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Spring 2021 Student Faculty Research Awards 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:

“The Effector of Predatory Crab Spiders on Self-Pollination Rates and Inbreeding Depression of an Endemic Lily”

There is increasing evidence that predators can significantly affect plants via their pollinators, which are responsible for transporting plant gametes. By altering the abundance and behavior of pollinators, predators have the potential to impact the genetics of plant populations. Amanda Benoit, a PhD student in ecology and evolutionary biology, has been studying interactions between crab spiders, pollinators and Calochortus luteus, the yellow mariposa lily. Beyond the impact on pollinators, there is evidence for a hypothesis that crab spiders may also cause self-pollination by transferring pollen from anthers to stigma within the same flower. Working with Susan Kalisz, the Head of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Benoit plans to test this hypothesis by comparing the levels of inbreeding in populations with and without crab spiders. If crab spiders affect rates of self-pollination, they could play an important and previously unrecognized role in shaping plant mating systems and population genetics.

“Investigating the Consequences of Phenological Mismatch on Understory Plant Reproduction”

In response to altered weather patterns caused by climate change, many organisms experience shifts in the timing of their major life history events. Understory plant species in forests can be affected by shifts in the timing of the leafing of trees (impacting the amount of available light) and the emergence of pollinators (impacting the receipt of pollen). Alexandra Faidiga, a PhD student in ecology and evolutionary biology, will work with Susan Kalisz, Head of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, to conduct an field experiment designed by Faidiga involving the spring-blooming violet Viola rostrata. This plant, which produces both flowers that are self-pollinated and flowers that are pollinated by outcrossing, will be studied by manipulating light availability and pollen receipt to simulate mismatches due to leaf shade and pollinator activity. If, as expected, these mismatches result in the production of more self-pollinating flowers (which can result in reduced fitness and genetic diversity through inbreeding), it may help explain the decline of many spring wildflower species and the role played by climate change.

“Assessing the Socioecology of Rat Lungworm Infection Prevalence in Intermediate Gastropod Hosts Across Post-Katrina New Orleans”

Catastrophic disasters can potentially elevate infectious disease risk by transforming social-ecological landscapes. The aftermath of population loss and land management practices with Hurricane Katrina created a mosaic of urban blight that has reinforced persistent social-ecological disparities across the city. Nathaniel Gibson, PhD student in ecology and evolutionary biology, and Michael Blum, professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, will assess the infection rates of A. cantonensis in intermediate gastropod hosts to further understanding of transmission risk across post-Katrina New Orleans. The proposed study will be the first to examine social-ecological drivers of gastropod infection, and could help guide strategies to reduce transmission risk and highlight the need for more complex preventative measures to address broader conditions that elevate transmission risk, including disaster response and resettlement policies that can exacerbate long-standing legacies of sociocultural disparities in health and well-being.

“Testing the Hypothesis that DNA Loss is Beneficial in Bacteria Under Nutrient-Limitation”

A primary goal in evolutionary biology is to understand how novel traits, adaptations, and diversity arise. One approach to gaining these understandings is to investigate the causes and consequences of different evolutionary mechanisms. Liz Glasgo, PhD student in microbology, and Erik Zinser, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, propose using Escherichia coli as a model organism to study the selective advantage of genome reduction. E. coli has a large genome containing over 4500 genes, most of which are not essential for growth. The ability to genetically manipulate E. coli, the vast literature on this microbe, and its well annotated genome will aid in analysis and interpretation of the effects of DNA loss.

“Mitigating the Effects of Anti-Immigration Sentiment and COVID-19 on Immigrant Communities: The Role of Resilience”

Despite evidence supporting the mitigating role of resilience, data is limited and lacking with diverse immigrant samples that allow analysis based on origin. Melody Huslage, PhD student in social work, and Mary Held, associate professor in the College of Social Work, plan to investigate the role of resilience among first and second generation immigrants in the current sociopolitical context of key stressors that disproportionately affect the mental health of immigrants: anti-immigration sentiment, COVID-19, and discrimination. The pair hope to provide more in-depth knowledge regarding stress related to anti-immigration sentiment, COVID-19, and discrimination among diverse immigrant communities. The researchers will also report the effects of stress on depression and anxiety for immigrants by origin subgroup to provide insight into experiences of resilience as a buffer for mental health.

“Culturing Native and Beneficial Plant Growth-Promoting Species from Livestock-Based Biodynamic Preparations”

The contemporary organic revolution varies considerably from its original condition. Microbial inoculations have gained great importance for improving the availability of nutrients to plants. However, most commercial inoculations do not have a significant impact on the farming system and are relatively expensive. Biodynamic formulations based on locally available cow manure fermentation are commonly used in organic farming around the world. Currently, there is insufficient knowledge on the microbial diversity of these inoculations including pathogenic organisms and the mechanism of their plant growth promotion. Ravi Teja Neelipally, PhD student in plant, soil and environmental science, and Sindhu Jagadamma, assistant professor in the Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science, plan to prepare a formulation, assess the supply of major and micronutrients from these inoculations, and classify and characterize the functionality of the microbial diversity. The proposed project will be a significant contribution in designing new ways to create socially, economically, and environmentally responsible agricultural systems.

“Magnetometer Array System for Mirror Neutron Search”

Astronomical and cosmological observations have shown that all the matter that we are able to directly detect (us, the planets, the stars, the galaxies, etc.) comprises only a small portion of the matter that exists in the universe. The rest of this unseen matter is often called dark matter, since it cannot be directly observable. Shaun Vavra, a PhD student in physics, will be instrumental in the construction of a system that can be used in an experiment proposed by Yuri Kamyshkov, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, using the High-Flux Isotope Reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This system of magnetometers, based on the success of previous demonstrations by Vavra, will enable high-quality experiments that have the potential to contribute significantly to the search for dark matter.

