely contributed to the program’s growth.
Message from the Vice President
Campus research generates positive headlines for UM.
UM science highlights from the past year
Mysterious Missing Bees
Researchers find major new suspect for Colony Collapse Disorder.
Downturn in plant production suggests drying world.
Into the Ice
Scientists discover hidden glacial crevasses.
Undergraduate helps study Greenland glaciers.
Beetles take massive toll on the West’s signature high-elevation trees.
Osprey research reveals river pollution.
Scientists study how streams work with floodplains to cleanse themselves.
Translating Hard Science
J-school educates next generation of environmental journalists.