Quick Looks

UM Sets Record for Research Awards Received

An image of Main Hall inside a flaskThe research enterprise at UM received nearly $83 million in research awards during fiscal year 2015 – an all-time record for the institution. The total of $82,964,694 surpassed the previous awards record of $71 million set in 2009.

“Here at UM we have faculty with renowned national and international reputations,” says Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship. “This new record shows how much our external sponsors value the contributions made by our research community.”

UM research expenditures were up 11 percent, vaulting from $58.3 million in fiscal year 2014 to $64.6 million in 2015. Interestingly, the number of proposals researchers submitted in 2015 was down eight from the 637 submitted in 2014.

“This means we had a greater success in percentage of proposals being funded, combined with larger awards,” Whittenburg says. “Current indicators suggest our positive growth with continue.”

In fiscal year 2015, UM had eight faculty with at least $1 million in research expenditures. The top five earners were:

  • Reed Humphrey, College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences, $4.4 million.
  • Ragan Callaway, Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, $2.9 million.
  • Stephen Sprang, Center for Biomedical Structure and Dynamics, $2.5 million.
  • Andrij Holian, Center for Environmental Health Sciences, $2.3 million.
  • Donald Loranger, Defense Critical Language and Culture Program, $2.3 million.

Geography Students Help Preserve Nepalese Tigers

An image of two tigers mixed with a map of the wildlife preserveUM geography students are saving tigers – one map at a time.

The UM geography department gave 12 student cartographers the chance to collaborate with Panthera, the world’s premier big cat conservation organization. The students worked eight months to create a set of 14 topographic maps of Parsa Wildlife Reserve in Nepal. The maps they produced are the highest-resolution maps ever created of the park and will help define and secure vital ground for the tigers.

In 2014, Panthera and its partners implemented the Tigers Forever strategy in the reserve to identify and protect tiger habitat.

Tigers Forever program field staff will use the UM-produced maps during anti-poaching patrols. UM lecturer Kevin McManigal, the cartographic manager on the project, says the rangers need highly accurate, well-designed, field-ready topographic maps to conduct their patrols.

“These maps have the potential to literally change the family tree for these tigers,” says McManigal. “The students are very proud, and they should be.”

Panthera presented the project to the UM students by as a test case. The UM team, comprising both undergraduate and graduate students, secured 1-meter satellite imagery and began digitizing the features in the park. They contracted Airbus in France to generate a custom, 10-meter digital elevation model from Synthetic Aperture Radar data.

“They flew their satellite over the park for us,” McManigal says. Then the UM team spent many hours in the lab creating the maps from the data points.

The Panthera managers were pleased with the outcome and presented the maps to Nepal’s environment minister. McManigal says the UM students will continue working on projects with Panthera.

Plants Absorb Less Carbon Dioxide Than Models Show

A image of a leaf with CO2 printed on itWhile global plant growth has increased slightly during the past 30 years, UM researchers found it hasn’t increased as much as some scientists predicted.

Former UM doctoral student Bill Smith and Professors Cory Cleveland, Ashley Ballantyne and Steve Running studied the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide from human emissions and a corresponding growth in plant life, and they compared their results with existing models. The study was published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Carbon dioxide enhances plant growth, and plants absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide. The researchers compared measurements of plant productivity estimated by models with those measured by satellites. They concluded that current models unrealistically overpredict the ability of plants to offset growing greenhouse gas emissions, suggesting that the Earth’s capacity to take up future carbon dioxide emissions may be less than previously thought.

“Current Earth-system models assume that global plant growth will provide the tremendous benefit of offsetting a significant portion of humanity’s CO2 emissions, thus buying us much-needed time to curb emissions,” Smith says. “Unfortunately, our observation-based estimates of global vegetation growth indicate that plant growth may not buy us as much time as expected, [so] action to curb emissions is all the more urgent.”

The authors identify two important factors that could drive the divergence between satellite-based results and model-based results: availability of water and availability of nutrients. Satellite data indicate warmer climate conditions resulting from rising atmospheric carbon dioxide may increase stress in plant water, counteracting any positive effect of carbon dioxide. Additionally, limited availability of nitrogen and phosphorus in the environment could limit the ability of plants to soak up additional carbon dioxide.

Laboratory Adds New 3-D Scanner

The new 3-D imaging system enabled UM anthropology Professor Anna Prentiss to observe a pecked fish image on what appears to be a piece of semi-decomposed slate or siltstone. The piece is approximately 1,150 years old.By Jessica Mayrer

On a recent morning inside UM’s Social Science Research Laboratory, three-dimensional imaging specialist Mary-Margaret Murphy examines a palm-sized pygmy rabbit skull rotating on what looks like a Lazy Susan.

“We have the skull in the scanner field of view now,” Murphy says. “And we’re capturing data.”

