Monday, May. 4th, 2020

MSU Extension offers free noon webinar classes to support healthy living

Montana State University Extension will offer free webinars throughout the month of May as a way of fostering social connection and learning.

The webinars are planned for noon on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in May, with topics focused on food supply, home maintenance, nutrition, financial health, mental health and more. Classes may be added on Mondays and Fridays.

The webinars will include a time for questions and answers at the end of the presentations. Programs are recorded for future viewing. 

Katelyn Andersen, MSU Extension agent in Ravalli County, said MSU Extension has already produced multiple recordings of online webinars spanning the topics of mental health, financial health, exercise and nutrition, and gardening.

Andersen said the webinars began April 1 with a goal of providing 15 to 20 minutes of education that could serve to connect a statewide audience with opportunities for questions and interactions. As classes were curated, some presentations lengthened from 20 minutes to 50 minutes.

“The goal was to provide social connections virtually through Extension faculty with relevant content information to help everyone stay calm during the changes of stay-at-home orders and to keep morale up,” Andersen said.

Webinars offered throughout May can be found online at noon at this meeting link: Participants are invited to log on at 11:55 a.m.

For more information about upcoming topics, visit MSU Extension’s Facebook page at To view past recordings, visit the MSU Extension Ravalli County YouTube Channel at

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Friday, May. 1st, 2020

MSU colleges to host virtual celebrations for graduating students May 7-9

Montana State University’s colleges will commemorate the spring class of 2020 with Virtual College Celebrations scheduled for Thursday, May 7, through Saturday, May 9.

Every graduating student in the spring class of 2020 will receive a personalized invitation from their respective dean for their event, which will be streamed online.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the university will not hold in-person commencement events. Spring 2020 graduates are instead invited to attend fall commencement on Dec. 19. Each graduate will also receive in the mail a celebratory “Commencement in a Box,” filled with balloons, their diploma cover and more to mark the monumental moment from home.

Information for each college event can be found at The website will be updated to include links to where each program will be streamed. The start time and date for each college celebration is as follows:

Thursday, May 7

  • 7 p.m. - Honors College

Friday, May 8

  • 11 a.m. - Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering
  • 12:30 p.m. – College of Nursing Caring for Our Own Program Celebration
  • 2 p.m. - College of Nursing
  • 3 p.m. - College of Education, Health and Human Development
  • 3 p.m. - Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship Master of Professional Accountancy Celebration
  • 4 p.m. - Gallatin College
  • 4:30 p.m. - College of Agriculture
  • 5 p.m. - Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship

Saturday, May 9

  • 9 a.m. - Graduate School
  • 11 a.m. - College of Letters and Science
  • 3:30 p.m. - College of Arts and Architecture

Diplomas will be mailed in July to each graduate upon a successful completion of degree requirements.

For more information and for contact information for each college, visit

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Construction set to begin on Bobcat Athletic Complex

Construction will begin in early May on Montana State University’s Bobcat Athletic Complex, a donor-funded $18 million addition to the north end of Bobcat Stadium that will become the new home of the university’s football program.

The 40,000-square-foot facility, expected to open in August 2021, is the result of the largest fundraising campaign in Bobcat Athletics history, said Chris Murray, president and CEO of the MSU Alumni Foundation. A total of 525 donors contributed to the project, raising the needed funds in just two years.
“The success of this project is truly a testament to our Bobcat family of fans and friends,” Murray said. “We can’t thank them enough for supporting our student-athletes.”

That sentiment was echoed by MSU President Waded Cruzado.

“We’ve been able to do truly remarkable things for our student-athletes thanks to alumni and friends who believe in a brighter future for the next generation,” Cruzado said. “The Bobcat hearts of our donors are in the right place. We owe them many thanks.”

The two-story building will house football locker rooms, team rooms, equipment storage and offices for coaches, as well as sports medicine, training and rehabilitation spaces that will help all student-athletes. It will be designed by A&E Architects of Bozeman and Crawford Architects of Kansas City, Missouri. Martel Construction will be general contractor.

