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Catching up with past Science Fair winners

And announcing our winners for 2009

Since 1997, the Berkeley Pit Education Committee has given awards to area students competing in annual Montana Tech Science and Engineering Fairs who use their projects to explore important topics related to the Berkeley Pit and mine waste cleanup technologies.

At the 2009 fair, three East Middle School students received awards for Pit-related projects: Jessica Robertson for her project on cementation, Katie Metesh for her project on geothermal heating, and Robin Gammons for her project on mining copper from Butte’s groundwater. Many past winners have gone on to pursue careers in science and technology.

Kels Phelps won his first Berkeley Pit awards in 2001 and 2002. Kels went on to win a Berkeley Pit award again in 2006 for his project on the metabolites produced by a microbe growing in the unique environment of Silver Bow Creek.Kels Phelps won his first Berkeley Pit awards in 2001 and 2002. Kels went on to win a Berkeley Pit award again in 2006 for his project on the metabolites produced by a microbe growing in the unique environment of Silver Bow Creek. His research involved isolating a compound produced by the microbe and analyzing its potential for medical applications. Kels was able determine the compound’s molecular structure, and found that it displayed activity in inhibiting enzyme reactions associated with various disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, and cancer metastasis.

A double-major in philosophy and religion at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, Kels is currently completing a semester studying abroad in Trinidad and Tobago. He feels that his experience doing research in the Butte area has served him well.

“The opportunities that I was able to take advantage of, specifically due to the Berkeley Pit and the Upper Clark Fork, provided excellent intellectual stimulation and helped me prepare for college.”

Emily Munday won Berkeley Pit awards in 2000 and 2003 for her projects studying mining’s impact on Silver Bow Creek using aquatic insects as bioindicators of stream health.Emily Munday won Berkeley Pit awards in 2000 and 2003 for her projects studying mining’s impact on Silver Bow Creek using aquatic insects as bioindicators of stream health. She delved deeper into Silver Bow Creek water quality by analyzing parameters such as pH; conductivity; copper concentrations in sediments, insects and water; and nutrient levels.

“I ultimately learned that copper mining has negative impacts on stream health, something that many Buttians know,” Emily stated when asked to reflect on her experience with the science fair. “However, I also learned that after remediation, Silver Bow Creek is recovering and can someday be very similar to what it was historically – before Butte’s mining days. If we continue to care for it, and locate and block or treat ongoing pollution sources like metals runoff from the hill and eutrophication from the waste water treatment plant, Silver Bow Creek will recover and be the trout fishery it once was.”

Emily currently attends Boston University, where she is busy earning a degree in marine science. As part of her studies, she traveled to Belize for a coral reef study. Last summer she interned with the Water Environment Federation at the national headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, helping with the national Stockholm Junior Water Prize competition. This summer, she has a research grant to assess coral reef health in marine protected areas in the Caribbean. She also swims for the BU Terriers, which she describes as her “20-hour per week part-time job.”

“Studying impacted areas in my hometown and learning that there is hope for recovery made me want to use science to protect beautiful places. I am studying marine science because the ocean is an important source of biodiversity, food and oxygen production, and beauty. I want to help people learn about it so we can save it.”

Alexandra Antonioli was a recipient of a Berkeley Pit award in 2002 for her project investigating whether modification of a native Berkeley Pit microbe could be used to enhance the organism’s ability to bind heavy metals. Alexandra Antonioli was a recipient of a Berkeley Pit award in 2002 for her project investigating whether modification of a native Berkeley Pit microbe could be used to enhance the organism’s ability to bind heavy metals. Researchers at Ohio State University had modified an algal strain so that it could bind metals such as cadmium from contaminated soil. Alexandra’s goal was to insert the same gene used to modify the algae into a native Berkeley Pit yeast species. Initial results with the newly modified yeast were promising, but more research is needed to determine the full impact of the organism.

Alexandra graduated from Yale University in 2007 with a B.S. degree in Biophysics and Biochemistry. After graduating she worked full-time as a research assistant in Professor Scott Strobel’s laboratory for two years. Her research investigated an RNA structural motif called the K-turn in the Azoarcus group I intron. This type of advanced research involved structural biochemistry and crystallography.