Murphy tracks images of the rabbit skull flashing before her on a computer screen. The red, blue and green pictures generated by SSRL’s new Breuckmann SmartSCAN three-dimensional imaging system provide insight into species morphology and pathology.

“It allows scientists to peel back the layers on the ecology,” Murphy explains.

With help from a $93,000 National Science Foundation Grant and $40,000 from the UM Office of Research and Creative Scholarship and the College of Humanities and Sciences, SSRL unveiled the imaging system last spring. The scanner’s cutting-edge technology can capture details on bones and artifacts just larger than a human hair.

Taking a break from inspecting the skull, Murphy hands a visitor a clear box holding the pygmy rabbit mandible. It’s about as long as the tip of one’s thumb. And – nearly 20 years after the skull was discovered in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest – its rows of sharp white teeth still look well-equipped to shred sagebrush, one of the pygmy rabbit’s staple foods.

Murphy’s rabbit scan came at the request of Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum Interim Curator Paul Hendricks, who also asked Murphy to scan a shrew and a vole to gauge how much detail the new scanner can capture on small specimens.

Information gleaned today will prove helpful for the Wright museum, which, Hendricks says, will use information from the test run to assess the future viability of scanning and digitizing more pieces from the museum’s collection of more than 24,000 specimens.

Hendricks is excited about the prospect of digitizing museum pieces. The ability to upload images such as those captured today means, as Hendricks says, “It just really makes the whole collection more accessible.”

UM anthropology Professor Anna Prentiss, the principal investigator on the NSF grant that funded the Breuckmann purchase, is equally excited about the technology’s potential. Prentiss’ lab has for years excavated the Bridge River village in British Columbia. During the course of that project, she’s collected roughly 17,500 artifacts, of which there are thousands of intact tools.

“The ability to get digital archive samples puts us in an elite group,” Prentiss says.

Grant Helps People with Disabilities Live Independently

UM researchers are developing a state-of-the-art health promotion program to advance the ability of people with disabilities to live independently in their communities through a new five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research.

UM’s Rural Institute’s Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities (RTC:Rural) will increase access to its evidence-based health promotion curriculum, “Living Well with a Disability,” using an online multimedia presentation to increase individuals’ motivation and confidence to learn how to improve their health.

For more than 25 years, the center has responded to the needs of people with disabilities by developing new techniques to help them improve their health, employment and participation in community life. During the next five years, this grant will contribute to improving the health of people with disabilities by increasing health promotion opportunities delivered by community-based service agencies.

The project team will use a participatory curriculum development procedure that involves people with disabilities from across the United States to ensure relevance and usefulness of the multimedia program. To ensure adoption and use, the center will provide training and technical assistance to community agencies located in both rural and urban areas of the country.

UM Helps Discover How Water Escapes from Saturn

An image of Saturn and its ringsA UM astrophysics professor helped discover how water ions escape from Saturn’s environment. His team’s findings were published last year in the journal Nature Physics.

UM Professor Daniel Reisenfeld is a member of the Cassini research team. Cassini is a NASA-managed probe that has orbited Saturn continuously collecting data since 2004.

One of the instruments on Cassini measures the planet’s magnetosphere – the charged particles, known as plasma, that are trapped in the space surrounding Saturn by its magnetic field. One of Cassini’s past discoveries is that Saturn’s plasma comprises water ions, which are derived from Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which spews water vapors from its Yellowstone-like geysers. Knowing the water ions would not be able to accumulate indefinitely, the team of researchers set out to explain how the water ions escape from Saturn’s magnetosphere.

The answers to this phenomenon were published by Nature Physics in an article titled “Cassini in situ observations of long-duration magnetic reconnection in Saturn’s magnetotail.”

In the paper, the authors explain that the plasma found a place to exhaust out of the magnetosphere at a reconnection point – basically where magnetic fields from one environment disconnect and reconnect with magnetic fields from another environment. In the case of Saturn, researchers discovered the reconnection point was located at the back of the planet, where the magnetotail was connecting with the solar winds’ magnetic field.

Reisenfeld likens the situation to a rotary or a traffic circle. Once you get into the rotary you have limited exit points.

“If you can’t find the exit, you keep going around in circles,” he says. “So, the plasma around Saturn is basically trapped to go around the rotary. We assumed it had to escape somehow and somewhere, but actually finding the jettison point is pretty cool.”

Saturn is a very rapidly rotating planet. This discovery will help scientists understand the physics of how other rapid rotators such as Jupiter, stars and pulsars expel their materials and the details of how it works.

Professor Consults for PBS Civil War Drama

UM Professor Anya Jabour poses with Hannah James, who plays Emma Green in the new PBS Civil War drama “Mercy Street.” (Photo courtesy of Anya Jabour)UM Professor Anya Jabour spent five weeks in Virginia last year working as a historical consultant for the new PBS Civil War drama “Mercy Street,” which premiered Jan. 17.

