On a walk around campus in the middle of winter, you’ll see more maintenance trucks driving around the Oval than students walking between classes or dorms, and deer outnumber the professors.
Such is life at the University of Montana between semesters, the space between fall and spring when only a few hardy souls keep campus churning — just enough to prevent the Hellgate Canyon winds from whipping it away entirely.
The Liberal Arts Building, the hub of UM’s humanities classrooms, is dark and empty, long halls of shut office doors usually filled with professors and students seeking advice. The winding, maze-like hallways tucked into the Social Sciences building seem to grow more narrow with each step, searching for any door that might lead to a sign of life.
But across campus, there’s a low buzz. It comes from underground, below the frozen turf and winter-worn sidewalks. The forward push of scientific progress doesn’t hibernate in the basement of the Biology Research Building, but keeps humming like the centrifuges that separate out the DNA from fish fins collected around the state.
Sally Painter, the lab manager in the Montana Conservation Genetics Lab, loses track of the cold weather down in her lab, where she’s helping to track hybridization of native and non-native fish across the state.
While she usually is working on tracking westslope cutthroat trout genetics, on this balmy day in early January she’s working on sauger, a native fish popular in eastern Montana, and how mixed it has gotten with non-native walleye.
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“They’re gigantic fish, they’re pretty fun. I mean, I’ve never fished for them. … Don’t tell anyone I’m not really a fisher,” she says as she ferries a case of test samples between her lab in the basement of one building to a central testing facility in the basement of the nearby Interdisciplinary Science Building.
Above where she works separating DNA from the rest of the organic matter, scores of cardboard boxes are piled across the tops of freezers and cabinets. In each box are hundreds of pieces of fins, preserved in ethanol, awaiting their turn to be tested. Each one is a marker along the evolutionary timeline of Montana’s fish and their genetic purity.
While short on an evolutionary scale, some of the fin samples have been preserved in the boxes for four decades. But some of them won’t see the light of day because of poor labeling, leaving them stuck in the basement until they’re eventually thrown away.
“There’s probably a hundred Cottonwood Creeks in Montana, so if it just says Cottonwood Creek, it doesn’t matter and we can’t use it,” Painter says. “Some people think the thing they’re working on is the most important thing anyone is doing, so of course we’re going to know exactly which Cottonwood Creek they’re talking about, but that’s not how it works.”
Painter has some help from grad students, who've already begun to return from the holidays to continue their research and breathe some life back into campus before the majority of students arrive.
As the week wears on, the mercury drops from the unseasonably warm temperatures to something more expected of mid-January Montana. But despite the cold, the warmth and bustle of the undergrad students trickles back onto campus, preparing for classes that start on Monday.
New Grizzlies leave the Bookstore with maroon T-shirts slung over their shoulders as their parents flip through folders of information about orientation. The commons of the University Center buzzes with new life and the food court, dark all winter, fills with staff preparing to open up after the weekend.
A few professors are back in their offices in the Liberal Arts and Social Sciences buildings, preparing for the week ahead when they’ll be welcoming back the next generation of scholars and renewing the life of the dormant campus.