’Scopes, cells and zebrafish

Tribal college students spend week at MSU as part of intensive research program
Thursday, August 2, 2018

MSU photo by
Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

James Vallie (right), a 2015 graduate of Little Big Horn College and 2008 graduate of Hardin High School, works with a fellow student during a week-long handson research class. Vallie has spent the past two summers researching algae as a biofertilizer at the Montana State University Center for Biofilm Engineering.

MSU photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

Zebrafish embryos are pictured on a computer screen with the help of microscopes during the research class.

More than a dozen students from tribal colleges around the state spent a week at Montana State University conducting research, and learning about the services and resources available on campus to help them succeed.

The students came from Salish Kootenai College, Little Big Horn College, Chief Dull Knife College and Blackfeet Community College to take part in “Trails to Research,” an intensive research program held July 9-14 that was designed and led by Christa Merzdorf, an associate professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience in MSU’s College of Letters and Science, and Jennifer Forecki, a postdoctoral researcher in Merzdorf’s laboratory.

“The goals are for students to learn the research process and gain a research mindset,” Merzdorf said. “They learn hypothesis development, how to design and conduct experiments, the importance of controls, troubleshooting, and recording, interpreting and analyzing data. They then prepare and present their findings to an audience of peers and the MSU community.”

Students also have the opportunity to learn about financial aid and student support services, such as TRiO, American Indian Research Opportunities and American Indian/Alaska Native Student Success Services, as well as meet with advisers in their discipline, Merzdorf said.

This is the third year for the program, which gives students an opportunity to stay in MSU dorms while focusing on a specific research project from start to completion. A grant from the MSU Outreach and Engagement Council allowed the addition of stipends for teaching assistants in 2016. This year, for the first time since the program’s inception, the students also received a stipend, thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation that will run another two years.

This year’s research project was to study the effects of different substances on the embryonic development of zebrafish. Merzdorf explained that because the fish go from fertilized egg to embryo within 72 hours, students are able to see the effects of alcohol, pollutants, medication, caffeine and other substances on the embryos.

“We really take them all the way through the process; it is a very intense week,” Merzdorf said. “Along the way, the students learn a lot about biology, the fundamentals of molecular biology, lab skills, how to use lab equipment and other research skills.”

Courtney Stinger, a sophomore at Salish Kootenai College who is majoring in biomedical science, said her mentor at SKC encouraged her to apply for the program.

“It seemed exciting and I love this campus and I hope to go here for my graduate degree,” said Stinger as she and her research partner, Mariah Soldier Wolf, examined zebrafish embryos through a microscope for signs of developmental anomalies.

Soldier Wolf, a sophomore majoring in allied health at Chief Dull Knife College, attended the program as part of a CDKC internship for students pursuing science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, majors.

“I’m really enjoying getting to work with all this lab equipment,” Soldier Wolf said. “I feel like we dove in and everyone has been so helpful and informative. It has been fun and a really good experience.”

Soldier Wolf said she has been trying to decide between nurse practitioner or physician assistant programs at other colleges, but after finding out about the doctor of nursing practice graduate degree program in the MSU College of Nursing, she now has another path to consider.

Each year, students who have previously been in the program are invited back as teaching assistants and to give them a second opportunity to immerse themselves in research. This year, Merzdorf said, there were two returning students, as well as two MSU students, including James Vallie, who earned his associate degree in business management at Little Big Horn College before transferring to MSU in 2016.

A junior in MSU’s Department of Chemical Engineering, Vallie said he was excited to work as a teaching assistant for a program that helped bridge his transfer to MSU, while also serving as an example to others taking the course.

“I’m doing pretty well now, and it gave me experience in the lab,” he said. “It’s really cool seeing how the students are so engaged. At first, they’re a little ‘iffy’ in the lab and we try to encourage them and then we can see them building their confidence in doing research.”

Vallie has spent the past two summers working in Brent Peyton’s lab in MSU’s Center for Biofilm Engineering where he is researching algae as a biofertilizer. He said that after earning his degree and working in the field for some time, he hopes to use his knowledge to help improve water and environmental quality on the Crow reservation.

“That’s my main goal,” Vallie said. “Go get all this education and bring it back home. There are so many ideas I want to do.”

Forecki, who earned her doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, teamed up with Merzdorf after meeting her at a talk Merzdorf gave about her research at MSU.

“She asked me what I wanted to do after getting my doctorate and I told her I really enjoy outreach and wanted a post-doc where I would be able to do research and also teach, particularly American-Indian students because my mother is American Indian,” Forecki said. “She immediately told me that Montana has seven tribal colleges.

“We worked together to write a grant to the NSF to get me a post-doctoral fellowship so we could work on this course,” Forecki said.

The grant application was successful and Forecki moved to Bozeman in 2014. The first Trails to Research was held the next year.

In addition to the MSU-based course, the duo also takes Trails to Research on the road to tribal colleges, with new locations added each year, Forecki said.

This year, they spent a week at Aaniiih Nakoda College and at Chief Dull Knife College. Last year, they offered the program at Little Big Horn College and Fort Peck Community College, as well as at MSU.

“The courses vary in content to some degree, depending on what techniques and concepts each college would like the students to learn,” Merzdorf said. “For example, the CDKC course this summer was mainly focused on understanding the biology of viruses – specifically West Nile virus – and we developed a molecular biology curriculum for that.”


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