They developed successful new varieties of wheat for Montana farmers and helped African villagers fight malaria. They inspired college students and helped young women succeed in traditionally male fields. Some even came up with money-saving ideas for Montana State University.

Thirty-three top teachers, research scientists and staff members won awards Thursday at MSU’s Spring Convocation for their contributions to students, to science and to the state of Montana.

The event, held in the Procrastinator Theater after a reception featuring chocolate truffles and caviar, felt a bit like the Oscars. Each winner got a plaque, applause, a moment in the spotlight and a chance to say a few words. Several awards included $1,500 to $2,500 prizes. The ceremony even ran an hour long.

Jessi Smith, associate professor of psychology, jokingly called the event “an Academy Awards of sorts.” Smith, who won a faculty excellence award, is in charge of a $3.4 million Advance grant from the National Science Foundation to transform MSU by bringing more women into science and engineering. She said in junior high she wanted to become a computer scientist, but there were so few girls in her computer class she gave up and thought of becoming an actress. Now she researches stereotypes that pose roadblocks in people’s lives.

Finishing out the Hollywood theme, Laura Humberger won the first Rufus T. Firefly award, a new Professional Council award named for Groucho Marx’s character in the 1933 movie “Duck Soup.” Humberger, associate vice president for financial services, won for proposing MSU eliminate a $10 fee charged to students who pay tuition online, thus saving thousands of students the hassle of standing in long lines and saving money for MSU, which was able to register more students without hiring more employees to take payments by hand.

David Lageson, a professor of geology and Earth sciences, won two awards – a provost’s excellence in outreach award and an MSU president’s excellence in teaching award. Lageson carried MSU’s flag to Mount Everest last year as chief scientist on an educational expedition and worked with National Geographic to inspire the next generation of scientists, MSU President Waded Cruzado said.

After 32 years teaching at MSU, Lageson said, “I’m very emotional about this award.” Lageson presented Cruzado with a Bobcat flag from the expedition and gave silk scarves that had been blessed by Tibetan monks to Cruzado and Provost Martha Potvin.

Two other recipients of the president’s teaching awards were Florence Dunkel, professor of plant sciences and pathology, who has led MSU students to help a village in Mali eradicate malaria and to serve Montana Indian tribes, and Christina Hayes, a math adjunct instructor, known for teaching math in creative ways.

Research scientists Phil Bruckner and Luther Talbert were honored for breeding new varieties of wheat that have been licensed to international seed companies and have been planted on millions of acres.

The complete list of awards is on MSU’s website.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at or 582-2633.