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Fall 2020 Student Faculty Research Awards Winners

Many of the projects funded this semester by the Student Faculty Research Awards involve topics that could be considered “very 2020,” with COVID-19, microbes, and mortality highly represented among the twelve winners.

The Student Faculty Research Awards encourages graduate students and faculty to collaborate to submit proposals for grants up to $5,000 to support research or creative projects. The awards advance important research while also fostering the mentoring relationship between faculty and graduate students.

This semester’s awardees:

“Cat’s Out of The Bag!? Could There Be a SARS-Cov-2-Like Virus Circulating in Cats in East Tennessee?”

PhD student Trevor Hancock and Associate Professor Tim Sparer from the Department of Microbiology will use a test developed in the Sparer Lab to identify novel coronaviruses with similarities to SARS coronaviruses (like SARS-Cov-2 which has been identified as the cause of COVID-19) within the United States. By screening samples of domestic animals from UT’s Veterinary School, they plan to develop a picture of how pervasive this SARS-like coronavirus may be, as well as what species are infected, and to establish monitoring plans.

“Overcoming COVID-19 Obstacles: The Efficacy of Using Virtual Reality for Remote Physical Therapy During a Pandemic”

PhD student Logan Markwell and Associate Professor Jared Porter from the Department of Kinesiology and Sports Studies have noted the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on physical therapy (PT) clinics, resulting in many requests for ways to remotely perform prescribed PT exercises. They intend to follow up on their research on VR and motor function to investigate if PT patients from a clinic in the Knoxville community can successfully use VR at home to guide them through PT activities similar to those performed in the clinic.

“Assessing the Impacts of End-of-Life Prescription Medications on Blow Fly Larval Development”

Larval blow flies are primary decomposers and the development time and length of these larvae are metrics used to determine post-mortem interval estimations in death investigations. Noting that the CDC reports that over half of American adults take medications that may be present in an individual at death, PhD student Hayden McKee-Zech and Professor Dawnie Steadman from the Department of Anthropology will be investigating the effects of certain commonly-found drugs on development, larval size and survivorship of Phormia regina, the black blow fly. These effects may produce misleading post-mortem interval estimations that may have important judicial consequences, including wrongful convictions.

“Sampling Svalbard Permafrost to Study Microbial Ecology in an Extremely Cold Subsurface Environment”

In the extremely cold environment of Svalbard, Norway, PhD student Sayali Mulay and Associate Professor Karen Lloyd from the Department of Microbiology will be studying microorganisms living in the permafrost, soil that stays frozen in the coldest parts of the planet, and the soil above the permafrost, the active layer. Learning more about the unique ways these microorganisms adapt to the adversely cold and nutrient-poor environment helps us think about them as a possible analog for life outside our planet, such as Mars, but also better understand them as first-responders to climate change right here on Earth.

“Eradicating Hunger in West Africa: Genetic Diversity and Spatial Distribution of Native Frafra Potato Plant”

PhD student Michelle Odoi and Assistant Professor Denita Hadziabdic-Guerry from the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology will build upon existing work on the Frafra potato, a crop indigenous to Sub-Saharan Africa known for its nutritious and medicinal qualities. By studying the genetic diversity of this important crop, the investigators intend to inform breeding mechanisms for large-scale production, solidifying the role of the Frafra potato in sustainable agricultural strategies necessary in achieving long-term food security in Africa, promoting access to nutritious food for everyone.

“Gaining Insight into Fluvial Transport by Tracking an Artificial Drowning Victim”

Search and recovery efforts for human remains as a result of drownings in large bodies of water can be very expensive and can endanger recovery experts. Recovery teams are often looking in the wrong place due to the difficulty of guessing where a body might move under the water, raising the cost and extending the danger. PhD student Karli Palmer and Professor Dawnie Steadman of the Department of Anthropology’s Forensic Anthropology Center will release “smart” manikins into the Tennessee River to gather data on changes in velocity, water pressure, temperature and many other variables. This data will allow for more accurate models that can narrow down such search areas, reducing the personnel and equipment required.

