At 20, Lydia Anderson never expected to be doing scientific research that might help hungry people in Africa.

Yet the Montana State University student found herself working with a plant pathology professor, David Sands, researching ways to use natural fungus to attack the "witch weed" that strangles African farmers' corn crops.

Working with researchers in Kenya, they found a fungus that could be transported on toothpicks, grown on cooked rice and put on the ground to inhibit weeds and help farmers roughly double their corn yield.

"Before I started this, I never thought I would do something that could impact world health," said Anderson, an organismal biology major from Missoula.

She was one of more than 250 MSU students who on Thursday presented the results of their research or creative projects at MSU's annual Student Research Celebration. Topics ranged from earthquakes to epilepsy, dinosaurs to diabetes.

Francisco Velasco, an Iraq War veteran and psychology major from Carlsbad, Calif., interviewed 84 military veterans at MSU about sleep deprivation in combat zones, to find out whether it increased the chances of developing post-traumatic stress disorder.

He found after three days of sleep deprivation, soldiers did become more susceptible. When he served in the infantry in 2006, Velasco said, soldiers were so sleep deprived, they'd put thorns or nettles under their chins to prick themselves awake if they nodded off.

David Runolfsson Jr., a photography major from Iceland, did a photo essay documenting his country's conflicting attitudes about whaling. Runolfsson displayed photos showing traditional whale hunters and a whale-meat restaurateur, as well as whale-watching tourist businesses.

Krista Brundridge, a paleontology major from Chicago, talked about going to China to study dinosaur eggs. She's going to present her findings at two conferences, experience that's helping her stand out as she applies to graduate schools.

"It's much more fun to do something with science than just read about it," she said.

Laura Villegas, an MSU political science student from Bogota, Colombia, researched how the discovery of natural resources -- such as coltan in Colombia -- constitutes a major challenge for policymakers in developing countries.

Coltan is a high-value, black ore used in electronics, including mobile phones. It is also mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where exports revenues helped fund the civil war. Her research considered the question, "How can the government of Colombia avoid the resource curse and responsibly transform coltan-generated wealth into sustainable social and economic development?"

Several students who went to Kenya with MSU's chapter of Engineers Without Borders presented what they'd learned while helping install clean water wells in rural villages.

Johnathan Rios, a sociology student, surveyed villagers to find how far they're willing to walk for clean water. Eric Dietrich, a civil engineering student, investigated village attitudes that make it harder to accomplish change, such as the failure of past development projects, grinding poverty and a profound lack of empowerment, a feeling that white outsiders will "save" the day.

Noelle Carpenter, a sophomore from Billings, and David Driscoll, a mechanical engineering major from Missoula, discussed their work on fuel cells.

"I love doing research here," Carpenter said. "It makes you understand (ideas learned in class). You actually have to use it for a reason."

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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