In August 2009, Alexandra will enter the University of Colorado’s Medical Scientist Training Program where she will earn dual M.D. / Ph.D. degrees. She looks forward to being closer to Montana and is excited for a career in academia as a physician scientist.

“My interest in research started with science fair and the research with the Berkeley Pit. I was fortunate to find mentors like Professor Andrea Stierle and Professor Grant Mitman who encouraged and helped me gain valuable research skills. I think that their excitement about research helped inspire me to study science and continue with research throughout college.”

Today Alexandra considers the Berkeley Pit from a scientific perspective. “As a scientist, I view the Berkeley Pit as a place for exploration and discoveries. Andrea and Don Stierle’s lab has shown that numerous compounds can be isolated from Berkeley Pit waters that have potential antibiotic and anticancer properties. This type of research is extremely challenging because it may take years to isolate, develop, and characterize one compound. However, the rewards of finding a new compound with the drug potential to help thousands of lives are immeasurable.”

To describe her hometown to people in Boston, Emily still refers to the Berkeley Pit with a kind of stubborn pride. “I think that when it is cleaned up, we still need to remember what it looked like so we can use it as an example of how humans can change and destroy a landscape so we don’t make similar environmental mistakes in the future.”

Kels offers a similar view of the Pit, acknowledging the good and the bad. “I think that the Berkeley Pit is the result of some very serious mistakes, and I am a hearty proponent of efforts to contain the damage, and eventually try to restore it, in some way, to some semblance of naturality. I also find it very encouraging to know that, even from such a huge environmental crisis as this, there are positive discoveries that can be made. The compound isolated in my 2006 research doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the potential for novelty that lies in the Berkeley Pit. As long as we have to live with it, we must continue to use it in this way.”

In addition to the regular staff of scientists and undergraduate assistants at Montana Tech, the Stierles, at center, have also worked with local high school and middle school students over the years on science fair projects focused on Berkeley Pit microbes. The realization that a compound that could help cure cancer could be lurking in the Berkeley Pit is thrilling. They like to think that their microbes could be some of the richest "ore" ever mined from the Richest hill on Earth. Photo courtesy of Lisa Kunkel, The Montana Standard.

Bioprospecting in the Berkeley Pit


The search for valuable natural products from a most unnatural world

by Andrea and Don Stierle

In addition to the regular staff of scientists and undergraduate assistants at Montana Tech, the Stierles, at center, have also worked with local high school and middle school students over the years on science fair projects focused on Berkeley Pit microbes. The realization that a compound that could help cure cancer could be lurking in the Berkeley Pit is thrilling. They like to think that their microbes could be some of the richest "ore" ever mined from the Richest hill on Earth. Photo courtesy of Lisa Kunkel, The Montana Standard.
In addition to the regular staff of scientists and undergraduate assistants at Montana Tech, the Stierles, at center, have also worked with local high school and middle school students over the years on science fair projects focused on Berkeley Pit microbes. The realization that a compound that could help cure cancer could be lurking in the Berkeley Pit is thrilling. They like to think that their microbes could be some of the richest “ore” ever mined from the Richest hill on Earth. Photo courtesy of Lisa Kunkel, The Montana Standard.

Most people think of the Berkeley Pit as a large toxic waste lake, an unfortunate relic of Butte’s proud mining heritage. Don and Andrea Stierle, however, see the Pit as something more. Like most of their Natural Products Chemistry colleagues, the Stierles could be searching the rainforests of Brazil or combing Caribbean reefs for plants and microorganisms that could yield promising new drug leads. Instead they are exploring the uncharted expanses of the Berkeley Pit, which they see as a unique ecosystem with treasures beyond the vast amounts of copper dredged from this site for over 25 years.

Anyone living in Butte is probably familiar with the history of the Pit and its current status as a mine waste lake. The Superfund strategy will keep the 36 billion gallons of acidic, metal-rich water from ever escaping the Pit. Until 1995, however, little attention was paid to the biological aspects of this bleak ecosystem because it was considered too toxic to support life.