Jabour’s job was to make the actors appear as authentic as possible, whether they were interacting with family members or with strangers, whether they were of a younger generation or an older one, African-American or white, Confederate or Union. And that meant providing them with the social guidelines of the time.

Jabour was asked to lend her expertise after her 2007 book, “Scarlett’s Sisters: Young Women in the Old South,” ended up in the hands of producer Lisa Wolfinger.

Jabour served as a script reviewer when the series was in the early stages of development. In this role, she commented on characters, plot and dialogue, with a focus on young women’s wartime experiences, including shifting gender roles, evolving courtship practices and changing family dynamics. Once the series went into production in spring 2015, Wolfinger invited Jabour to serve as on-set historical consultant.

In addition to providing guidance when it came to behaviors that were changing as a result of the war, Jabour worked with the actors on following the social mores of the time, like how to walk in public.

Professor Earns Book, Teaching Awards

2015 was a stellar year for UM biology Professor Doug Emlen.

First, a book he wrote was awarded the 2015 Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science. Then several weeks later, he was named Montana Professor of the Year.

The cover of Emlen received the award for his book “Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle” and a $10,000 prize at a gala dinner Dec. 4 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The award is presented by the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the nation’s oldest academic honor society. Since 1959, the group has presented the award to recognize outstanding contributions by scientists to the literature of science. Past book winners include the likes of “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond, which also won the Pulitzer Prize.

“I worked long hours on this book, and receiving this award is a wonderful affirmation,” Emlen says. “It’s a great feeling to know you are bringing real science to the public in an entertaining and meaningful way."

“Animal Weapons” tells the story behind the incredible weapons we see in the animal world and what they can tell us about the way humans protect ourselves. Emlen takes the reader outside the lab and deep into the forests and jungles of the world to explain the processes behind the most extreme of animal weapons.

Emlen was named the 2015 Montana Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. He was one of 35 educators selected nationwide from nearly 400 top professors nominated.

“There are a lot of us here at UM who take tremendous pleasure from teaching – finding new ways to excite students, challenging them to think hard about the world around them,” Emlen says. “I’m proud to be one of them and to be recognized for this facet of what we do.”

Research: Tropical Songbird Habitat Affects Survival

Thomas Martin photoA UM professor who studies birds around the world has discovered trends in how the offspring grow, how parents care for the young and how well the young survive based on where they live. Now, his songbird research hit the right notes with the journal Science.

Thomas Martin, assistant leader of the U.S. Geological Survey Montana Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at UM, set out to explain why tropical birds tend to have fewer offspring that seem to grow slower and live longer, slower lives than their northern counterparts. He found tropical songbirds grow their wings faster, aided by higher parental feeding rates for fewer offspring than temperate species. Those differences, Martin says, ultimately translate to how well the offspring escape predators both in the nest and after they leave it.

Martin’s article, “Age-Related Mortality Explains Life History Strategies of Tropical and Temperate Songbirds,” was published this past summer.

Martin, together with students and assistants, studied growth and nest predation of 20 to 30 coexisting songbird species in Venezuela from 2002 to 2008 and Malaysia from 2009 to 2014. They also studied songbird nests in Arizona for the past 28 years. The tropical songbirds typically only raise two young while temperate species commonly raise four or more. But tropical offspring may be more likely to survive.

Offspring of tropical species were thought to grow slower than those living in the Northern Hemisphere. That slower growth suggests offspring spend more time in the nest and, therefore, are at greater risk of being killed by predators. Tropical songbirds’ nest predation risks are equal to, if not higher than, temperate birds, so biologists would expect them to grow as fast as temperate birds, rather than slower. Martin discovered that nestling bodies actually were similar in size when considered over the entire growth period, but tropical birds’ wings grow faster. Martin says the paradoxical system can be explained by their greater parent-to-offspring ratio, which allows parents to provide each offspring more nutrition to aid growth.

“Provisioning, parental investment and mortality are all related,” Martin says. “A later, faster growth spurt of tropical songbirds, together with higher parental effort invested per offspring, aids wing growth and flight capabilities after the young birds leave the nest.”

Therefore, the tropical young are more likely to survive.

“That previously unrecognized faster growth of wings among tropical species aids in escape from predators after young leave the nest,” Martin says.

Because of their lower adult mortality rates, tropical birds are able to reduce their clutch size. By doing so, they can invest more time and energy into providing food to each individual offspring.

Temperate birds experience a higher adult mortality rate, especially during winter months and migration. They produce more young at the expense of a lower investment per offspring.