“This facility reflects the mission of Bobcat Athletics to develop excellence in the classroom and competition, as well as support the holistic approach to student-athlete well-being,” said Leon Costello, MSU athletics director. “The BAC mirrors the facility growth on the MSU campus and growth within Bobcat Athletics. It will also be a great welcome center to the south end of the MSU campus.”

In addition to supporting the continued growth of MSU’s football program, Costello noted that the project will support all student-athletes thanks to the renovation of the former football offices in the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. That space will become an expanded and accessible Academic Excellence Center, providing MSU’s roughly 350 student-athletes with additional space for tutoring, group study and advising.

“Right now, space for academic support is at a premium in the fieldhouse,” he said. “The expanded support spaces will ensure that all Bobcat student-athletes have the resources they need to excel in the classroom.”

The BAC is part of Phase I of the Athletics Facility Master Plan, which was published in 2017. This 20-year plan for MSU’s athletics facilities envisions renovating and constructing facilities, such as an indoor performance facility and tennis and golf center, to serve student-athletes and fans. Details about the Master Plan are available online.

With construction fencing and earthmoving planned to begin in early May, head football coach Jeff Choate said it’s humbling to reflect on the level of support that the MSU community has shown.
“In just a few years, we’ve been able to do something that people have been talking about doing for 25 years. That’s thanks to our campus leadership and generous donors,” Choate said. “It’s a strong reminder that, as advanced as the Bobcat Athletic Complex will be, it’s people that make the transformational power of college athletics a reality.”

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Thursday, Apr. 30th, 2020

MSU Extension offers updated yard and garden fact sheets

For people seeking updated information on caring for a Montana yard and garden, details on backyard landscaping and lawn care, and growing perennials, fruits and vegetables, many free fact sheets are available from Montana State University Extension.

MSU Extension has revised and updated more than 20 yard and garden fact sheets, called MontGuides, in time for the spring growing season. The publications were updated by Cheryl Moore-Gough, MSU Extension horticulture specialist, and other topic experts.

“Information presented by MSU Extension experts gives the reader timely, unbiased and research-based information that can be depended on,” Moore-Gough said. “There is much advice available online that doesn’t pertain to Montana’s growing conditions and just won’t work here. These factsheets have been authored and reviewed by multiple experts, assuring their accuracy for Montana’s environment. The fact that these informative publications are available as free downloads is a huge benefit to Montanans.”

MSU Extension MontGuides are available as free PDF downloads from MSU Extension online at Printed copies can be ordered online or by calling 406-994-3273.

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MontanaPBS to livestream final COVID-19 special at 7 p.m. April 30

 MontanaPBS will livestream the sixth and final installment of a broadcast special, “Answering Questions About Coronavirus,” at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 30. The program will be available to view on-air, online at and on the MontanaPBS Facebook page.

During the special program, host John Twiggs will talk via video conference with Dr. Greg Holzman, the state medical officer; Montana Army National Guard Maj. Gen. Matthew Quinn, head of the governor’s Coronavirus Task Force; and Patrick Barkey, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana. Twiggs will also interview Gov. Steve Bullock.

In his stay-at-home directive, Bullock included outdoor activities as “essential” – and Montanans listened. While national parks remain closed, Montana state parks are seeing a 60% visitor increase. With state campgrounds set to open Friday, MontanaPBS’ Breanna McCabe will report on what park visitors can expect in the weeks ahead.

Meanwhile, salons, restaurants and churches from across the state are navigating a phased reopening plan, but some may wonder what that means for each entity individually. MontanaPBS news and public affairs producer Jackie Coffin will check in with local businesses to see how they are planning to reopen, or remain closed, in light of the new directives.

Phone operators will take audience questions at 1-888-828-5876. Viewers can also submit questions via Facebook by following MontanaPBS or emailing

The broadcast is anticipated to last 60 minutes. Additional resources, web links and previous episodes are available at

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MSU researcher examines animal origins of COVID-19

For years, Montana State University researcher Raina Plowright’s work has studied bats and the viruses they carry and spread. Now, with the emergence of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Plowright’s research is timelier than ever.

