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Salish Kootenai College students tour MSU labs to explore graduate education

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Students at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo toured MSU science labs Students at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo toured MSU science labs
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Courtesy MSU

More than a dozen students from Salish Kootenai College in Pablo recently visited Montana State University to learn more about graduate school education and opportunities through lab and research tours provided by two of the university’s leading scientists.

With approximately 800 students, Salish Kootenai College, located on the Flathead Reservation in northwestern Montana, serves the Confederated Salish, Kootenai and other tribes. The visit is part of the college’s effort to encourage its students to pursue advanced degrees.

“There are not a lot of Native Americans in grad schools or with Ph.D.s,” said Christine Rush, faculty and research mentor for Salish Kootenai College. “We want to encourage the students to look beyond their undergraduate experiences and think bigger.”

Opening their labs to the visiting students on July 28 were Eric Boyd, assistant professor, and Jovanka Voyich-Kane, associate professor, both in MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Agriculture and the College of Letters and Science.

Voyich-Kane, who is also co-director of the American Indian Alaska Native Clinical and Translational Research program, introduced the students to a few challenges facing scientists who explore bacterial pathogenesis.

“Antibiotic resistance is a huge public health concern, and our ability to treat common bacterial pathogens is challenged by the emergence of multi-drug resistant strains,” Voyich-Kane said. “Our lab investigates how Staphylococcus aureus initiates infections in healthy individuals with the goal to define the host and pathogen mechanisms that determine disease severity.”

In his GeoBiology lab, Boyd offered students a glimpse into his NASA-funded work focused on the origin and evolution of life, and emphasized the need to have people from all backgrounds and perspectives contributing to this work. 

He also highlighted how his lab’s work on microorganisms in extreme environments, such as hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, will help guide the search for life on other planets where high temperature conditions may be more pervasive.   

Prior to visiting Boyd’s lab, Rush, who is also a professor of life sciences, escorted the students on a visit to Yellowstone National Park so they could better understand Boyd’s research project. They also visited with MSU doctoral, graduate and undergraduate students who shared their experiences and advice about working in a laboratory environment. 

“Try out a bunch of labs,” said Madison Collins, a doctoral student in Voyich-Kane’s lab. “If you don’t fit in the lab, change.”

Family members accompanied many of the students on the multi-day trip to MSU and Yellowstone.

“We are a family-oriented community and it’s important to include family members in the college tours so they can offer their perspective,” Rush said. “Many of these students will be bringing families with them if they decide to further their studies. They need to be part of the decision process.”

Cheyne Littlesun, a junior studying cellular and molecular biology at SKC, called the MSU visit “a great opportunity.”

“Touring the labs has given us a bigger perspective and lets us know what’s out there,” Littlesun said.

“Visiting these labs has opened my eyes to some incredible opportunities,” said Ron Tilson, a sophomore in environmental science, on exchange to SKC from Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College in Baraga, Michigan. “I have never seen labs like this— and so close to the Park. I am definitely reaching out to Dr. Boyd when it is time for grad school.”

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