Whether working on a doctoral dissertation, a master’s thesis or an undergraduate capstone project, graduate and undergraduate students play a vibrant role in UM’s research community. The following offer a glimpse of student research now underway.
Hunters often ask Alexis Billings for the “all clear” signal to quiet the alarm calls that animals make when they detect a potential threat. The reality, Billings says, is more complicated. “It’s not as simple as one call for one predator. They’re making really subtle distinctions and then communicating that to other prey, as well as to the predators.” A Ph.D. candidate in UM’s Division of Biological Sciences advised by Professor Erick Greene, Billings studies the complex signals that birds, squirrels and other species make in complex environments. Her dissertation investigates the cross-species communication that occurs in response to danger. To study these signaling systems, Billings uses robotic raptors to provoke alarm at field sites near Missoula and in the eastern Cascades of Washington. Her findings, some of which appeared this December in the journal Animal Behavior and which she has discussed as a guest on NPR’s “On Point,” suggest that birds “encode information in their alarm calls in sophisticated ways” and that signaling systems are multimodal, meaning that they rely on a combination of visual, auditory and olfactory cues. After she defends her dissertation next winter, Billings plans to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship.
Physics and astronomy major Jimmy Henderson writes computer code that helps a telescope on a mountaintop in Arizona search for new planets. As an undergraduate researcher with Project MINERVA, Henderson belongs to a team searching for “Earth-like exoplanets,” or Earth-sized planets that orbit nearby stars. A partnership between UM, Harvard, Pennsylvania State University and Australia’s University of New South Wales, Project MINERVA hosts an array of four telescopes and a spectrometer on Arizona’s Mount Hopkins. Henderson and his colleagues telecommute, operating the telescopes remotely from their laptops and, in Henderson’s case, writing code that schedules targets for the planet-hunting telescopes. He was recruited to the project by Nate McCrady, a UM associate professor of physics and astronomy and co-investigator on the project. Henderson hopes his undergraduate research experiences make him a strong candidate for graduate school. After UM, he plans to pursue a doctorate in physics and astronomy with a focus on cosmology, the study of the universe at its largest scales.
Growing up on and near the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in northern Montana, Shelby Cole witnessed “terrible health care” in her community. Currently a student in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy’s six-year doctor of pharmacy program, she operates on the mantra that “we need a better health care system, and I would like to be a part of improving it.” A Skaggs Scholar through UM’s Native American Center of Excellence, Cole works in Professor David Shepherd’s lab, where she evaluates the toxicity of a potential new drug to treat autoimmune diseases. Her research is supported by a grant she and Shepherd secured through the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Ultimately, Cole hopes to merge her passion for biomedical and pharmaceutical research with her desire to improve health in her home community, where she has previously worked as a pharmacy technician at Fort Belknap Hospital. She says, “you listen to your elders” in her culture, and she envisions designing preventative public health programs that enlist tribal leaders to educate community members about conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
Mina May’s research starts with the premise that if children don’t feel that they’re good at reading, they’re less likely to read for fun. To reach children with language processing issues such as dyslexia, May’s adviser, Assistant Professor Ginger Collins of the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, created Camp CHRONICLE, a weeklong camp in which middle school students create comics as a way to develop essential literacy skills. May, whose master’s thesis examines the efficacy of Camp CHRONICLE’s approach, presented her and Collins’ findings at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in November. The preliminary results are striking: Student participants in the camp showed significant gains in language and literacy, as well as in self-efficacy and attitudes toward reading. At the conference, May received ASHA’s Member Honors Award, recognizing her as an outstanding student and future leader in speech-language pathology. A member of ASHA’s Native American caucus, she also was selected for the association’s competitive Minority Student Leadership Program, an intensive leadership training program. Citing the high turnover among speech-language pathologists on reservations and in tribal communities, May hopes to play a role in increasing the representation of Native Americans and Native Hawaiians in the speech-language pathology field so they can serve their home communities.
At the Nevada National Security Site near Las Vegas, Kevin Joyce creates mathematical models and algorithms that measure the blur in an imaging system, known as point spread function. In layman’s terms, he explains, “We’re trying to explain why pictures are blurry using numbers.” A doctoral candidate in applied mathematics, Joyce based his dissertation on his two summers of research at National Security Technologies, a contractor with the U.S. Department of Energy. His work helps measure the accuracy of an X-ray machine located about 500 feet below ground and used for nuclear stockpile stewardship. The Butte native earned his undergraduate degree in pure math before taking a teaching position at the Maine School of Science and Math. The high school’s approach engaged students in research, sparking Joyce’s interest in applied mathematics. This spring, Joyce expects to defend his dissertation, advised by UM Professor Jonathan Bardsley and an external adviser at National Securities Technologies. Currently applying to postdoctoral programs, he explains of his passion for applied math: “It’s a subject that gives you very measured progress. Once you’ve proven something or figured something out, you know it.”
Franny Gilman’s doctoral dissertation research took her to Greenland, where for two summers she collected samples from the permafrost’s active layer, the top-most, thawed layer that gets deeper every year as temperatures increase in the Arctic. Back in the lab, she extracts the DNA and RNA of soil microbes “to see who was there and the function of that community.” Gilman is particularly interested in understanding methanotrophs, which metabolize methane. Because methane contributes to climate change, these microbes are of particular interest to scientists building climate change models. Originally a pre-veterinary student, Gilman first developed her interest in microbiology as an undergraduate research assistant at the University of Puget Sound on a project studying the microbial communities in lizards. At UM, she studied with William Holben, professor of microbial ecology, and collaborated on her research with the Center for Permafrost Research at the University of Copenhagen. Gilman successfully defended her dissertation in December and now works for Blue Marble Biomaterials, where she extracts natural pigments from different microorganisms to see if they can be produced in commercial quantities.
In “Peregrine,” her poetry collection that won UM’s 2015 Merriam-Frontier Award, Jolene Brink uses landscape, history and memory to explore the impacts of climate change. Brink, a second-year MFA student, was drawn to UM not only for its Creative Writing Program, but also for its strengths in wilderness and climate change studies. Last summer, she joined a citizen science backpacking trip in the Absaroka Mountains organized by UM’s Wilderness Institute. “It was great to do field work that intersects with my creative research on the trip,” she says. With the English department’s Nettie Weber Scholarship, Brink also completed a residency at the Kunstnarhuset Messen, a residential art center in the fjords of Norway, where she completed a poem about that country forthcoming in the journal Carolina Quarterly. In English Professor Joanna Klink’s courses, Brink says she delved into new projects, such as an essay she is researching on families whose pre-1910 cabins inside Glacier National Park are due to turn over to the National Park Service once their present owners die. Her method, she says, is to ask, “What are you obsessed with?” then “write toward that and see all the things you can do.”
By Nathalie Wolfram