Plowright said the virus that causes COVID-19, called SARS-CoV-2, originated in bats and is the third coronavirus to move from bats to humans in two decades. She and collaborators in Australia, Bangladesh, Ghana and Madagascar are researching how to prevent the spread of other viruses from animals to humans — a process known as spillover. That work begins by understanding how viruses exist in bats and how widespread they are among bats in various locations.

“Thankfully, we’ve collected a huge dataset over space and time in bat populations in multiple countries,” said Plowright, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in MSU’s College of Agriculture and principal investigator in the Bozeman Disease Ecology Lab. “Now, we can screen our samples for coronaviruses and other viruses that may interact with coronaviruses.” 

Plowright’s work has also examined Hendra virus and Nipah virus, both of which can also be carried by bats, leading to the extensive collection of samples that can also be used in the new research. She said it’s unknown whether SARS-CoV-2 spread directly from bats to humans or whether it first infected an intermediary species. The researchers in her lab will screen those existing samples to see how many contain coronaviruses and where those samples were collected. That may offer insight into how SARS-CoV-2 made its way into humans.

“Coronaviruses are well known for their ability to recombine parts of their genomes when two viruses infect cells in the same animal. So, it could have had a bit of a genetic mix-up in a different host,” she said. “We’re working to understand coronaviruses in bats as well as looking of the role of bats in not just this, but also future spillovers.”

In addition to analyzing the samples they already have, Plowright and her team are moving forward with research to help Bozeman, Gallatin County and the state of Montana respond to the ongoing pandemic. Work in the state includes research with Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton to examine aerosol transmission of the virus and preventive measures; monitoring the spread of COVID-19 in Montana’s communities; and creating predictive computer models.

“We are working with local epidemiologists and other researchers here at MSU to provide forecasts to the community on when to expect peaks, the capacity of local ICUs and so on,” she said. The hope with predictive modeling is to develop a toolkit for reopening local, state and national economies and allowing individuals to return to workplaces.

The more information governments have on how the virus spreads and the potential ramifications of reopening, the more they can prevent future spikes in infection and death, said Plowright, something that is true the world over. An international graduate student and postdoctoral fellow are also helping efforts in their home countries of Chile and Uruguay, monitoring the progress of their outbreaks and aiding in the exchange of scientific information to help local pandemic response teams.

“I have a lab full of brilliant young disease ecologists,” she said. “These are young people with great expertise and advanced degrees in public health and disease ecology. They have found themselves in a real-time response to a real-life pandemic.”

With new discoveries still being made as scientists examine SARS-CoV-2 and a wealth of information available to the public, Plowright’s students and fellow researchers have also created a resource to interpret cutting-edge information so that it can be understood by everyone. They created the Disease Ecology Lab COVID-19 Blog, which answers common questions related to the novel coronavirus and provides understandable summaries of new scientific and medical discoveries. As the world has shifted into high gear to understand COVID-19, Plowright said it is critical that each individual does what they can to protect their community.

“Few groups can study bats and understand the dynamics of these infections in bat populations,” she said. “Our work is to understand how these pathogens spill over and how we can prevent future pandemics is unique. But in terms of responding to the current pandemic, we are doing the same thing that many people around the world are doing, right? We’re trying to do our very best for our community, protect people who are vulnerable and reduce the number of people who are sick and who die from this disease.”

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Wednesday, Apr. 29th, 2020

GVLT purchases property in West Bridgers to protect trail and habitat

Earlier in April, Gallatin Valley Land Trust (GVLT) completed an exciting new project that combined trails, conservation, and access to public lands for our bustling community. With the help of several diverse community partners, GVLT purchased a 160-acre property in Middle Cottonwood Canyon from the Skogen family. By purchasing the property, GVLT has permanently protected the trail corridor and surrounding wildlife habitat from development forever. The scenic property is located in the West Bridger Mountains, approximately six miles northeast of Bozeman. The entire parcel is mapped as critical winter range for elk and mule deer by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and features diverse wildlife habitat. The property also contains the popular Middle Cottonwood Trail which crosses the property for a half-mile. Purchasing the property secures perpetual public access to the trail and surrounding public lands, and will provide new hunting and recreational activities to the community. GVLT plans to transfer (donate) the property to the care of the United States Forest Service (USFS), which already manages the Middle Cottonwood Trail and the surrounding lands.

