In Hot Water: Hardin native heads to China to study hot springs
May 02, 2012
By Evelyn Boswell
Emma Murter, shown with her poster at MSUís Student Research Celebration, will spend 10 weeks in China this summer as part of an international hot spring study. (Photo by Kelly Gorham)
BOZEMAN – A Hardin woman who is enthusiastic about everything from research to goats to ballroom dancing is now part of an international team studying hot springs.
Emma Murter of Hardin was one of two students in the nation chosen to travel to China this summer through a National Science Foundation program for undergraduate scholars.
Joining a five-year study that unites 20 U.S. and Chinese scientists from 14 institutions, the honors student and Presidential Scholar will leave June 26 for China and spend 10 weeks helping research microorganisms that live in the largest hot spring complex in China -- Tengchong Volcanic Geological Park.
She will work in a Shanghai laboratory and possibly in the State Key Laboratory of Marine Geology at Tongji University. She may also travel to Tengchong Volcanic Geologic Park to collect more samples. Her job in the lab will involve extracting and analyzing lipids from the membranes of single-celled microorganisms, or archaea, that thrive in the hot springs.
The lipids are of interest to researchers because they help form cell membranes that withstand near-boiling and acid water – an amazing feat of nature’s engineering that could have important applications for medicine and industry. Of all organisms, archaea hold the record for living in the hottest and most acidic environments.
An article in the Sept. 2, 2011 issue of Science, described the Rehai hot springs in Tengchong as “biological dark matter exerting an irresistible pull on researchers.” The article said certain springs in the park are almost 100 percent archaea, and their cell membranes are composed of lipids unlike any seen in other life forms. One hot spring alone was so acidic it was eating away at the clay ground. The water it contained was almost 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the boiling point of water at sea level. The article said the research team hopes the life forms at Rehai will inspire a global geothermal census.
“The goal is to understand the community structure and function of thermophilic archaea from those hot springs in Tengchong,” Chuanlun Zhang said by email. He is one of two U.S. project leaders of the hot spring project that now involves Murter. He has dual faculty appointments in the United States and China.
The overall goal of the collaboration is to train the next generation of scientists while building on existing knowledge about hot spring life in China, Yellowstone National Park and other locations in the United States, said Eric Boyd, an MSU research professor who traveled to China last summer with the same project. Tengchong contains approximately 50 hot springs in one square mile, while Yellowstone has about 10,000 thermal features in 3,472 square miles.
Brian P. Hedlund, associate professor in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and principal investigator of the Partnership in International Research and Education (PIRE) project through the NSF, said Murter was selected for the study because of her high grades, rigorous course work, strong research experience at MSU, excellent recommendation letters, and interest in a career in science.
“It was a simple decision, and I think Emma will be a great researcher and ambassador,” Hedlund said by email.
Murter first became involved in research when she was about 11 years old and her family collected water samples and insects for scientists involved with Project WET, a water education organization. After coming to MSU, she conducted research as a freshman in chemistry and biochemistry and continued as a sophomore in microbiology. She works under Boyd’s supervision in John Peters’ lab in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the Thermal Biology Institute, both of whom are co-investigators on the China-U.S. project. She is secretary to the Undergraduate Chemistry Society at MSU.
Murter currently isolates genetic material from organisms that live in the Great Salt Lake to understand biodiversity in such a unique and extreme saline environment. Organisms that live in super salty, hot or acidic environments are known as extremophiles. The least salty part of the Great Salt Lake is four times saltier than the ocean, but life grows there, Murter said.
“I’m used to Yellowstone extremophiles, where it’s all heat and acid,” Murter said. “Working with super-super saturated salty environments is cool.”
So is research in general, Murter said during a panel discussion in April, now designated as Student Research Month at MSU.
“Seeing something for the first time that no one has ever seen before is really exhilarating. It’s really cool,” Murter said.
Murter, who presented her Great Salt Lake research during MSU’s Student Research Celebration on April 19, was homeschooled until age 18, but she added classes at MSU-Billings to her schedule when the family moved to Billings. She then received a Lehwalder Presidential Scholarship, which allowed her to enroll at MSU in Bozeman.
“I really really like it. It feels good to be here,” Murter said.
The Presidential Scholarship is MSU’s most prestigious scholarship and recognizes academic excellence and demonstrated potential for leadership and service. Up to 20 are awarded every fall to freshmen entering MSU. Recipients win a full tuition waiver and a stipend renewable for up to four years. Murter received one of two Lehwalder Presidential Scholarships, which were made possible by a gift from David and Lois Lehwalder, who live in Montana’s Ruby River Valley.
Murter’s parents – Paul and Melody Murter -- did much to instill in her a love of learning, appreciation for nature and respect for others, Murter said.
With no cutoff time for their school year, the family took field trips in the summer, including one that took them down the Missouri River for a week to see what Lewis and Clark saw. On a 40-acre farm near Hardin, they raised cats, dogs, sheep, turkeys, chickens, cows and a horse. They bred and milked 15 Nubian goats, then turned the milk into soap and cheese. They entered the goats in parades and county fairs, and took them packing in the mountains. The goats’ names – including Ivanhoe, Hercules and Heidi – came from books the Murters were reading.
“I grew up with this passion for learning,” Murter said.
She is also wild about ballroom dancing and knitting, Murter said. She was a member of the Community Hustlers 4-H Club in Hardin, swam on a Hardin swim team and competed at a national rock climbing contest. She is a self-confessed social butterfly who is active in a Methodist group that meets at the Christus Collegium near campus. She helps with middle school youth groups. She eventually wants to attend graduate school to continue research or go to medical school and work in health care like both her parents.
In the meantime, Murter received $5,000 through the NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program to participate in the hot spring study. The overall study is funded by the NSF and its Chinese equivalent. The NSF is providing $3.75 million through a highly competitive PIRE grant. If the project succeeds, participants hope to expand the study to East Asia including Japan, the Philippines, Russia, Taiwan and Thailand.