Eureka student wins national award

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A top environmental health student from Montana State University recently received a prestigious scholarship for her academic achievements, commitment to environmental health, and research on Montana’s water resources.

Eureka’s Michelle Leonard was one of two national recipients of the National Environmental Health Association and the American Academy of Sanitarians Scholarship. She is the first MSU student to win this award.

“Honestly, I was a bit shocked when I heard the news,” Leonard said. “But now I feel very accomplished getting this scholarship and I feel pretty solid knowing that I want to further my education specifically in environmental health.”

The NEHA/AAS scholarship helps support students who are pursuing a career in environmental health and want to contribute positively to the future of environmental health.

Growing up in rural Montana, Leonard said she’s seen her fair share of environmental issues and the little information available to communities. Between water issues in the Kootenai Reservoir or asbestos in the nearby town of Libby, she wanted to learn more about how these issues can affect the land and the human population.

“Educating people is one of my main goals in life; to be able to learn so much and then pass it on in a way that’s easy to understand,” she said. “Sometimes science can be so overwhelming and people don’t understand it, so I want to break it down so they can see how cool and relevant science is.”

Leonard’s research in the Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology at the College of Agriculture focuses on contaminating selenium, which can enter water bodies through various human causes such as mining and agricultural activities, burning of fossil fuels and more.

The project isn’t just something she’s curious about for school; it also affects his hometown of Eureka, where Leonard said the selenium in the local reservoir is likely the result of runoff from a nearby mine in Canada.

Leonard observes data on bioaccumulation, or how selenium is taken up by one organism and can be passed on to another organism that ingests the first.

Along with his research, Leonard works with the Montana Well Educated Program to research containments in private wells across the state.

“We’re trying to convey to people what water is good for healthy drinking and also trying to show geographically in Montana what contaminants people should look for specifically,” Leonard said.

The goal of the Well Educated program is to teach private well owners about water quality as it relates to health and quality of life.

The program is a collaborative effort between MSU Extension Water Quality and partners in participating counties that provide well owners with materials to sample the quality of their well water. Well Educated will interpret the data received and provide feedback to participants, such as ways to test well water in the future, how to clean their system, and ways to make water safe for future consumption.

Leonard is working with MSU Extension’s water quality specialist, Adam Sigler. Currently, it logs data from program participants – such as their location, well size, contaminant issues, and more.

This spring, she will also create a survey to help the program better meet the needs of participants.

Mari Eggers, environmental health program manager and advisor to Leonard, said Leonard has a wealth of leadership experience, from her years as a resident assistant to working closely with her peers and helping all students feel welcome.

“I’ve seen her in class making it a point to attract quieter students so they feel comfortable in class,” Eggers said. “Michelle has such a gift for building community, which will stand her in good stead in her future career working with communities. She has been passionate about water resources and environmental health since her freshman year, so I am thrilled that she have this opportunity to work with Dr. Sigler and the Well Educated Program.”

Sigler said Leonard is on track to excel in environmental health service.

“She has the passion and clear demonstration of her abilities through her schoolwork, and she is gaining important organizational and management mentorship skills through this internship which I believe are very much in line with her interests and what this internship can give him for the experience,” he said.

After graduation, Leonard hopes to pursue higher education and continue working in the water resources field. She also hopes to gain hands-on experience and work closely with communities on water-related topics.

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