“This property is a gem and is a tremendous resource for the community. It took a willing and dedicated land owner committed to conservation to get this done,” said Brendan Weiner, Program Director at GVLT. The property appraised for $752,000 and the landowner – Michael Skogen - donated over half of the property value towards the project.

The remaining funding came from a pool of private donors, grants, and support from local businesses focused on outdoor recreation, as well as $80,000 from GVLT’s own acquisition fund. GVLT has been interested in conserving this property for 10+ years, and began negotiations with the Skogen family two years ago when they listed the property for sale.

The community will now have public access to all 160 acres of the highly scenic parcel, where trail users have spotted an array of wildlife including mule deer, elk, moose, mountain goats, and eagles. A pristine, spring-fed creek flows through the property to Middle Cottonwood Creek, surrounded by aspen groves and mature forests. Previous development proposals for the property have recommended moving the trail, but GVLT’s purchase permanently removes the threat of development.

“Development of the property would result in significant negative impacts to the trail corridor and the surrounding habitat and would dramatically change the trail user experience,” said Weiner. “We are thrilled to have the acquisition complete.”
GVLT will manage the property until it is donated to the USFS, which could take up to four years. 

This project was funded by a diverse group of public agencies, individuals, foundations, businesses and organizations including: Skogen Family, Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Cross Charitable Foundation, Mule Deer Foundation, SITKA Gear, Cinnabar Foundation, onX, Travelers for Open Land, The Ott Family, Lisa and Keith Reed, Kainz Family Foundation, Margaret and Ken Emerson, Pope & Young Club, Liza and Cody Abbott, Mara and Thomas Lehrman, Zaniboni Lighting, Cathy Costakis, Alan Larson, and Caroline and Will Price

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Recent MSU alum’s company releases free chatbot about COVID-19

A recent Montana State University alumnus is using his entrepreneurial venture to share important information about COVID-19 in a way that is easy for people to access – for free.

Levi Worts’ startup, SkyCivic, created the chatbot with a goal of helping to slow the spread of COVID-19. It is based off information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Worts graduated from MSU in 2015 with a degree in English. SkyCivic is his Manhattan-based company that works to make government information accessible and engaging through its automated chatbots. A chatbot is a software application used to conduct an online conversation via text or text-to-speech.

“Chatbots are an interactive experience designed to mimic the most-used mobile interface on the planet: text messaging,” Worts explained. “In other words, everyone understands how to consume information and interact with a chatbot already.”

Worts noted that chatbot interactions can happen either through guided conversations – such as options presented that the user selects from – or through custom queries, where the user types out a message that the chatbot then has to interpret and understand.

“Information is one of the most critical resources in a crisis, but it can be hard to consume and comprehend what’s important to each individual,” Worts said of his motivation for creating the chatbot. “The COVID-19 self-assessment chatbot distills all of the critical information and presents it in a way that anyone can understand.”

SkyCivic’s COVID-19 chatbot is based off the CDC's priority and symptom guidelines. It features determinations on whether a user is showing mild or emergency symptoms; priority ratings based on CDC guidelines for testing; and updates on the current COVID cases in the U.S., including a feature that allows users to search COVID cases by location.

Worts said the chatbot is focused on self-assessment, because his company identified it as the highest risk of misinformation and misunderstanding.

“However, we recognize the power of deeper research and understanding,” Worts added. “We included direct links to CDC webpages and the case tracker to search COVID cases by state, county and city, in some cases, to help citizens stay informed and up-to-date.”

Worts added that the chatbot should not replace a professional medical assessment.

“Naturally, chatbots are not an actual replacement for medical professionals or clinics assessments; rather, they act as the initial conversational layer on the subject,” Worts said. “If you feel you are in an emergency situation, seek assistance from medical professionals immediately.”

MSU Blackstone LaunchPad Director Trevor Huffmaster said the chatbot is a great tool.

“We are so impressed by the COVID-19 tool that Levi and SkyCivic developed,” Huffmaster said. “There are so many additional government and industry opportunities to create major efficiencies with chatbot tools like these."  

