Soil science students awarded Nielsen Graduate Research Assistantship


Scott Robinson and Joseph Old Elk are the first recipients of the Nielsen Graduate Research Assistantship in Land Resources and Environmental Sciences department in the College of Agriculture. The assistantship has been established by a gift from Emeritus Professor Dr. Jerry Nielsen and his wife LaVonne.

Scott RobinsonScott’s work with his advisor, Dr. Tony Hartshorn, the soil bioremediation potential of Agrobacterium tumefaciens—a specialized bacteria isolated by LRES Professor Tim McDermott from Madison River soils capable of detoxifying arsenic III, and enabling more vigorous plant growth. Because the bacterium is effective across a range of environments, Scott, Tony and Tim will be proposing it is a less expensive and more viable, long-term remediation option for arsenic-contaminated soils in the Butte area as well as the Deer Lodge Valley. Prior to coming to Montana State, Scott earned his Bachelor of Science in Forestry at Michigan Tech, then did his Master’s work in Forest Ecology and Management, including research on forest soils and soil mapping in Montana’s Custer National Forest.

Across much of Montana, mining activity has significantly altered soils, and yet little is known about dominant soil processes and how these may have been influenced by past and present mining activity. Scott Robinson hopes that a clearer picture of soils in the Butte area and Deer Lodge Valley will emerge from his research with Dr. Hartshorn. “We’ve altered these soils, and we need to better understand the most cost-effective means of restoring some of their functionality. That will require fundamental pedological insights.”

Joseph Old ElkJoseph and his advisor Dr. Stephanie Ewing are working with a multidisciplinary team from multiple MSU departments and Little Big Horn College to evaluate water contamination sources at Plenty Coups Spring in Chief Plenty Coups State Park. Plenty Coups Spring is highly culturally significant to the Crow Tribe and its contamination presents a health risk to the community. Their research will use water isotopes, solute concentrations and microbial community DNA sequencing to evaluate how soil structure and distribution influences water movement from soils through groundwater and surface waters, in order to better understand land use effects and contamination pathways to Plenty Coups Spring. Joseph, an MSU alumnus (B.S., Environmental Science—Soil & Water emphasis, 2012), has spent the past few years working as a hydrologist for the U.S. Forest Service. When he first came to MSU, Joseph held a summer research internship to monitor E. coli levels in the Little Bighorn River as part of the Bridges program, a partnership between MSU-Bozeman and Montana’s seven tribal colleges.

“Here in Montana so many people survive off of the range land and the groundwater, so it’s important that we understand these systems,” says Joseph Old Elk. Joseph and Dr. Ewing’s research will compare the soil structures in Montana’s Judith Basin, which in many ways mirror those in Plenty Coups State Park. Through this research Joseph hopes they will provide valuable information about land use, soil processes and water quality factors that will improve our understanding of groundwater contamination.