“Using Next-Generation Sequencing to Define the Evolving Microbiome of an Insect-Infecting Nematode”

Steinernema nematodes exist in a mutually symbiotic relationship with Xenorhabdus bacteria, where each needs the other to survive. PhD student Elizabeth Ransone and Heidi Goodrich-Blair, the head of the Department of Microbiology, are studying a unique pairing between Steinernema scapterisci, the mole cricket nematode, and the bacterium Xenorhabdus innexi. The relationship between these two seems to be becoming less mutually beneficial, due to limitations of the bacteria in helping break down prey insects or serving as food for the nematode. This presents an opportunity to study the development of new mutualistic relationships as the nematode microbiome adapts to a new host. This study not only expands our understanding of host-microbiome evolution but will also have real-world relevance for insect-targeted agricultural pest control.

“Facing a Masked Community: Anxiety and Depression Rates for People with Hearing Loss”

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted multiple aspects of life for nearly everyone across the country and the world but has been especially difficult for vulnerable populations such as people with hearing loss because of the way the pandemic has impacted communication. PhD student Kristel Scoresby and Assistant Professor Thereasa Abrams from the College of Social Work are seeking to employ a mixed methods approach to identify depression and anxiety rates for the deaf and hard of hearing population (DHH) in the current pandemic and use this data to guide further dissertation research. The team hopes to identify the role of metacognitive beliefs in mental health distress resulting from communication barriers, explore the in-depth lived experience of navigating a masked personal and professional world for DHH, and ultimately disseminate the data to increase awareness of mental health needs for this population.

“Determining Efficacy of Vaginal Cytokines as an Early Pregnancy Detection Method in Cattle”

The world population is rapidly increasing and expected to reach approximately 10 billion people by 2050, which creates a challenge for the agricultural industry to increase sustainable food production and provide for the heightened demand. As livestock are a major contributor to the food supply, improving the efficiency and sustainability of livestock production is vital to provide enough food, maintain profitability, and prevent overconsumption of resources. PhD student Taylor Seay and Assistant Professor Kyle McLean from the Department of Animal Science are building upon previous research and studies of the reproductive efficiency of cattle to improve livestock welfare via early pregnancy detection.

“Extreme Microbe Hunting: Using Comparative Omics Tools to Reveal Useful, Bioactive Molecules in a Rare, Isolated Antarctic Brine”

Antibiotic resistance is a critical global health and agricultural threat, requiring novel therapeutics. PhD student Jacob Shaffer and Associate Professor Jill Mikucki of the Department of Microbiology are searching to identify and develop new bioactive molecules for use against pathogens. The pair will examine extreme environments and Antartic extremophiles for unique adaptations with a specific focus on identifying novel biosynthetic pathways. This work will contribute to their understanding of secondary metabolite production, including antimicrobials, that can be utilized for improved pharmaceutical and industrial purposes.

“Undergraduate Psychological Well-Being During the COVID-19 Pandemic”

College students are a particularly vulnerable population during the COVID-19 pandemic. PhD student Jacqueline Sullivan and Assistant Professor Kristy Benoir Allen from the Department of Psychology plan to build on previous research about the reported increase of high levels of depression, anxiety, and stress amongst undergraduate students across the globe. Recognizing limits of evaluating long-term outcomes using methods of current research on the topic, Sullivan and Benoir Allen plan to investigate longitudinal psychological outcomes among undergraduate students and better understand how COVID-related stress relates to psychological well-being and pertinent risk and protective factors over time.

“Do Invasive Plants Alter Communication Among Plants, Insects, and Soil Microbiomes to Affect Plant Performance?”

PhD student Sophia Turner and Professor Jennifer Schweitzer from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology are studying the interactions between plants and other species, including other plants, herbivores, pollinators and microbes, to determine growth, fitness, and sustainability of plant populations. The pair will examine how non-native plant species alter the growth and performance of native species and how non-native species indirectly alter the structure and function of above- and below-ground communities associated with native plants. They will then determine how these simultaneous interactions alter net plant performance, contributing to the management of invasive plant species.