Here’s a young man whose accomplishments, at such an early age, make us feel both impressed and …exhausted!
Only 25, Josh Marceau is a University of Montana doctoral student whose photo already hangs on the wall of fame at the Native American Research Laboratory in UM. Marceau, who is Salish, got his bachelor’s degree at Penn Sate and then came home to Montana – after turning down prestigious graduate programs.
“Turning down Dartmouth and Washington was hard, but it was the right choice,” Marceau tells the Missoulian’s Betsy Cohen. “I want to end up back here, I want to teach at the tribal college.”
The flame burns hot, and within a few moments, the magical transformation takes place.
“I think it’s my favorite part about jewelry making,” said Marceau, grinning. “I never get tired of watching the melting part.”
This alchemy takes place most evenings in a basement apartment where Marceau lives with his wife, Ellen. Here, the 25-year-old artist creates pendants, earrings, rings and other lovely items which he sells on the artisan Web site, www.etsy.com.
By night, he draws inspiration from heartfelt sources: his love for Montana’s natural beauty, Ellen’s love of Celtic designs, his life experiences growing up in Ronan, his Salish heritage.
By day, Marceau is a University of Montana doctoral student who spends most of his time in a chemistry lab, pursuing his degree in biomedical science, and helping to understand and cure human diseases.
“It’s hard to separate the two – chemistry and art,” Marceau said as he carefully poured the liquid silver into a bear-claw mold, which he crafted from the real thing.
“They are so closely fused.”
Marceau is a rising star in this specialized field where chemistry and biology come together, and already has a place on the wall of fame in the Native American Research Laboratory at UM.
It is here that he works on a NASA-funded research project studying extreme organisms to better understand the limits at which life can exist.
Collected from volcanic hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, these ancient, rare life forms may one day help scientists like Marceau unlock the mysteries of viruses.
That Marceau toils at such unique work, and does so with infectious intellectual curiosity, comes as no surprise to those who have watched his evolution from childhood to scientist-artist.
It all makes some kind of sense, said Marceau’s father, Lawrence, a residential counselor at Kicking Horse Job Corps Center in Ronan.
Like the self-repeating patterns found in molecules, snowflakes and Celtic designs, which Marceau finds so intriguing, the scientist’s own natural proclivities have long been obvious.
“Josh started reading the backs of shampoo bottles at an early age,” Lawrence said. “And he was always really interested in what went into things.”
At 16, Marceau, who was a home-school student, worked into a full-time job at BFI, where he was in charge of the safety data sheets and keeping current with any dangerous chemicals the garbage collectors might come in contact with.
There, he become proficient with blowtorches and fixing broken diesel equipment.
“I always knew I wanted to go to college, so I worked full time and took a class at Salish Kootenai College every quarter, and saved my money for college,” Marceau said. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I decided to take a physics class, which led me to a chemistry class, and my chemistry instructor was also teaching silversmithing, so I took that as an elective.”
As one interest led to another, Marceau continued to reveal his knack for science.
“I was pleasantly surprised when Josh and his brother, Caleb, came into my physics class at SKC,” said Michael Ceballos. “Most students who come into the class don’t have a strong math and science background.
“But these two brothers worked really hard, did all the homework, showed up for class and did really well. I was really impressed by them.”
So impressed, Ceballos hired the brothers in 2006 to help him build the country’s first-ever Molecular Biology and Biophysics Research Lab at a tribal college.
“I remember telling Josh that I didn’t know what he was getting paid at BFI, but that I could get pretty close to that amount,” Ceballos said.
Marceau remembers not dwelling on his answer.
“It was great deal for me,” he said. “To get paid to be in a laboratory seemed like a good deal.”
With the lab up and running, the brothers helped Ceballos get a huge project under way – a federally funded study of a feline virus similar to HIV.
The experience led Marceau to nationally recognized research and awards.
“Once I started doing that work, I couldn’t get enough of it,” he said. “But SKC only had a two-year program and Michael really encouraged me and Caleb to go on and get our bachelor’s degrees.”
Inspired by Ceballos, Marceau found the confidence and direction to continue his intellectual exploration.
Both he and Caleb were among two of the nation’s seven standout science students to land a prestigious National Institutes of Health scholarship.
The award gave Marceau $20,000 a year to get his bachelor’s degree in microbiology at Penn State.
It was a big move – far from the life he knew – but it allowed him to work with some of Ceballos’ colleagues and collaborate on projects from afar with his mentor as the Native American Research Laboratory moved to UM.
When he went east, Ellen went with him, and so did his silversmithing tools.
There, he taught his new friends how to make jewelry – how to transform solid silver chunks into liquid and liquid into solid.
“A lot of my designs came out of experiments – of thinking what would happen if I did things differently,” he said. “And most of my designs came from learning what happens to certain metals when you provide different stressors – when you heat something up and cool it down and heat it up again.”
“It was a great stress relief, and great thing to do in the winter there,” Marceau said of his jewelry-making hobby. “I got a lot of inspiration from vines there, because that’s what grew there, but it was good because vines sort of go well with Celtic designs because they are simple repeating designs with graceful curves.”
In and around the bench science and the artistry, Marceau’s work again caught people’s attention.
Custom orders started rolling in for his jewelry, and powerhouse universities starting recruiting Marceau to join their post-graduate and doctoral programs.
Dartmouth, the University of Washington and others came calling. Penn State didn’t want him to go, Ceballos said.
“Josh comes from a close-knit family and he wanted to come home,” Ceballos said. “And we wanted him to be a part of NARL at UM.”
Professionally, it was as good a choice as any Marceau had before him, because the heady NASA-funded and National Science Foundation research the UM lab is working on will propel Marceau’s career, Ceballos said.
Marceau is now in the first semester of his five-year doctoral program. When he’s finished with his academic work Ceballos hopes his student will leave again for more learning – and then come back for good.
“I would like to see Josh come back and help increase the level of science students in tribal colleges,” Ceballos said, “or take over as director here.”
Josh likes the plan he hears spill from Ceballos.
It’s an expectation the two have hammered out for his future, one that he wholeheartedly embraces.
Yet, of all the people in his life, Marceau is the one who seems most surprised by how things have turned out.
“I never dreamed it would go this way,” Marceau said.
“Turning down Dartmouth and Washington was hard, but it was the right choice,” he said. “I want to end up back here, I want to teach at the tribal college.”
If the lessons of science hold true, then Marceau will follow his pattern, coming full circle to Ronan.
There, he will teach chemistry and inspire his students through silversmithing, just as his instructors inspired him.
“I think silversmithing puts the fun back into chemistry,” Marceau said. “It gives chemistry a sense of discovery.
“It’s great to learn theory, but to actually apply it and make something beautiful out of raw materials is really great.”