As we now embark on a new school year at Montana State University it seems fitting to reflect on some of the things that make this university as interestingly unique as a fingerprint is to an individual. While there are many activities, disciplines, student enrollment figures and accomplishments that are common to virtually all American universities, there are some that particularly stand out at MSU which makes it unique.

I have been associated with MSU for nearly 60 years and have witnessed many changes at the university, but some things have, more or less, remained constant. Thanks to hard-driven faculty, in many disciplines, the overall research equipment package in most departments at MSU is generally up to date and first class. These instruments have been acquired by faculty grants with matching monies from private foundations or state funds.

What is most interesting is that, unlike Yale or Harvard, MSU undergraduate students are allowed hands on-access to these equipment items after appropriate training sessions. This has an amazing impact on their overall educational background. It also represents something that cannot be achieved by students at smaller, even highly ranked colleges and universities because they lack the research faculty to get the equipment grants in the first place. Clearly the result is a student graduating with hands-on experience with the modern tools and equipment in the field giving him/her an advantage in that discipline.

From early on, MSU has had a love affair in getting undergraduate students involved in research and creative activities. While in the 1960s these activities were done on an ad hoc basis, the process became more formalized about 25-30 years ago when we especially importuned the National Science Foundation to allow grant support to be allocated to undergraduate research.

The battle was short-lived and soon nearly all of the federal agencies permitted and even expected line-itemed budgets to contain support for undergraduate research. MSU has a long and very clear record of such activity and this has had a major impact on its graduates since it is now an expected activity requiring extra supportive time and energy by the faculty and students in virtually all departments.

MSU has been ranked number one in the U.S. by US News and World Report as an “adventure university.” Basically, this ranking is related to the fact that the university is located in a wonderful natural place and has traditionally taken advantage of its environment in virtually all respects from recreation to education.

The invention of the snowmobile and the first discovery of the world’s first dinosaur nesting sites here in Montana nicely illustrate this point. I rather like this designation since adventure is what education should be all about. This goes as much towards learning how to ski as participating in a science-based field trip.

The creative activities of the MSU faculty have generally been reflective of inquiries that have been totally unique and not necessarily mainstream and “me-to science.” As an example, many years ago the first thermophilic bacterium isolated from a Yellowstone hot spring was done by an MSU professor, Ken Temple, and considered by Science magazine to be an impossible discovery since the reviewers thought that nothing grows at near boiling temperatures.

He was later proven correct and Kerry Mullis received a Nobel Prize for his work on the DNA polymerase reaction that required Ken’s organism for the key enzyme needed in the reaction. This enzyme reaction is the key to modern molecular biology and genetics. Likewise, Drs. Reed and Jutila started the first colony of germ-free nude mice at any university in the U.S. Their work showed the importance of the thymus gland in the immune response and now there is an entire field of study in this area. I feel that being in a totally novel area of inquiry is both interesting and exciting but does require much work to convince others that the path is worth taking.

In all fields of endeavor, MSU has representative faculty who ask interesting and worthwhile questions and then proceed to develop those ideas. Numerous examples can be cited in many disciplines across the MSU campus that support this finding.

Traditionally, MSU has sought to be the best servant to all Montanans, but cultural differences seemed to preclude the involvement of the Native American communities, which represent about 7% of the state’s population. Thus, in the early 60s there were less than a handful of Native Americans enrolled at MSU. Then the defining moment came with President Bill Tietz, in the late 70s who had been serving on an NIH panel for research at minority universities, thought that the time was right for MSU to be a sponsor of research for Native Americans in Montana and it ultimately was first university in the nation to do so.

We were successful and the long-term program required cooperation and assistance from the Native American colleges, as well as encouragement to students to be involved in research at MSU. Montana now has more Native American community colleges than any other state and nearly 800 Indian students enrolled at MSU. This thread of interest at the MSU president’s office level has continued through several administrations with the crowning achievement of what will be the new Indian center on the campus.

Finally, MSU has not had the moniker of a drinking or party university. Nor has it ever been so politically involved with issues resulting in the destruction of public property. This is exemplified by hundreds of outrageous and destructive demonstrations on many college campuses during the Vietnam war. Instead, the student body at MSU did things that were unique and constructive such as allowing the entire student body access to free telegram service to Sen. Mike Mansfield’s office resulting in the longest telegram that he had ever received. Undoubtedly, this had some effect on the longest term leader of the Senate in U.S. history.

I am proud of MSU and hope that its future will be as constructive and productive as its past.

Gary Strobel is an emeritus professor of plant sciences at Montana State University.