UMW Students Collaborate on Local Ecology Research

Bridger Bertram and Paul Helfrich, seniors at Montana Western, collaborated on an intensive research project during the 2019-20 academic year with a plan to present at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) this past spring in Bozeman which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Bertram is from Salmon, Idaho, and graduated May 9, 2020, with a bachelor’s degree in Quantitative Ecology, including a minor in Statistics and Data Analysis. Helfrich, from Mammoth, Wyoming, played football for Montana Western and graduated this spring with a bachelor’s degree in Ecology.

Montana Western graduate, Bridger Bertram.

Helfrich and Bertram prepared to share their research project titled “The Temporal and Spatial Distribution of Tetracapsuloides bryosalmonae.” Bertram explained in an interview that Tetracapsuloides bryosalmonae is a microscopic parasite that causes Proliferative Kidney Disease in many fish species found in Montana, including Brown Trout, Rainbow Trout, and Mountain Whitefish.

They used environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling and the Polymerase Chain Reactions (PCR) method to detect the presence of the parasite in the Beaverhead and Big Hole Rivers. While working collectively, they also looked for patterns that correlated the strength of the DNA signal that they were able to detect in terms of the location and timing of when the sample was taken in the rivers to learn more about the parasite.

Paul Helfrich, a 2020 graduate of Montana Western, conducting research in the lab.

Helfrich said, “This project was immensely rewarding because we are truly making progress towards understanding a very mysterious organism. The issues that this parasite causes in fish populations are very dependent on water temperature, so as global climate change progresses, the issues associated with it may become more severe for the fish in our rivers. It’s important that we understand the organism and its life cycle if we are to address the problem associated with it.”

The project required extensive time in the lab. “I was in the biology lab most days during the week. Lab work, like all rewarding things, is both enjoyable and challenging,” said Bertram.

“Dr. Mike Gilbert provided all the reagents we needed for lab work, wrote grants to obtain new lab equipment, assisted us in revising our abstract for submission for NCUR, trained us on eDNA sampling, DNA extraction, and PCR, helped us analyze PCR results, and also bought us pizza,” shared Bertram about the extensive learning and time he, Helfrich, and their mentor invested into the research.

Helfrich said, “Dr. Gilbert took the time to build a much deeper understanding of molecular techniques that we use as well as the larger ecological processes at work. He was always sure that I would succeed and encouraged me to persevere.”

He continued, “Additionally, my experience in molecular and microbiology with Dr. Michael Morrow was extremely important in becoming familiar with practical applications and the theory behind the lab work. My advisor, Dr. Wendy Ridenour, has been extremely important in guiding me through the past four years.”

After graduation, Bertram is researching potential graduate school options to continue his education and research. Helfrich is enrolling in Montana Tech’s new Ecological Restoration master’s program for the upcoming fall 2020 semester.

The University of Montana Western is the only public four-year university in the country to offer Experience One, where students take one course at a time for 18 days, take a short break and then move on to their next course. Experiential learning opportunities, including conferences, internships, and research projects, provide students at Montana Western with real world experiences and professional connections in their fields of study.

For more information about the University of Montana Western and Experience One, visit umwestern.edu or call 877-683-7331.

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