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Dr. Anne Camper

Photo by Dusty Brown

As a high school student spending her summers in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness backcountry, young Anne Camper already knew too much about what was in the “pristine” water she was drinking.

Now a newly-named Regents Professor at Montana State University, for Dr. Anne Camper it was a ninth-grade science fair project, completed when she was a Darby High School student, that launched a fascination with the microbes in our water, and how to keep them from harming us.

Camper grew up on the West Fork, 20 miles south of Darby, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a very different time from our own, but the values she learned propelled her into a career in research, and a recent season of honors.

Not only was she selected as a 2013 Regents Professor for the Montana University System last month, the highest honor that can be conferred by the Board of Regents, she was also recently named a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and is the 2013 inductee in the Montana BioScience Alliance Hall of Fame, joining past inductee Edgar Ribi among honorees of local note.

“I was not anticipating any of this,” Camper acknowledged. Her reaction to the shower of recognition is a mix of gratitude and humility. Her peers, in contrast, have been a bit more effusive. In a press release announcing the Regents honor, MSU President Waded Cruzado said that Camper, who started at MSU in 1971 and never left, has been “an extraordinary student, researcher, faculty member, mentor and administrator at MSU for more than 40 years.”

Camper credits her family, and a key teacher for instilling in her a love of learning and research.

“Growing up on the West Fork, obviously you have to be pretty self-sufficient, and make do with what you have,” she explained. “I had an idyllic childhood, a lot of chances to think and read, and my parents were very supportive of me exploring.” Her normal summers involved packing into the Selway, experiencing a life “that urban kids have no idea exists,” she laughed.

Her father was an avid fly-fisher, and her mother a teacher, leaving her with a pedigree that bridged academics and a love of the outdoors.

At that time, she recalled, Darby schools did not focus so much on academic preparation, but she had “some special teachers that let me do things outside the class, and spread my wings.”

In particular, she singles out Kit Walthers, her General Science and Biology teacher, for giving her the resources and confidence to do a project on the relationship between microbes and changes in Bitterroot River water quality between its West Fork headwaters and its mouth in Missoula. That project won the Montana State Science Fair, and she ultimately took it to the level of international competition.

She then earned a fellowship that enabled her to work a summer at the Rocky Mountain Lab in Hamilton. She was one of 41 students in the Darby High School Class of 1971.

Her experiences both inside and outside of Bitterroot Valley classrooms and labs sent her down a path of research and academics from which she’s never turned. She first earned a Master of Science in Environmental Microbiology at MSU. While studying the behavior of microbes in river and drinking water, she had an opportunity to work with engineering groups, tackling the same issue from that aspect. She decided to combine the disciplines, and went back to the classroom to earn a Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering, giving her a unique perspective.

“Most people are in one discipline or the other, but not both,” she said.

How might her work be of some future benefit to her Darby-area family and friends?

“It kind of already has,” she observed, having done some pro bono work to determine the best system to disinfect the town’s groundwater supply, and her work on how to clean up environmental groundwater pollutants is also potentially relevant.

Microbes, she explained, are capable of converting some harmful compounds in groundwater into much more benign substances. “It’s not universal, but for some it’s quite effective,” she said.

Camper is the first woman at MSU and the first faculty member from the school’s College of Engineering to receive the Regents honor. The Montana BioScience Alliance cites her academic work in detecting and removing pathogens from drinking water supplies, while the National Academy of Inventors adds her work on food safety and its potential application to countering bio-terrorism in its recognition.

NAI Fellows are selected for their outstanding contributions to innovation in areas such as patents and licensing, innovative discovery and technology, significant impact on society, and support and enhancement of innovation, and “have demonstrated a highly prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society,” according to the NAI’s press release.

“Anne certainly exemplifies this,” said Rebecca Mahurin, director of the MSU Office of Technology Transfer. “She has impacted women and minorities on campus. She has mentored students and faculty, including minorities. She has worked to provide safe water conditions on the Crow Indian Reservation. She is truly a leader for faculty, students and citizens of Montana and the world.”

Camper, however, is quick to share the honors with her research partners.

“Although these honors have come to me, they truly belong to the team of talented staff and students I have worked with over the years,” she said.