Andrea and Don Stierle set out to change that belief as they launched a new type of exploration in Berkeley Pit Lake – mining for microbes. And not just any microbes – they were looking for microbes that could produce new compounds with real drug potential.
The Stierles are not new to drug discovery. For the past twenty years they have looked for anti-AIDS compounds in Bermudian sponge bacteria, anticancer agents in the bark of redwood trees, and in 1993 found a fungal source for taxol, an important anticancer compound previously isolated exclusively from the bark of the elusive yew tree. Andrea even had the fungus named after her. But they had never before explored acid mine waste as a source of the next anticancer agent.

Since 1996 the Stierles, and their team of undergraduate researchers, have isolated and studied a collection of over fifty culturable bacteria and fungi from one of the more extreme environments in the lower 48 states.

The Stierles believed that this unusual environment would harbor unusual microbes, which could in turn produce novel chemistry that can be exploited in many ways. The organisms themselves may also be effective bioremediators of the wastewater in which they grow. Their metabolic by-products could have a tremendous impact on the overall ecology of the Pit Lake system by raising the pH of the Pit water, by providing nutrients for other heterotrophs, and by adsorbing metal contaminants. Thus, the research potential of this site is tremendous, and may represent a real renaissance for a geographic area characterized by years of mining, milling, and smelting waste.

The Stierle lab uses a unique tool chest for their “mining venture”. Armed with chromatography columns, signal transduction enzyme inhibition assays, a series of antimicrobial testing schemes, and a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer assay, they are literally mining this unnatural system for microbes that produce bioactive natural products.

Microorganisms have been an important source of anticancer agents and antibiotics agents of all types since the discovery of penicillin in the 1930’s and 40’s. Over the years pathogenic microbes develop resistance to widely used drugs and newer more effective antibiotics must be found.

The challenge of Natural Products Chemists like the Stierles is to find new populations of microbes and to effectively isolate compounds with desired biological activity from these organisms. The Stierles have already isolated several exciting new secondary metabolites from the microbial inhabitants of this unusual ecological niche. These compounds include a migraine preventative and several compounds with promising anticancer potential. They have also found an intriguing fungus that appears to pull metals from the Pit water itself.

How would you actually find new bioactive compounds from a Berkeley Pit microbe? It is a complex process. First, the Stierles isolated microbes from water and sediment samples and established them in pure cultures. Each microbe was grown in a series of small liquid culture broths to provide adequate biological material for testing and analysis. This is not an ecological study so the Stierles are not limited to nutrient broths that mimic conditions in the Pit Lake. Instead they use a variety of carbon and nitrogen sources and determine which growth conditions yield the most active natural products. To determine the activity of the compounds produced by their microbes the Stierles must first thoroughly extract each microbial culture using different organic solvents. These extracts are then tested using a series of bioassays or biological tests that can determine if they have potential as antibacterial, antifungal, anticancer, or immune system modulating agents. These tests are used to guide the isolation of pure active compounds from the complex microbial extracts.

Each extract is first tested against a suite of human pathogenic microorganisms, including Staphylococcus aureus, and Streptococcus pneumoniae. In collaboration with Montana State University researcher Allen Harmsen the Stierles are also looking for compounds that show activity against Pneumocystis carinii, causative agent of Pneumocystis carinii Pneumonia, an indicator disease of AIDS patients, and Aspergillus, causative agent of aspergillosis, both of great concern in immunocompromised individuals.

To find compounds with anticancer activity the Stierles use a complex series of signal transduction enzyme assays that identify specific enzyme inhibitors. Inhibition of key enzymes can be an indication that a compound could block the initiation or spreading of cancer cells. In collaboration with University of Montana researcher Keith Parker the Stierles are also looking for compounds with antimigraine activity. The first compound they isolated from their Pit microbe collection showed promise as a migraine preventative.