Huffmaster noted that SkyCivic is one of 14 finalists in MSU’s inaugural $50K Venture Competition, where students, faculty, staff and recent alumni compete for a share of $50,000 in prize money. Participants gain access to experienced entrepreneurs, investors, mentors and numerous business network resources. They also receive feedback from judges and may capture the attention of investors. The 14 finalists were selected from among 29 entries.

The company is also a current member of the 406 Labs business accelerator at MSU.

Worts, who grew up in Belgrade and has spent all of his life in the Gallatin Valley except for a five-year enlistment in the U.S. Marine Corps, said he is grateful for the opportunities and assistance provided by MSU’s Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship, its Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars and the 406 Labs.

"Starting out as an entrepreneur can be a daunting process. Our journey so far has been extraordinary, and I credit that to the people and resources that MSU offers to our community,” Worts said. “Everyone has gone above and beyond to help SkyCivic form connections and direct us to mentors. We now have the opportunity to focus on what makes us passionate, the product."

And, he added, his English degree has served him well as an entrepreneur.

“My time at MSU was spent understanding how to effectively communicate to an audience through writing,” Worts said. “As it turns out, chatbots are an extension of that work. I would like to thank my professors in the English department for pushing the boundaries of what we thought was possible. For me, it created an appetite to explore and innovate.”

SkyCivic’s COVID-19 chatbot is available at

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Tuesday, Apr. 28th, 2020

MSU researcher secures $2.5 million grant from National Institutes of Health

Montana State University researcher Blake Wiedenheft is a recognized expert in one of today's hottest science fields, so it's natural to wonder what discoveries may be in store now that he received a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health earlier this year.

And because the NIH's Maximizing Investigators' Research Award is designed to provide flexibility to delve deeply into research that could generate breakthroughs, Wiedenheft himself is looking forward to seeing where the five-year funding will lead in his study of the complex interactions between bacteria and the viruses that attack them, with potential applications for treating COVID-19 and a wide range of other diseases.

"An ideal outcome would be stumbling on something entirely unexpected," said Wiedenheft, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in MSU's College of Agriculture. "This grant really provides a new dimension of intellectual freedom for pursuing ideas as they evolve."

"Dr. Wiedenheft’s award is well-deserved and highly prestigious," said Jason Carter, MSU's vice president for research, economic development and graduate education. "These MIRA grants are indicative of sustained, high-impact research by accomplished scientists."

The grant will allow Wiedenheft to significantly expand his lab's capacity, adding up to six doctoral students, four postdoctoral researchers and a lab technician. Wiedenheft has made major contributions to the field in recent years, including high-profile papers in Science, Nature and other journals about CRISPR, the bacteria immune system that wields sophisticated molecules to grab and slice strands of invading viral DNA to render them harmless.

The grant "is an impressive achievement for Blake, and it represents tremendous recognition within a very competitive field of science," said Montana University System Regents Professor Mark Jutila, head of the microbiology and immunology department. "His efforts in the study of CRISPR have had major impacts in the field as well as at MSU, in terms of mentoring and training students in the lab and teaching in the classroom."

Although CRISPR is often used as a general term for CRISPR-Cas9 and a few other proteins that have been repurposed for curing genetic disease, those CRISPR systems "represent a very small fraction of bacterial immune systems found in nature," Wiedenheft said. "CRISPRs are very diverse," and many — perhaps most — haven't been studied in detail, he said.

The NIH grant will allow Wiedenheft's team to explore the frontier of CRISPRs and other immune systems in bacteria, which, scientists are increasingly finding, in many ways resemble those of more complex organisms, including humans.

"Some of these immune systems are incredibly complicated," Wiedenheft said. "To understand how they work and which parts are most important, we look to the viruses for help." That's because viruses have often evolved elegant mechanisms to thwart the bacterial defense, he explained. In one recent study, Wiedenheft showed that a virus produced a protein molecule — called an anti-CRISPR — that mimics the CRISPR's alert system, creating a decoy that distracts the bacteria's response.

