Students play a vibrant role in UM’s research enterprise. The following profiles offer a glimpse into recent student work
By Harley Fredriksen
A molecular biologist by trade, Moses Leavens now combines his background in chemistry, biology and mathematics to study proteins.
Now a fifth-year biochemistry Ph.D. student, Leavens began his graduate career intending to study viruses, and he nearly joined a lab researching the deadly Rift Valley Fever virus. But he liked the challenge of learning biophysics and wanted to work with a variety of instruments.
Today, he and his research group study how proteins fold. When the proteins that our body needs form, they first leave ribosomes in the cell as linear, amino acid sequences. As these chains lengthen, they take on what is called secondary structure. This structure varies considerably, with patterns of complex sheets and helices taking form depending on the function of the final protein. Some proteins may only share 20 percent of the same linear sequence yet take on a very similar structure. Leavens and his group work to explore the physical basis of this process in which seemingly random sequences giving rise to specific, functional structure.
A Sloan scholar and one of just a few students selected nationally into the Amgen Scholars Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Leavens is a member of the Chippewa-Cree Nation. In 2014, his presentation “Biophysical Analysis of the Ubiquitin: Associate Domain One” earned top honors at the national American Indian Science and Engineering Conference.
Twice a week, hundreds of thousands of viewers tune into “SciShow Psych,” co-hosted by UM alumnus Hank Green and Brit Garner. Green, a YouTube superstar and the creator of “SciShow,” holds a master’s in environmental studies from UM. Garner, a third-year doctoral student in wildlife biology, similarly fuses her scientific training with performance and creativity.
Originally from Florida, Garner earned her B.S. in zoology at the University of Florida, then continued up the coast for a master’s in marine biology at UNC-Wilmington, where she taught biology and physiology courses at a nearby community college.
Seeking a change, Garner joined the master of fine arts program at Montana State University, where she focused on filmmaking in science and natural history. “I packed up my Honda Civic and drove to Bozeman, Montana. I didn’t even know where Bozeman was on a map,” she says.
Her first-year project at MSU included a video interview with Gordon Luikart, a conservation geneticist at UM. The project sparked her interest, and by that summer she had relocated to Missoula to pursue a graduate degree in wildlife biology.
Garner’s research combines big data analytics and algorithmic problem-solving with wildlife conservation. Conservation efforts are constrained by limited time and money, so her approach is to build tools that ensure the resources of those programs are used as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Her passions for teaching, science and performance continue to drive her work outside the classroom and the lab. In Missoula, she has performed with the Missoula Community Theatre, taught the undergraduate lecture course Wildlife and People, co-founded the Missoula Interdisciplinary Science League and shared her research experiences with K-12 students as part of UM’s We Are Montana in the Classroom role-model initiative.
Whether on “SciShow Psych” or in the classroom or the lab, “Let people see that you’re excited about things,” she says.
During the fall 2017 semester, undergraduate economics major Jackson Crawford was busy editing footage for a documentary on renewable energy. As part of his capstone project, he traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, for six months to study and create a film as an apprentice of well-known producer Michael Murphey.
Thanks in part to support from UM’s Office of Research and Creative Scholarship and a scholarship from the Davidson Honors College, his main expense in Cape Town other than rent was his rental
car. Even with the company’s policy of staying within a 200-kilometer radius, Crawford was able to visit nine renewable energy generation sites and interview policy directors, local officials and other key renewable energy players in his vicinity.
No stranger to travel, Crawford once spent a semester of high school abroad in Austria. “It totally changed me. I was so young, I didn’t know anything,” he says. When he came back the first time, a now-bilingual high school senior, the travel bug had already set in. “I wanted to go further out of my comfort zone,” he says of his most recent destination, the second-most populated city in South Africa.
A Bozeman native and a lifelong lover of photography, Crawford hopes to continue combining the broad, analytical approach of his economic interests, his passion for sustainability and creative outlets in informative and useful ways. When he graduates in December, he hopes to work with PBS making educational videos. As for his next trip abroad, he has his sights set on Southeast Asia.
In September 2017, listeners of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” broadcast heard a grim tale from Montana: “In August, the Missoula County health department took the unprecedented step of advising the entire town of Seeley Lake to evacuate due to smoke; air there has been classified as ‘hazardous’ levels for 35 days [since] August 1.”
The writer behind that story, which described the scramble to equip K-12 schools in smoke-afflicted communities with HEPA air filtration units, was Nora Saks, a second-year graduate student in the UM School of Journalism’s Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism program.
Saks took a roundabout pathway into journalism. Her undergraduate degree in environmental studies from the University of Toronto first led her to organic farming. “I was drawn to it because it was very hands-on; it was visible,” she says.
Saks spent time up and down the East Coast working several farming internships and apprenticeships. The roles varied: She educated communities on the benefits of diversified farming and on issues of food justice, worked with refugee families on building food access and grew produce for small-scale community-supported agriculture programs.
A lifelong affinity for writing and creative arts brought her to the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Maine, then to UM. She recently returned from a three-month internship with an NPR community radio station in Alaska, but quickly jumped back into her role as a regular contributor for Montana Public Radio. Her work explores how communities adapt to environmental change, including this year’s extreme wildfire smoke. The common thread in her work is the relationships and humanity that define a place.
In the future, she hopes to bring the skills she builds at UM to work on long-form, collaborative and multimedia journalism projects.
While completing her neuroscience Ph.D., Jenny Lind was as engaged in her community as she was at the lab bench. Until she graduated in spring 2017, the Darby native led hands-on neuroscience activities at spectrUM Discovery Area, served as a role model for K-12 students with UM’s We Are Montana in the Classroom initiative and hosted a distance-learning session with students from across Montana for Brain Awareness Week.
In the lab, her research explored the glutamate system, an important regulatory body of mammalian nervous systems that plays a role in memory formation, learning and regulation. Specifically, she studied regulators and binding sites in this system. Her research contributes to a better understanding of how those processes work and could ultimately help scientists design more effective drugs for a range of diseases.
Lind now serves as an AmeriCorps VISTA worker at UM’s Blackstone LaunchPad, where she connects students and community members with resources and tools to explore entrepreneurship. Ultimately, she hopes to receive an American Academy for the Advancement of Science Policy Fellowship so she can use her science background and communication skills to influence broader policy decisions. •