MSU research hits record high, with College of Ag leading the way
By Marshall Swearingen — Montana State University tallied an all-time high for total research expenditures in 2019-2020, totaling $167 million.
The total marks an 8% increase over the previous year’s total expenditures of $154 million reported to the National Science Foundation, and the seventh year in a row that research expenditures have topped $100 million, according to Jason Carter, MSU’s vice president for research, economic development and graduate education .
"Research, creativity and innovation are fundamental to our land-grant mission, and this record year of scholarship shows that MSU faculty and researchers are excelling on that front," Carter said.
According to Carter, the past year showed balanced growth in sponsored research grants and contract expenditures across MSU's research entities, reflecting how the university's research activity is distributed across a range of fields, including the four Grand Challenges identified in MSU’s strategic plan, “Choosing Promise.”
The College of Agriculture recorded the largest figure, $44 million, which represented a 4% increase in sponsored research from the prior year. The Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering had nearly $20 million in sponsored research, a 9% increase. The College of Letters and Sciences also recorded a 9% increase from the prior year, with expenditures of $18.5 million. Several research centers and institutes also notched record sponsored research grants and contracts, led by more than $15 million at MilTech, $7.5 million at TechLink, $3.6 million at Montana’s IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE), and $3.3 million at MSU Extension.
MSU is classified as R1 in the Carnegie Classification for "very high research activity," making it one of only 131 universities nationwide in that category and the only one in the five-state region of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and North and South Dakota — and one of only two nationally also classified as Very High Undergraduate enrollment.
A total of 585 faculty and professional staff served as principal investigators or co-investigators on grant projects, with a total of 1,268 grant proposals submitted over the past year. Awarded grants and other funding totaled $100 million. This includes the sum of grants and contracts won by MSU faculty during the year but which will be expended over time frames ranging from months to years.
Scholarship highlights from the past year include:
- Researchers in MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering won $6 million from the National Science Foundation to develop coatings that could prevent metal-eating microbes from causing billions of dollars in damage each year to oil pipelines and other infrastructure.
- Regents Professor Neil Cornish, director of the MSU eXtreme Gravity Institute, joined an international group of scientists in publishing their observations of a black hole colliding with a mystery object 800 million light years from Earth.
- The discovery by researchers in MSU's College of Agriculture of a previously unidentified microbe that lives symbiotically with the wheat stem sawfly — which causes hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to wheat crops each year — could lead to new ways of combatting the pest.
- Three MSU researchers — David Ayala in mathematics, Mark Jankauski in mechanical engineering and Devon Orme in earth sciences — won the NSF's most prestigious award for early-career scientists, with each receiving funding averaging more than $500,000.
- Engineering researcher Chelsea Heveran's proposal for exploring a new generation of recyclable, adaptable building materials was selected from more than 800 entries as a winner of NSF's 2026 Idea Machine Competition.
- An interdisciplinary MSU research team won $3 million from the National Institutes of Health for a five-year project to explore the capabilities of a new, miniaturized way to simulate and study the gut's immune system, with potential for improving oral vaccines and other medicines.
- Under a $10.5 million Air Force contract made possible by MSU's newly completed Applied Research Lab, MSU researchers will assist local high-tech company S2 Corp. with developing next-generation optics technology.
- With a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation, a team led by MSU microbiology researcher Eric Boyd is exploring microbial life that inhabits Yellowstone National Parks underground thermal features and how it interacts with subsurface disturbances like earthquakes.
- MSU's Department of Education and partners received $6.2 million for a mostly-online program to recruit, train and mentor dozens of high-quality educators to work in underserved, rural areas of Montana.
- Supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, Ian van Coller, a professor of photography in the School of Film and Photography in MSU’s College of Arts and Architecture, photographed an Antarctic research crew retrieving the oldest-known ice samples on the planet as part of a project to document the science of paleoecology.
- The NIH awarded a five-year, $10.7 million grant to MSU's Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity to continue its mission to reduce health disparities in Native and rural communities through community-based participatory research.
- As part of a project funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration, MSU’s 406 Labs Business Accelerator, a program at the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship, received $110,000 to provide education and mentorship for students and faculty who are launching business startups.
- Computer science researcher Laura Stanley won a $1.2 million NSF grant to help improve the digital interfaces that connect workers in manufacturing and other industry sectors with automated machinery.
- With a $2.8 million federal grant, MSU's College of Nursing created the Rural Ready Nurse Practitioner program to help address the shortage of shortage of primary and mental health care providers in rural areas of Montana.
- MSU microbiology researcher Blake Wiedenheft won a prestigious $2.5 million NIH grant explore the scientific frontier bacterial immune systems such as CRISPR, which is being repurposed to cure genetic diseases.
- Researchers Lindsey Albertson in the Department of Ecology and Geoffrey Poole in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences were awarded a $1.2 million NSF grant to study how caddisflies influence stream health.
The coronavirus pandemic challenged several MSU researchers with relevant expertise to retool their equipment and knowledge to provide aid, Carter noted. A device normally used in Michelle Flenniken's lab to detect the genetic signatures of bee viruses was moved to Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital, where she helped train technicians to perform up to 60 much-needed COVID-19 tests per day. Wiedenheft helped pioneer the sampling of municipal wastewater as a method of gauging community infection rates for the virus, with microbiology researcher Seth Walk applying the methods as part of the Gallatin City-County Health Department's surveillance strategy for West Yellowstone, Big Sky and Three Forks.
During the past year, four undergraduates involved with MSU research won the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s premier scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering, bringing MSU's total number of Goldwater winners to 78. Three MSU engineering alumni drew upon their undergraduate research experiences to win NSF Graduate Research Fellowships.