Looking for active natural products in this unnatural world has been exciting and challenging for the Stierle Research Lab. Although their first four years of work were completely self-funded they have been able to attract support from the US Geological Survey and from the National Institutes of Health. Through their funding they have been able to create new jobs in Butte, hiring two research scientists and a host of talented undergraduates to help them with their work. They have also worked with very talented and hard-working Butte High School students Alexandra Antonioli and Kels Phelps, and East Middle School student Randi Phelps whose ongoing Science Fair projects focused on Berkeley Pit microbes. And Andrea has found that after 26 years at Montana Tech, it has been nice to actually earn a real salary for all of the work she does in the lab. But it isn’t the funding that keeps the Stierles looking for new compounds. It is the thrill of discovery, the realization that a compound that could help cure cancer could be lurking in the Berkeley Pit. They like to think that their microbes could be some of the richest “ore” ever mined from the Richest Hill on Earth.

Meet the 2006 Science Fair Award Winners

The Berkeley Pit Education Committee awarded $50 savings bonds to five grade school students and a $250 bond to one high school student who competed in the 2006 Montana Tech Science and Engineering Fair. Each of their Fair projects (see below) explored important topics related to the Berkeley Pit and mine waste cleanup technologies. Congratulations to everyone who competed in the Fair, and keep up the good work! Remember, the Committee will offer awards again at the 2007 Science Fair, and students are encouraged to choose projects related to the Pit and mine waste cleanup for next year’s competition.

Kels Phelps Senior, Butte High School  Using Cysteinyl Aspartate-Specific Protease 1 and Matrix Metalloproteinase 3 as Vehicles for Tracking Activity and Isolating Medicinal Compounds from Extremophilic Trichoderma Virens Found in the Silver Bow Creek SystemKels Phelps
Senior, Butte High School
Using Cysteinyl Aspartate-Specific Protease 1 and Matrix Metalloproteinase 3 as Vehicles for Tracking Activity and Isolating Medicinal Compounds from Extremophilic Trichoderma Virens Found in the Silver Bow Creek System

 

 

Randi Phelps 8th grade, East Middle School  Is there an Antibiotic Lurking in the Berkeley Pit? Phase IIIRandi Phelps
8th grade, East Middle School
Is there an Antibiotic Lurking in the Berkeley Pit? Phase III

 

 

 

Robert Siler 7th grade, Ramsey School  The Loading of Zinc into High Ore CreekRobert Siler
7th grade, Ramsey School
The Loading of Zinc into High Ore Creek

 

 

 

Molly O'Brien 6th grade, West Elementary School  Spreading Metals?Molly O’Brien
6th grade, West Elementary School
Spreading Metals?

 

 

 

Malea Dunne and Dana Anderson 6th grade, Fred Moodry Middle School (Anaconda)  Extracting Copper From WaterMalea Dunne and Dana Anderson 6th grade, Fred Moodry Middle School (Anaconda)  Extracting Copper From WaterMalea Dunne and Dana Anderson
6th grade, Fred Moodry Middle School (Anaconda)
Extracting Copper From Water

 

 

 

(Note: There were no 5th grade projects about the Berkeley Pit this year so we awarded two for 6th grade.)

Butte Students Explore Pit Clean Up, Win National Awards

Two Butte students – Alexandra Antonioli and Kels Phelps – have taken their school science projects to the highest levels of success. After claiming local awards from the Pit Committee, their impressive work has earned national awards and scholarships for their continuing education.

Alexandra, a Butte High senior, has spent most of her educational career working on science fair projects relating to solutions and issues regarding the Berkeley Pit. When she’s not swimming and playing piano, she’s working on her main project titled, “An Investigation of the Remediation of Berkeley Pit Water Using Genetically Modified Extremophilic Yeast”. Although it’s quite complicated, Alexandra’s simplified explanation is the project deals with evaluating microorganisms and their ability to sequester the complex mineral compounds contained within the water. The end result is the potential detoxification of Pit water. For her work, Alexandra has received a full scholarship ($78,000) to Drexel University for microbiology, as well as numerous other honors, including awards from the Navy, the University of Montana and Montana Tech.

