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Blue Marble Biomaterials

Annabel Conger is a high school junior with a high interest in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.

Which areas? Neuroscience. Psychology. You name it. 

"I'm also interested in space, and so I'm trying to figure out what I want to do," said Conger, of Columbia Falls High School.

This week, she and other high school students across Montana are getting the chance to virtually connect with Missoula business leaders and academics who have careers in science.

Called STEMfest, the series of interactive presentations is a collaboration of Missoula College, We Are Montana in the Classroom, and Inspired Classroom.

"It's nice to be able to connect directly with these people instead of just watching them," Conger said. "You can interact and ask them questions, which is really nice."

In fact, she appreciated the first interactive session so much, she sat in on the next one. The presentations run Monday and Tuesday, and they're supported through a National Science Foundation grant, the University of Montana, and VisionNet.

"I'm really interested in NASA and space, so I decided to go to that one. And then I loved that one, so I asked if I could stay for the next one, even though I wasn't really signed up for it," Conger said in a phone call after her third session.

All told, Conger will be one of 500 students in the state to participate in the live sessions, and one of some 2,000 total exposed to the presentations, which are recorded.

Students from a variety of high schools are participating, from Big Sky High School and Sentinel High School in Missoula to Charles M. Russell High School in Great Falls, Belgrade High School and Browning High School.

***

Part of the national STEM Career Accelerator Day, the program hub is at a studio at 300 S. Third St. W. in Missoula.

Inside the studio, technology connects the presenters to high school classrooms, and different screens are set up to show the speakers their audience, their presentation and a view of the screen the students see.

At the 11 a.m. session, Alli DePuy of Inspired Classroom welcomed the students, and after a recorded message from Gov. Steve Bullock, she kicked off the talk by eliciting information about the students themselves, such as their interest in STEM.

"All right, Belgrade. Are you there? You are first," DePuy said.

Soon after, Michaela Davenport of Blue Marble Biomaterials and Franny Gilman, a graduate student at UM, started telling their stories. Davenport, a University of Montana graduate, has a bachelor of science in biochemistry and a bachelor of arts in cellular and molecular biology.

"I cold-called (Blue Marble) one day and said, 'Hey. I want to work for you,’ ” Davenport said.

She told the students that oil isn't only a source of fuel for cars, it's a big part of the flavors and fragrance industries. Blue Marble, on the other hand, has a mission to replicate the products, but to do so in a sustainable way.

Gilman got hooked on microbes after she learned an entirely different community could live on a person's right hand compared to the left.

"That just blew my mind," she said.

Then, she started learning about bacteria in soils, and her research eventually led her to look at climate change in Greenland and bacteria breathing out carbon dioxide.

"These tiny organisms run the world. Without them, we wouldn't be alive," Gilman said.

***

The presenters took questions, and Conger jumped into the conversation wanting to know more from Blue Marble about its work with algae biofuels.

"What system did you use?" Conger asked.

Davenport, an analytics manager, said a boat in Puget Sound collected algal blooms for fuel, and scientists learned something curious about the product along the way.

"Turns out that jet fuel is very similar to blueberry flavoring, and it is worth a lot more as blueberry flavoring," Davenport said.

The idea piqued another student's curiosity, and he wondered how the company would get its own version of blueberry on the shelves. Davenport told him a marketing team with a message was key.

"We have this exact same content. It does not fluctuate with the cost of oil. It is made sustainably," she said.

During the session, one teacher also quizzed the presenters. DeeAnn Mooney, a math teacher at Big Sky High School, wanted to understand how students could select a specialty in science, and also how they could get exposure to current projects underway locally.

"When a student is interested in a field of science, say, microbiology or chemistry, how do they decide which program in the university system to go into within that department? And how do they get involved in some of the research projects that are happening in our area?" Mooney asked.

In response, Davenport advised students to chase an idea that sounded interesting, or in her words, "find something that sounds cool." Then, see which professors are doing research on the topic, talk with them, take classes that will lead to that field and search for internships.

One opportunity at UM is the collaboration among departments, Gilman said.

Students do research in the field as well as in the lab, and she said each have their pros and cons. In the lab, working on DNA sequencing, she felt like she was on the cutting edge of science.

"It's fun to feel you're on the frontier of technology," Gilman said. 

***

STEMfest came about because Bradley Layton, associate professor and director of the Missoula College Energy Technology Program, got a National Science Foundation grant that's focused on connecting students with STEM.

The beauty of the program in Montana is it reaches many, many students, and especially ones in rural schools who would otherwise not be exposed, he said. In doing so, it offers value.

"Since the National Science Foundation is congressionally funded, they're somewhat in the spotlight for how we are spending our tax dollars," Layton said. "If they see, gosh, we are actually reaching the underserved, the rural, low-income parts of the country, I think they'll feel like it's money well spent, well justified."

Leslie Fant, a graduate coach and gifted and talented coordinator at Columbia Falls High School, was pleased with the response from her students and the opportunities the interactions offered.

"I just thought it was something that would really open our kids' perspectives to new ideas and new possibilities to careers," Fant said.

DePuy, who with Kathleen Dent owns Inspired Classroom, agreed that one ultimate goal is to bring more students to UM. However, she said it's also to share work UM is doing with the state, and to bring to students role models in STEM from all over Montana.

She said program organizers initially hoped to reach 300 students, but an estimated 2,000 will connect with the presentations. She hopes to tweak the festival and do it again in 2016 if possible.

"We were blown away by the response," she said.

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