Martin says by showing the mortality risk to which different species are subjected to at different life stages, scientists can begin to see the balance of traits favored by evolution.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Ecosystems Mission Area of the USGS.

UM Science Reveals Earliest Jurassic Corals

A fossil of the earliest North American coral speciesFive times in Earth’s history, mass extinction events wiped out up to 90 percent of global life. UM doctoral student Montana Hodges and geosciences Professor George Stanley recently found the fossil record of the earliest North American coral species that reappeared after the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction event.

Their findings were published in the October issue of GSA Today: A Publication of the Geological Society of America.

Hodges and Stanley study the collapse and recovery of coral reefs. Corals are particularly hard-hit by subtle changes in ocean temperature and acidity. About 200 million years ago, corals and reefs completely collapsed. During this particular extinction event, researchers have found no evidence of asteroid impact or other catastrophic events. Instead, the geologic and paleontological records point to massive global climate change.

“We believe the warming climate was due to a combination effect from supercontinent Pangaea breaking apart, changes in sea level and massive amounts of gas spewing into the atmosphere from cracks in the Earth’s crust,” Hodges says.

After that mass extinction event, it took coral reefs more than 20 million years to completely recover. In the dusty, high desert of central Nevada, the team discovered the earliest North American Jurassic corals.

New York Canyon, Nevada, is swathed with sedimentary rocks that during the Jurassic period represented the west coast of North America. By studying the unique corals found there, Hodges and Stanley aim to contribute a better understanding of survival and recovery.

“Our study may lend valuable information to understanding the peril of coral reefs today,” Hodges says.

LaPier Named Smithsonian Research Associate 

UM's Rosalyn LaPierRosalyn LaPier, UM assistant professor of environmental studies, was appointed a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Research associates are senior experts in their field who maintain a formal scholarly affiliation and academic appointment with the Smithsonian. They are given access to Smithsonian collections and facilities. In exchange, LaPier will bring her own outside expertise and knowledge to the Smithsonian, which includes more than 25 years of experience working with Blackfeet elders researching ethobotany and traditional ecological knowledge.

The appointment will last at least three years and may be renewed.

LaPier has worked to revitalize and preserve Native American languages for the past 25 years. She continued her research on ethobotany, traditional ecological knowledge and Blackfeet religious beliefs of nature and the environment at the Smithsonian and within traditional Blackfeet territory in the U.S. and Canada.

JoAllyn Archambault, National Museum of Natural History American Indian director, nominated LaPier for the appointment.

LaPier holds a doctorate degree in history from UM. She is one of four Native American professors at a research university in the U.S. in an environmental studies/sciences department. She is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe and also is Métis.

Science Exhibit Lands at Missoula Airport

A little girl plays at the new airport exhibit.Visitors to Missoula International Airport have the chance to experience a new hands-on science exhibit.

The exhibit titled “Nano: The Science of Small” is featured within a new pop-up museum space hosted by UM’s spectrUM Discovery Area. The pop-up museum opened its doors on the second floor of the airport and offers children of all ages the chance to explore the fascinating world of nanoscale science.

“We are extremely excited about this partnership,” says airport Advertising Manager Amanda Jacobson. “Now, when families are waiting for their flight, they can engage with a top-notch exhibit. The partnership is a win-win.”

“We hope that the next generation can get inspired about science and higher education, and we look for creative opportunities to introduce children to hands-on exploration,” says spectrUM Director Holly Truitt.

The free exhibition features STEM role model Joanna Kreitinger, a UM doctoral student studying cellular and molecular biology, whose research focuses on how environmental pollutants affect our ability to fight off infections and disease. She regularly uses nanoscience in these efforts.

Committed to inspiring a culture of learning and discovery for all, spectrUM is an interactive science center that annually serves more than 50,000 Montanans through in-museum and mobile programming.

Google Assists with UM Research

An image of the Earth from outer spaceUM forest landscape ecology Associate Professor Solomon Dobrowski recently received a Google Earth Engine Research Award to estimate how changes in both land cover and climate affect ecosystems across the entire globe. The grant will allow Dobrowski and a UM doctoral candidate to use Google Earth Engine to analyze complex geospatial datasets.

Last year, UM Professor Brady Allred received a similar research grant. The grants allow Allred and Dobrowski to access Google’s expansive database of global satellite imagery for research. Allred used the data to assess the impact and recovery of North American oil and gas development.

Dobrowski will measure the rate of climate change and land cover change by analyzing land surface temperature data collected by Earth-observing satellites. It will allow him to identify regions where land surface conditions and climate are changing rapidly. He plans to create a monitoring framework and establish baseline measurements from which to assess ongoing changes in land surface temperatures across the globe.

“By using Google’s technical and computing capabilities and partnering with their scientists, we can address earth science problems at scales larger than we could previously imagine given our existing resources,” Dobrowski says.

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