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Irving Weissman is an innovator in one of medicine’s most exciting and controversial disciplines. One key to his success stems from his Montana roots.

When he talks about science, Dr. Irving Weissman starts speaking slightly faster than he does when he’s talking about, say, growing up in Montana. When he discusses his work, he sometimes speaks only the first part of the word, as though there is so much to say that he doesn’t want to waste time uttering the final syllable. A note of urgency comes into his otherwise soothing voice. It’s indicative of what perhaps drives Weissman the most: a belief that medicine should be based on science and advanced through constant research. And, that there is so much yet to be done.

A world-renowned stem cell researcher, Weissman is a pioneer at the forefront of a science that could change nearly everything about how we treat illness and disease, from heart disease to cancer. The director of Stanford University’s Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, Weissman is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences—an elite group of only about 2,100—and his colleagues say that he stands above even the very best scientists. Yet, as essential as science is to Weissman, so are his roots. The native Montanan and Montana State

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College graduate returns to the state as often as he can, giving lectures, serving on boards and fly fishing the state’s rivers. His frequent trips home are a respite from some weighty responsibilities. As the immediate past president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, he is immersed in one of the greatest ethical debates of this age, one that involves science, medicine, politics and religion. It is a debate in which he is greatly invested, both professionally and personally, and the stakes are high.

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is controversial, since creating an embryonic stem cell line for research requires starting with cells in an excess blastocyst stage embryo from an in vitro fertilization clinic. The debates have fueled pro-life advocates, who view an embryo as a person. Despite his frustrations, Weissman feels a responsibility to overcome the hurdles. It’s work that has driven him ever since he was a young boy growing up in Montana. Work that he believes has the potential to improve people’s lives.

Weissman’s work could, for example, result in a cure for cancer. He knew nearly 15 years ago that he could isolate blood-forming stem cells from women who had breast cancer. Theoretically, these stem cells could be transplanted back into a woman after she received a powerful, cancer-killing course of chemotherapy. A side effect of such chemotherapy was the destruction of those tissues that formed blood. The transplanted stem cells offered ——————————— the solution of being able to regrow those tissues. In 1996, for the first time, physicians transplanted cancer- In an auditorium at Benefis Healthcare earlier this year free blood-forming stem cells into a breast cancer patient in his hometown of Great Falls, Weissman explains after she had completed a potent course of chemotherapy. to a standing-room only audience that stem cells are Weissman recalled the physicians telling him it was characterized by their ability to renew themselves by a hopeless case from the start. The woman’s cancer was dividing and differentiating into a diverse range of aggressive, and as she was undergoing chemotherapy, a B eware o f ad v ert i sed treatments where o ne burst of cancer cells developed in her chest, indicating that the k i nd o f stem ce l l i s used t o re g enerate a l l cancer had really spread. t i ssues . T here i s n o such th i n g i n adu l ts . “Nobody gets out of that one — irving weissman alive,” Weissman said. Except that this woman did. The chemotherapy followed by the transplant of specialized cell types—adult muscle stem cells can becells worked. Remarkably, the last report Weissman come muscle cells, adult blood-forming stem cells can received—nearly 15 years later—was that the woman regenerate blood, and nervous system stem cells can was living without cancer. make all kinds of brain cells. They are entirely responThe results should have been a medical breaksible for the origination of all body tissues and their through and a tale of hope for cancer patients and their regeneration throughout life. In a developing embryo, families. But politics and economics got in the way, stem cells can potentially differentiate into any adult Weissman said. stem cell: adult stem cells repair the body, replenishing When a company that Weissman had formed to take specialized cells and maintaining regenerative organs, the new treatment into clinical trials was taken over, such as blood, skin or intestinal tissues. the new company subsequently made a business deciFollowing the lecture, one woman asks Weissman sion to stop those clinical trials before complete results about potential stem cell treatments for her adult son’s were known. spinal cord injury. Another wonders if treatments for juveAnd national legislation on the use of stem cells has nile diabetes and neonatal diabetes work in the same way. restricted his ability to conduct research. His work has “They don’t have stem cells for (every procedure),” made him the subject of hateful messages in the blogo- Weissman cautioned. “Nevertheless, in animal experisphere and at least one death threat. In 2001, Weissments, human brain stem cells can repair many spinal man headed a National Academies panel on stem cells. cord injuries; blood-forming stem cells can block the Because embryonic stem cells could give rise to adult progression of a diseased blood system to the disease, stem cells, the panel voted unanimously to accelerate for example, in mice developing juvenile diabetes; the federal funding of that kind of research. Most blood-forming stem cells from a diabetes-resistant embryonic stem cells are a few days old, derived from parent or sibling can permanently block progression to embryos that were artificially fertilized in a clinic and diabetes. But you should beware of advertised treatdonated specifically for research. Still, stem cell work ments where one kind of stem cell is used to regenerate