“Controlling the Formation of Antibiotic Resistant Bacterial cells in a Pathogenic E. Coli Population”

Although antibiotics are used widely as a cure for bacterial diseases worldwide, antibiotic resistance has become rampant and is now a major factor in bacterial related deaths. Selene Shore, a PhD student in microbiology, and Elizabeth Fozo, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, are investigating the expression of genes in bacteria that contribute to this resistance. Using the Advanced Microscopy Imaging Center (AMIC) at UT combined with the technique of flow cytometry, they will learn more about the expression of the gene ZorO. They hypothesize that production of ZorO leads to the formation of persister cells, which are highly tolerant to antibiotics, leading to infection relapse. Their work will provide a framework for studying similar genes that contribute to antibiotic resistance, especially those that are difficult to study using traditional microbiological methods.

“Modeling Radiofrequency Heating and Pasteurization of Whole Milk Powder for Improving the Safety of Low-Moisture Food Products”

Low-moisture foods such as dairy powders, grains, flours, nuts and dried vegetables are traditionally considered safe products because the low moisture prevents the survival and growth of bacteria. However, recent studies have shown some pathogens can survive in these products and several disease outbreaks in such foods are posing a significant public health concern. Ran Yang, a PhD student in food science, and Jiajia Chen, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science, are investigating radiofrequency (RF) heating, which is a promising technology for heating and pasteurizing low-moisture foods. They will develop and validate a model that integrates physics and kinetics to simulate RF heating and pasteurization with the goal of providing data-driven support for RF, leading to accelerated adoption of this technology in the food industry and an improvement in the safety of low-moisture food products.

“Development and Pre-Clinical Evaluation of Injectable Polysaccharide Hydrogel for Local Drug Delivery of Therapeutic Agents to Pediatric Brain Tumor”

More than 99.9% of patients treated for childhood cancer still have chronic health conditions at age 50, and malignant central nervous system tumors such as medulloblastoma remain the leading cause of death among children diagnosed with cancer. As an active volunteer at a children’s hospital, Jenny Patel saw first-hand the challenges in diagnosing and alleviating such ailments. Now a PhD student in biomedical engineering, Jenny is working with Elizabeth Barker, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering. Their project involves the synthesis and evaluation of a starch-based injectable hydrogel as a delivery method for a conventional drug, doxorubicin, administered locally to treat pediatric medulloblastoma tumors. The goal is to address challenging issues in pediatric oncology by reducing the long-term morbidities often caused by cancer treatments, improving the survival rates for high-risk tumors like medulloblastoma, and developing more effective methods of drug delivery.

“Relationship of an Emerging Soybean Root Pathogen and Soybean-Pathogenic Nematodes”

Soybean is a significant Tennessee crop, being grown on more acres of the state than any other row crop. This crop is currently being threatened by a disease known as Xylaria Taproot Decline (TRD), which has been discovered to be spreading through the southern US, including Tennessee. This disease, caused by a fungus of the species Xylaria, has resulted in significant yield loss, according to preliminary reports. Shelly Pate, a PhD student in entomology, plant pathology and nematology, is working with Ernest Bernard, professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, to investigate the impact certain species of nematode have on the presence of this species of Xylaria and its ability to cause disease. They hypothesize that these nematodes, themselves known to be a major problem in soybean production, interact with this species of Xylaria to cause more serious disease than either do separately. Their research will suggest strategies for dealing with these Xylaria-nematode combinations in order to protect such an economically important crop.

“Agricultural Transition and Husbandry Practices in 17th and 18th Century Virginia: A Case Study Using Stable Isotope Analysis of Faunal Remains”

In the United States, changing agricultural strategies such as crop production and livestock management in the 17th and 18th centuries were closely connected to the rise and changing conditions of racialized slavery; new class structures; changes in gender roles and relationships; and environmental degradation. Brigid Ogden, a PhD student in anthropology, and Barbara Heath, professor and head of the Department of Anthropology, will investigate archaeological remains of domestic herbivores from the 17th and 18th centuries as a way to show the connections between changes in animal husbandry and the shift from a tobacco-based export economy to one in which wheat was the primary commercial crop. Documenting how, when and where these agricultural changes occurred in relation to other historical processes can help us to understand how the legacy of these practices continue to underpin current inequalities.

And the following awardees received the Robert W. Pedersen Memorial Research Award, a special category of the Student Faculty Research Awards.

“Intralesional Mesenchymal Stem Cell Dosage Trial in a Rat Achilles Injury Model”

In the fields of human and veterinary sports medicine, an increasingly common practice for treating tendon injuries involves mesenchymal stem cells, traditionally found in bone marrow. Although there are indications that this therapy leads to less recurrence of tendonitis or reinjury, there is no established dosage. Kristin Bowers, a PhD candidate in comparative and experimental medicine, will work with David Anderson, Associate Dean of Research for the College of Veterinary Medicine to perform a pilot study using a rodent model to investigate the impacts of five different dosage levels of mesenchymal stem cell therapy on tendon injuries. This study will provide essential data that can be used to support further experiments using rat and pre-clinical models to establish the relative importance of cell dose when treating tendonitis and the effective dosages for the treatment of clinically relevant tendon injuries.