PABLO - Doug Stevens, head of the Salish Kootenai College Department of Life Sciences, couldn't help but tell his story about student Amy Stiffarm as SKC dedicated its new 4,300-square-foot laboratory wing to the Beaverhead Building on Friday.
Stevens and Stiffarm were assisting the University of Maine, which was investigating why sick seals were washing up on beaches on the East Coast and dying.
While in New England, they took the opportunity to visit Harvard University. As someone showed off the scientific lab equipment at one of the world's most prestigious universities to them, Stevens said, Stiffarm turned and blurted out, "Our stuff's better than that."
Well, Stiffarm said later as she helped show visitors around SKC's new laboratories, it was true.
"My favorite is this," she said as she came to a crimson-colored machine that's bigger than a toaster and smaller than a microwave.
A rotor gene, Stiffarm said. With it scientists can conduct real-time polymerase chain reactions.
"I've cloned DNA in here," said Stiffarm, a senior, who did so as part of a study of flowering rush, an invasive weed that is spreading along the shoreline of nearby Flathead Lake. "We call this our Corvette, it's so fancy."
"This is really state-of-the-art for what it's designed to do," said Marshall Bloom, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' Rocky Mountain Labs in Hamilton, and one of the speakers at Friday's dedication. "Increasingly our research relies on cellular and molecular biology, and here students can learn critical skills in the biomedical and biological sciences."
Now they'll do so under one roof. The $500,000 addition, paid for with Department of Education Title III construction funds, includes an environmental lab, and a cellular and molecular biology lab.
SKC's Life Sciences Department, which began in a converted garage on campus, previously had its labs and faculty spread out all over the campus.
The program initially offered a two-year associate's degree in general science.
In 2010, it was accredited to offer the first-ever molecular-based science degree at a tribal college.
Stiffarm, a member of the Gros Ventre Tribe and from the Montana Hi-Line community of Harlem, will become the first person ever to graduate from a tribal college with a bachelor's degree in it this spring.
She arrived at SKC with no clue what she wanted to pursue, Stiffarm said, and mostly because she wanted to play on the college's women's basketball team.
"I was not too motivated," she said. "My first year, I took liberal arts classes. Then I decided, ‘OK, what am I going to do?' "
She decided she wanted to study something that could have a positive effect on Indian people, and a career in the health field, possibly as a dietician, appealed to her.
To say her focus has changed over the last two years is an understatement.
"I want to teach and run a research lab," Stiffarm said. "Through research I think I can have a greater impact on Native American lives. But that will require a Ph.D. and postdoctoral training."
She is especially interested in epigenetics (which studies why certain genes trigger certain diseases, such as diabetes), nutranomics (how food affects genes) and epidemiology (considered the cornerstone of public health research).
That's what another of the dedication speakers, Kevin Howlett, wanted to hear.
Howlett, the director of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' Health Department, said Tribal Health now employs 40 different types of clinicians, with an average annual salary of $85,000, on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
"It's pretty neat that we have created 40 jobs here," he said, "and sad that so few of them are filled with Native Americans. It's my hope, in my lifetime, to see our young people aspiring to these positions. None of it will happen overnight. But having this lab here is a start."
Down the hall from where Stiffarm does her research in the cellular and molecular biology lab, sophomore Trey Saddler has been busy testing the mercury levels in humans and fish - and yes, those seals in Maine - in the new environmental chemistry lab.
The fish come from Flathead Lake, Yellowstone Lake and Lake Pend Oreille. Hair samples are voluntarily provided from women in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) who received lake trout donated from the twice-a-year Mack Days fishing contests.
"We wanted to discover if they had a higher concentration of mercury because they were eating fish, but the opposite was the case," Saddler said. "We found that 70 to 80 percent of them are eating very little seafood, because their mercury levels are very low."
In the same lab, student Jamie Cahoon has been helping the faculty incorporate into the SKC curriculum how willow bark can become acetylsalicylic acid.
"It's aspirin," Saddler explained. "It's a way of teaching chemistry that is culturally relevant to Native people."
Friday's dedication, which included a traditional blessing by SKC faculty member Corky Clairmont, lacked only one thing - its keynote speaker.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., was held up by a key vote Thursday night in Washington, D.C., on extending Federal Aviation Administration funding and, ironically, missed his flight back to Montana by five minutes.
Amy Croover, a field representative for the senator - and a Salish Kootenai College graduate who once was a student intern working in that converted garage where the Life Sciences Department started - read a letter from Tester instead.
Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.