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IE PE M C E T DI PI IO O N S N E TE C ER M M HO C C E P O SC N DI E R IE TR CI C C E PI O M N O NE O N E C LE NE TR D E VE G E R O Y M PIO R S IS V M L H ER ED NE AT O E S M D C P S IC E ED C IC I E IO E Y S I N E IC L I N NC N CU T E E C L SC IN S E L E P O R E M N S E E R C I I C L EN L I GI ON T R E C PIO EG C EG E N SL E O M E IS C R O A ER VE N IS E SC E M N T E E L A PIO L A E P T IO H R M C O I E E D RO R T I N T I IO N O S P E H O E O N SC HO D N T NC Y M V E O N ER N E CO E C I E S Y I E PE C I RO E P E R S PE C O H C O R N T D Y N S T NC CU E V E IO IC S CU N OP N T HO R T T N R E E L E I N E R E RO C RO PE C EM P R E S L E ON C IO E R GI Y S ER E M U V C EN R V L C R ER C R M GI T EL N E E M SL A T E HO EG E E M ER E C L R U E E E S M SL O L R ED Y R S E E I L T M P D R S PI H E R S D S H PI M S O O E R E D IC AT V E S C H Y ION C E E C L A S Y O O I N IO R N PE T CI M TE E M L O S PE PE N SC U Y I E C L C I S E E E M C P E E E R M O E N M Y O S IE E C N E C C ER IE D O S N DI C U E E L N TE N R C C S U U C IC N SC E R N N T C CE CI U C H R E DY DI E G O T E E T H RE RE H C H E I M I L R O N L EN M N O R P E R N C O E O P O M I E M O E I S E T E OV C E N IO E P PE R E PI R E G PI R E G E R PE R E R E PE PI PE M E V C E IN L R C O T O M IS O M IS E EL IO O D C M DI E AT O E L N E R E L E E R E DY RO N E C R N L L N N H CU M E M E CU N CU IC CO L V E L U M PI G E E L L U I E C S S A M L A E S O S E D E E E V E O E E E D D E IS I T Y Y O T E R S G E E R S R G S C PE R E DY DY R E E R R E I N N T S C R E G ST ST ST S T R Y M I O S T R Y M I O S T C I R E R Y M N E I S N C S Y S C H DY L A S T N E D E R I I E S S M M R R R I E R O R I S I C E H H H L N E H E L E O EN E L A E M HO L E E M HO L E E M HO L E O EN CU EM E U L A E M O E D N C E M O E D C E M N O E M E D L E AT ON S T I E PE M E T IO E M E R C I M M V D ED M O V N N C R T PE E I G PE G PE G PE I PE I E O T D H O I N E R C E R E E IC IC E D PE E D GI E R C E E D T IO C PE GI C C C I C E C C C C C E E I C C C I I D O S O R M N E U IC C E O IN S P R DY I N I N Y C U Y S L S P N EL C SL EL C SL EL C SL EL R N E L C I N N T E L C U I N T E L PI C U Y I N L A N O Y V C E PI R E I N ON L L PE M E R LS O M AT Y S IO M C L S U R AT L S U R AT L S U R AT L S E M C L S U R E R LS R E C E M E Y S IO E M M E T R R E N N O N N L O L O L O I O E E E O R E E E L T SS C E L EG T E E ED ED L EG L EG D E R D ION T E E E D N SC E R ION SC E R ION SC E R ION SC ED N SC E R EG V E SC E R EG V E SC E E R D EG ON N R S L S N E E ER E I M L E RO C I I I I M T Y M T T IE R E Y I I I I I I C Y IC E E E E E E E R C C C I R R I I R S G I I I E E E E E E E S C R R R E M S S C C C C R S O H S L A C E H M E I N S L A S L A I N M E I N O C E HO I N O N C M E O N C M E O N C M E O N C M E O N C M E L A S Y N C M E L A S Y N C HO E I N E L A O OV T E C I E R H D I S V E Y L R V O D T NT E O T L L O P D E L T T E L DY E L N T L L P E L V E E DY N T E DY N T E DY N T E DI V E E DY T I S T E DY T I S T E N P M A S P E L M Y I E E M R S E C ION S E C IC I EG ION ION EG M EG RO S S E C EG R S PIO M RO PIO M RO PIO M RO PIO C I R S PIO M ON E M PIO M ON E M PIO C M EG ON RO R S C C E PE E TI SC U N Y E Y N Y ED Y C DI ON U ED IS E E E E E E C U I I I P V U I N V V V V L N N N N N N C C S S S C C S C E U D D D D D D C C C S S R E S I C S S R I E L I L