Peering inside of bacteria with an extremely powerful microscope to see CRISPR molecules is a bit like encountering a complex machine like a car and trying to figure out how it works, Wiedenheft said. Because viral anti-CRISPRs target parts of the “car” that are important or vulnerable, "a virus can point you directly to the ignition switch, or the gas pedal or the steering wheel," he said.

"Viruses can teach us about the immune systems we're studying, and sometimes even point us to new immune systems that we didn’t even know about," Wiedenheft said. "We anticipate that anti-CRISPRs, like CRISPRs themselves, are incredibly diverse. By understanding that diversity, we think we'll gain a much better understanding of how these immune systems work."

Recent trials with human patients have shown success with using CRISPR-Cas9 to treat and potentially cure sickle cell disease, a serious disorder affecting millions of people around the world. The CRISPR treatment involves surgically correcting a genetic defect by cutting the DNA and repairing it in a way that restores gene function. Diseases like sickle cell, Beta thalassemia and other blood diseases are the easiest to treat because the cells in blood are relatively easy to access. But many labs, including Wiedenheft's, are working to develop new treatment methods that direct the CRISPR-Cas9 treatment to specific cells within the body, according to Wiedenheft.

In responding to the coronavirus pandemic, some scientists have also repurposed other CRISPR proteins, Cas12 and Cas13, to rapidly diagnose COVID-19 in experimental medical tests — yet another indication of the far-reaching potential of precisely mapping CRISPRs and developing an understanding of how they might be applied, according to Wiedenheft.

Wiedenheft is the second person at MSU to receive the NIH's Maximizing Investigators' Research Award. Last year, Joan Broderick, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in MSU's College of Letters and Science, won the five-year grant in the amount of $1.77 million for research on a large family of enzymes called radical SAMs.

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Montana Shakespeare in the Parks to postpone 2020 season

In consideration of the health and safety of its audiences and artists during the coronavirus pandemic, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks has announced it will postpone its 2020 season to 2021.

Organizers said that the two plays scheduled for this season, “Cymbeline” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” will be performed instead in 2021.

Kevin Asselin, the company’s executive artistic director, said MSIP is preparing plans to fulfill its mission of delivering professional productions of Shakespeare plays to rural and underserved communities in alternate ways.

“Like so many theater companies across the nation, MSIP’s schedule will have to be dramatically altered in order to protect the health and safety of our community,” Asselin said. “However, we are determined to able to serve our mission. To that end, we are in preparations for a different kind of summer tour.”

Waded Cruzado, president of Montana State University, where the theater company is based, said that while the live summer Montana Shakespeare in the Parks performances will be missed, postponing was the right thing to do during the pandemic.

"We appreciate Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ efforts to share content with us in other ways, including the streaming of archived performances and lesson plans shared with students and teachers,” Cruzado said. “The show will go on – just in different ways.”

In response to cancellations and postponements, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks began creating content for audiences of all ages under the title “MSIP Live.” That includes streaming archival recordings of some of the troupe’s recent plays on Facebook and YouTube every two weeks. Cast members of Montana Shakes!, the program’s troupe for elementary schools are sheltered in place together and have filmed a play, or Virtual Shakes, that has been distributed, along with lesson plans, to teachers and students online in collaboration with MontanaPBS. Classes that have received the play and workshops also have utilized private web-hosted talkbacks with the actors each school day. MSIP is also currently making content for sixth- to 12th-grade audiences at

MSIP recently launched the “Go Forth!” campaign to raise money for its online programming and future summer tour plans, while keeping all programs free for audiences. For more information, email development director Sonja Ervin-Bahr at

"Montana Shakespeare in the Parks is the world’s most expansive outreach theater initiative that performs free to the public, integrates with community arts programs and provides schools with a robust educational platform so students may engage with the arts early and often,” said Dean of the College of Arts and Architecture Royce Smith. “We are proud of MSIP’s ongoing commitment to its core mission in the time of COVID-19 and will continue to adapt our programming and initiatives to the changing circumstances impacting the communities we serve."

For more information on MSIP’s response to the coronavirus health crisis or how to participate in Virtual Shakes or “MSIP Live,” contact director of marketing and outreach Susan Miller at

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