Kels, a Butte High freshman, has also concentrated on microbiology and the Berkeley Pit for his science fair project. The project, “Do Microbes Growing in Unique Ecological Niches Contain Compounds with Redeemable Medicinal Value,” was one of 40 finalists (out of 60,000 nominations) in the Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge in Washington, D.C. in October 2002. At this national competition, Kels won a special award for leadership, a physics award, and a scholarship to attend an aviation camp in Wisconsin next summer. Kels says his project was looking for a possible medicine from a fungus that grows in the Berkeley Pit. Tested for its ability to fight cancer and five types of infections, it was discovered that this fungus was a possible anti-cancer agent and lethal to Staphylococcus aureus.

Others Butte students are encouraged to develop projects related to mining or the Berkeley Pit for the 2003 Science Fair next spring at Montana Tech.

Meet Our 2002 Science Fair Winners


PitWatch Issue Volume 7, Number 1

The Committee awarded $50 savings bonds to the four grade-school students and a $250 bond to the high school student. Their science fair projects all explored important topics related to the Berkeley Pit. Congratulations to everyone who competed in the Fair, and keep up the good work! Remember, the Committee will offer awards again at the 2003 Science Fair, and students are encouraged to choose projects related to the Pit for next year’s competition.

John Metesh 5th grade, Kennedy "Can Berkeley Pit Water Be Good For You?"John Metesh
5th grade, Kennedy
“Can Berkeley Pit Water Be Good For You?”

 

 

Cara Patton 6th grade, Margaret Leary "Horseshoe Bend Water and Soap"Cara Patton
6th grade, Margaret Leary
“Horseshoe Bend Water and Soap”

 

 

Abby Roberts 7th grade, Chief Joseph Middle School (Bozeman) "Solar Evaporator For Mine"Abby Roberts
7th grade, Chief Joseph Middle School (Bozeman)
“Solar Evaporator For Mine”

 

 

Kels Phelps  8th grade, East Middle School "Do Microbes Growing In Unique Ecological Niches Contain Compounds With Redeemable Medicinal Value?"Kels Phelps
8th grade, East Middle School
“Do Microbes Growing In Unique Ecological Niches Contain Compounds With Redeemable Medicinal Value?”

 

 

Alexandra Antonioli  Junior, Butte High "An Investigation of the Remediation of Berkeley Pit Water Using Genetically Modified Extremophilic Yeast"Alexandra Antonioli
Junior, Butte High
“An Investigation of the Remediation of Berkeley Pit Water Using Genetically Modified Extremophilic Yeast”

Meet Our 2001 Science Fair Winners

PitWatch Issue Volume 6, Number 1

The Committee awarded $50 savings bonds to four grade school students. Their science fair projects all explored important topics related to the Berkeley Pit. The Committee would also like to recognize Butte High sophomore Alexandra Antonioli, who won second place at the North Central Region 2 Science and Engineering Fair in Great Falls, MT and a grand prize, all-expense paid trip to the Intel International Science Fair in San Jose, CA for her project called, “An Evaluation of the Ability of Transgenically Modified Chlamydomonas reinhardtii To Survive and Sequester Metals from the Berkeley Pit.”

Congratulations to everyone who competed in the Fairs, and keep up the good work! Remember, the Committee will offer awards again at the 2002 Science Fair, and students are encouraged to choose projects related to the Pit for next year’s competition.

Cara Patton 5th grade, Longfellow Elementary Horseshoe Bend Water and the PitCara Patton
5th grade, Longfellow Elementary
Horseshoe Bend Water and the Pit

 

 

Magdalena Pesanti 6th grade, West Elementary Let's Clean Up the PitMagdalena Pesanti
6th grade, West Elementary
Let’s Clean Up the Pit

 

 

Kels Phelps 7th grade, East Middle School How Sugar Affects the Growth of Fungus in Pit Water Solution and the Subsequent Impact on pHKels Phelps
7th grade, East Middle School
How Sugar Affects the Growth of Fungus in Pit Water Solution and the Subsequent Impact on pH

 

 

Leah Cornish 8th grade, East Middle School How Does Berkeley Pit Water have to be Diluted in Order to be Safe for Lettuce Seedling Growth?Leah Cornish
8th grade, East Middle School
How Does Berkeley Pit Water have to be Diluted in Order to be Safe for Lettuce Seedling Growth?