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One day, scientists say, stem cells may be used to repair or replace damaged cells and have the potential to treat conditions like cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease and diabetes. In theory, any condition in which there is tissue degeneration could be a potential candidate for stem cell therapies.

all tissues. There is no such thing in adults. “That’s why it’s so important to understand the science,” he added.

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stem cells

Embryonic stem cells have the potential to develop into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth. In many tissues stem cells also serve as a sort of internal repair system, dividing to replenish other cells. When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential either to remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell, a blood cell or a brain cell.

current therap i es

Adult stem cell treatments have been successfully used for many years to treat leukemia and related bone/blood cancers through bone marrow transplants. Weissman’s laboratory was the first to identify and isolate the blood-forming stem cell from mice and from humans.

Weissman’s journey into understanding some of the most intricate science about the human body began in Great Falls. His grandfather arrived as an immigrant at Ellis Island in the early 1900s and then headed west, settling near Great Falls. He worked as a junk man and fur trader and later owned a secondhand auto body parts store, eventually also working in steel supply, plumbing supply and hardware. Weissman’s father later took over the business. Weissman, who is now 70, said his interest in science began when he was 10 and read a book about the lives of scientists, including Robert Koch, a German physician who developed criteria to establish a causal relationship between a microbe and disease. “How do you know something causes a disease? This discovery by Koch dramatically changed things, for everybody,” Weissman said. “And for me, reading about it the first time and seeing that connection between science and disease—I wanted to be able to do that.” About five years later, Weissman approached Ernst Eichwald, a Great Falls scientist, to see if he could work in his Great Falls laboratory to learn more about research. Eichwald quickly became a mentor. Weissman remembers how, early in his career when he was working in Great Falls, he encountered in a room near the lab in Deaconess Hospital a toddler who had leukemia. “That combination, working in the lab, watching this poor 18-month-old child die because there was no therapy, all added up to plenty of motivation for me,” Weissman said. “Not only to do research, but to take the research as far as possible (and) to apply it to medicine. Not just publish a great discovery

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ments to answer the questions, and then the whole deal (or a not so great discovery), but to try to translate it of making it real. So the only way you get that is workinto medicine.” ing in a lab, and the sooner you start, the better.” However, Weissman is quick to point out that his In the fall of 1960, Weissman entered a special grades were not exemplary. He never made it into the five-year research and medicine program at Stanford, top 10 percent of his class in Great Falls. allowing him—in conjunction with his coursework at “But I was also doing science,” Weissman said. “I Dartmouth and Montana State—to receive a bachwon (a) grand prize at Billings in the 1957 Montana elor’s of science in pre-medicine from Montana State State science fair my senior year, and had published College in 1961, after just one year at Montana State. two papers by the time I graduated high school.” Weissman earned his M.D. at Stanford in 1965. He has Weissman attended Dartmouth for two years. “I could see that I wasn’t learning or doing science at been there ever since. Dartmouth,” Weissman said. “I also hated living in the While some call Weissman’s time in Montana East. I hated the traditionalism of the East.” an unlikely start to a prominent career in stem cell So Weissman left Dartmouth and enrolled at what research, Weissman says his Montana background was was then Montana State College in Bozeman, where he crucial to his success. met “some of the greatest scientists and teachers—of“One of the things about growing up in Montana, ten better than I had at Dartmouth.” compared to the East, is that you’re less constrained by As an undergraduate student at Montana State, tradition and convention, so you can think creatively,” Weissman learned the importance of reading others’ Weissman said. “You are more likely to question auresearch experiments thoroughly and evaluating their thority. And that’s a good thing.” methods and analyses. Weissman’s colleagues also note that his path illusMontana State geneticist Palmer “Dave” Skaar was trates his love of learning and desire for knowledge. particularly important to Weissman. “Irv exhibits a deep and burning intellectual curios“Dave Skaar brought me into a whole different world, ity. That is fundamental to good scientists,” said Leroy a very advanced world,” said Weissman, who took six Hood, Weissman’s long-time friend. Hood is also from courses with Skaar during the year he was at Montana Montana and co-founder of the Institute for Systems State. “He taught by analyzing the great genetics exBiology in Seattle, which pioneers systems approaches periments of the day, and he related them to problems to biology and medicine. “Irv is deeply curious and in both evolution and population biology.” wants to understand in depth how things work. I think Skaar’s courses helped Weissman embrace a philoso- it’s very much a part of his approach to the world, unphy that learning must be done in a lab. Weissman’s derstanding how the world works.” advice for people interested in pursuing careers in ——————————— research stems from that philosophy. Though he would rather be conducting research or fly“There’s no predicting from the grades you’ve got fishing, Weissman’s work also demands his full involvewhether you’re going to have the talent (to go into ment in a world of politics and economics. And, traits that research),” Weissman said. “And you also have to have make him a good scientist seem to serve him equally well the desire to look at medical issues, from fundamental as he navigates those waters. His methodical reasoning, science where you’re asking questions, devising expericalm demeanor and ability to communicate scientific

i s that y o u ’ re l ess c o nstra i ned by trad i t i o n and c o n v ent i o n , s o y o u can th i n k C reat i v e ly. Y o u are m o re l i k e ly t o q uest i o n auth o r i ty. A nd that ’s a g o o d th i n g . — irving weissman

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relevance to a lay audience have been important assets as he testifies at hearings and debates the issues about stem cells, including hearings before the U.S. Congress. Still, Weissman says that politics and economics are often the most frustrating aspects of his job. In 2001, President George W. Bush limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to the stem cell lines then in existence, arguing that extracting the stem cell destroys the embryo and its potential for life. President Barack Obama lifted the ban last year, only to be reversed in August 2010 by a federal judge, who said an expansion of embryonic stem cell research violated a ban on federal money being used to destroy embryos. An appeals court lifted the resulting temporary injunction

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barring the federal government from funding research involving human embryonic stem cell research, but the implications of the judge’s ruling were still being determined, and Weissman said he hoped it would be overturned. “(President) Bush, and (Sam) Brownback in the (U.S.) Senate, and (Dave) Weldon in the (U.S.) House, and the Catholic Church, and the Pope—who I eventually met—all opposed this kind of stem cell research, some equating it to murder,” Weissman said. “And I said, ‘Well, which of these diseases do you think we shouldn’t pursue just as hard as we can? Stopping stem cell research stops an important path to understand and treat these diseases.’” To respond to the ban, Weissman was important

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Photo ¡ photographer

Irving Weissman was inspired to become a scientist at age 10 when he read a biography about scientist Robert Koch and others. Recently Weissman, regarded as one of the foremost researchers working on stem cells, won the Robert Koch Prize, the top international scientific prize in microbiology. Here he speaks to an audience in his native Great Falls.

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mou ntain s and mind s


N T R ST H IE E O PE NC M C EP E U T DI R E PI I O C O N S N IN E TE C E ER M O L N M HO CE T R C E L PE L S O D R CI N T IC CU S S C I E E PI O M N RO N E RE O N E C LE NE TR D E VE LE G E R O Y M PIO R S GI IS V Y S M L H ER ED NE ST AT O E S I E S E M D C C P ED C IC I E IO E Y S I N R H O IC E L I N NC N CU T E E C LE P L SC IN S E L E P O R E M G C N S E E R I I I C L E EN L E IE GI ON T R E M EL S P LS C IO G C G N SL E O IS C R O A ER VE ED S N IS E SC E M N T E E L A PIO L A E P T IO H R Y M M C O I E E D RO R T I N T I IO N O S Y P S E E H O E O N SC HO D N T NC Y M V E O N ER N E CO E C TE I E S Y I E PE C I RO E P E R S PE C O H C O R N T U R D Y N S T NC C U E V E IO IC S C U N OP N T HO RO E T T N R E E L E I N E R E RO C RO PE V E C EM P R E S L E ON C IO E R GI Y S ER E M U V C RS R V L C R ER U C R M GI T EL N E E M SL A T E HO EG E E M ER E R L R U E E S M SL O L ED Y R SY E E E I L T M P D R S PI H E R S PI D S I E V A C L M ST S E IC O O E H Y O O T A S Y E S E LL CU T CI M TE ED E S C N PE R E DY I N I O R C I O M N C E NE SC I S E E E M C P E E R M O E N Y M Y O S IE E C N E C ER IE D O S N DI C U ED E LE C S M N TE N R C U C IC N SC E R N C N C E T D R E T C O H U R R E H C H C IN L E IN TR IE EM O IC GI N E M P E Y LE R M LE E E O R E O E O L P M O I S E S T E OV N C E N IO E R R PE P PE M E P PE R E PI R E G PI R E G V C E IN L R C O T E S E E L I O M IS O M IS E EL IO C M DI E AT O E L N E R E L E E R E DY RO N E E G C C M M CU ON CU DI C R N L L N N L V E L U M P G E E L L U I E C U ED ED O C S S A M E L A E S O I E D I E E E V E E E D D R R R ER Y TI ER Y TI Y S SC ER R E Y IN G G N R S S R H ED ISL Y ON ED E R S PE R E Y Y E ER E IN NT SC E GI ST S ST S S S S R H I O E I E C S L T E H M E ON T E H M E N T E I E H R E M E L S L C O Y C I OP Y M AT T E E E IC S Y O H H C R E M E M E R E H R E L RO I E R E SL T E H E E L L L U A N A O O IO M R I N S P N U E M O EG M O EG M O EG M O D D C M NC OP M D E G AT N S T E N E C E R T M P P P P P C R M E DI DI M E PE M E G V E C E M E T I E I I I T O T E D H E E D D IS R D O CE E C IS CE E C IS CE E C IS CE E R IO CE E C CI ON CE E C CI N CE E P E C D CI ISL ION R M CE CU IC N C CE O E L E D C C O N S Y PI R E Y I N I N Y C U Y L A S Y PI Y LL U LA LL U LA LL U LA LL E N LL U N L L U N T L L IO U Y M N E A P R T L C E P I O V E O L N M M C E M G T CO E E IO E T T S S R T S M C O S R E L RO S R E L RO S S R T N R S ON M M E N L E L I E R E E O S R R E NT S S CU IS EG T E E ED ED L EG L EG D E R D ION T E E E D N SC E R ION SC E R ION SC E R ION SC ED N SC E R EG V E SC E R EG V E SC E E E R D EG ON N R S L S N E E LE R C E I M R I I I M T Y T IE E IE Y IE E C R IE R E C E C IS R C TR IE E R IE E I I R Y IC S E G O IE E I I I M C R R IE E H SL CE H M I N SL SL I N M E I N CO CE H I N O NC M E CO NC M E CO NC M E CO NC M E O NC M E SL A S Y NC M E SL A S Y NC HO M E I N L A O O ST CI R H ED IS V E N V E E E Y V O AT L O E D E AT AT E L N E R C N L OP E V E E D N N N D S D D D D D T E T ST E T O E E E DI E E PE I T LS E L L PE I Y L L IO E P Y IO T E P PE Y L E IO T R E R M NC P M AT S Y E P I I L R P Y T P Y T P Y P Y T P C R C E M E I M S I I E C G M S Y C ON S S C C I N EG ON ON EG M EG RO S C EG S Y IO M RO IO M RO IO M RO IO I N S Y IO M N O S ED V ED N C M C ON ED N C C ON U ED IS ED IS V C U IS V Y S E L PI C U DIC ON T E N ED V N ED V N E C C IS C CI U S N S N R E IS I S U R E L L C

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des i g ned . Y o u ’ re the f i rst pers o n o n earth t o k n o w and understand what i t i s .

— irving weissman

Photo · photographer

son said. “And of course, he loves to fish.” in the writing and passage of California’s Proposition In fact, it doesn’t take long for fishing to come up 71, which protected the research as a state right and in a conversation with Weissman. One fishing story he allocated $3 billion in state funds over 10 years. The shares involves his 17-year-old daughter, Rachel. measure put California at the forefront nationally of “She is a great caster,” Weissman said. “If I float, as the field of stem cell research. Weissman recognizes communication about stem cells I will, with her down the Bitterroot or the Missouri … can be polarizing, weighed down by people’s perceptions. usually I sit in back and she sits in front. And so you’re “I realized that even when I said the word ‘embryo,’ if looking for the spot where the trout might be. And you cast your fly. Inevitably now, I see the spot, I do the I said it to people who weren’t even in the field, ‘Draw cast, and hers lands just in front of mine.” an embryo,’ inevitably they’d draw a fetus. So I’d say, ‘How can we talk to each other?’ If I say ‘embryo,’ and ——————————— I know it’s some cells that are in a dish, and you think Weissman says he remembers every discovery he’s ever of a human fetus, then already it’s been polarized and made, from his early experiments as a 16-year-old boy politicized, and whatever religious or political group in Great Falls to breakthrough research he performed got to you first might have influenced your way.” as an adult, including isolating blood-forming stem ——————————— cells in mice and humans. And, the process of discovery feels the same every In addition to his membership in the National Academy of Sciences, which is considered one of the highest time. Sometimes Weissman celebrates discoveries with other members of his research team, but more often honors that can be given a scientist or engineer, Weissthan not, the discovery itself is the celebration. man has received numerous awards. Among them are “The big celebration is the moment you see it, and California Scientist of the Year in 2002 and, in 2008, usually you’re alone,” Weissman said. “It’s incredible, to the prestigious Robert Koch Prize, which is widely see a piece of data coming from a thought you had, an regarded as the leading international scientific prize experiment you designed,” Weissman said. “You’re the in microbiology. Some people speculate that he may first person on Earth to know and understand what it is.” someday win the Nobel Prize, as many recipients of Weissman admits that his is an exciting line of work, the Robert Koch Prize have. “Irv stands above most scientists,” said George Carlson, but it’s also frustrating to him when barriers arise. “I don’t get to rest, and say, ‘Gee, that was great,’ director of the McLaughlin Research Institute in Great Falls, of which Weissman is a board member. “He’s defi- because I see what I have to do next. It’s a responsibility, and sometimes you wish that you didn’t have to do nitely in the top 1 percent of scientists. It’s not a trivial all of those other things.” thing to get into the National Academy (of Sciences).” Still, Weissman remains focused. What is even more Throughout his career, Weissman’s love for Montana important than the discovery, and all of the hurdles has been evident. He travels back to the state multiple that come with it, is its application. times each year, sometimes to lecture or to raise funds “If this translation doesn’t happen, or is delayed for for the McLaughlin Research Institute. “Irv is exceptionally generous,” Carlson said. “He just 4–8 years while somebody dithers about the philosophy of it, or the political reality of it, some people will die wants to give back the opportunities he was given.” Carlson believes Montana is important to Weissman who had a short window of opportunity,” Weissman said. “And I’m really cognizant of that.” for another reason. “He knows where he came from, and I think things like the work ethic play a big role in his success,” Carlfal l 2010

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Profile for Samuel Klusmeyer

On the Edge  

This article encompasses Dr. Weissman's journey from Great Fall's Montana, through college, and into his current distinction as an award win...

On the Edge  

This article encompasses Dr. Weissman's journey from Great Fall's Montana, through college, and into his current distinction as an award win...

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