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Research Award Winners—Agriculture and the Environment

The Student Faculty Research Awards are used to advance the scholarship of graduate students and faculty working in partnership. Grants up to $5,000 are awarded to the selected student/faculty pairs and are intended to help support student research/scholarship/creative activity; give students experience writing grants; and foster the mentoring relationship between faculty and graduate students. This fall, 25 student/faculty pairs were selected to receive the awards. Read some of the winning proposal summaries below that include topics such as geography, ecology, biology, animal science, and agriculture.

Detecting Evidence of Past Floods in Growth Rings of Trees using Quantitative Wood Anatomy

Savannah Collins-Key—PhD student, geography
Sally Horn—professor, Department of Geography

According to the most recent US National Climate Assessment, extreme precipitation events are expected to increase in frequency and intensity in the 21st century, making flooding a critical issue in future risk assessments for the populous southeastern United States. There is limited data on high magnitude floods, affecting the precision of risk assessments. Savannah Collins-Key, working towards a PhD in geography, and Sally Horn, professor in the Department of Geography, hope to augment the instrumental record with data obtained from tree rings to increase the accuracy of flood risk in model projections. Tree-ring or dendrochronological analyses can provide detailed records of major floods many years prior to the first written records of floods or data about the amount of water flowing in streams and rivers. The objective of their research is to develop flood records using tree-ring samples from riparian oaks in the southeastern U.S. to improve future flood risk assessments.

Does Anthropogenic Noise Limit Territory Size for an Urban Songbird?

Ruth Simberloff—MS student, ecology and evolutionary biology
Elizabeth Derryberry—associate professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Anthropogenic, or human-derived, noise is especially disruptive to animals in urban habitats that rely on acoustic communication because it masks (i.e., limits detection of) acoustic signals. Many studies demonstrate that urban noise interferes with songbird communication by masking birdsong, yet the broader consequences of impaired communication are still poorly understood. By studying white-crowned sparrows in the California Bay Area, previous work by Elizabeth Derryberry, associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, has demonstrated that anthropogenic noise levels are greater and more persistent in San Francisco than in Point Reyes (30 miles from San Francisco), and that urban birds have reduced communication distance compared to rural birds. Ruth Simberloff, master’s student in ecology and evolutionary biology, along with Elizabeth Derryberry, hopes to further this research by studying a larger sample size of these birds in the California Bay Area. As song is a long-range signal thought to be critical for territorial defense in white-crowned sparrows, they expect to find that territory size is limited by communication distance. Not only is this an active frontier in animal behavior research, it is also essential to understanding the myriad complex ways in which the human landscape interacts with the natural world.

Canine Parvovirus Infection in Coyotes from South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee

Eliza Baker—dual DVM and PhD student, College of Veterinary Medicine
Richard Gerhold—associate professor, Department of Biomedical and Diagnostic Sciences

Canine parvovirus (CPV) is one of the most important infections in veterinary medicine as it causes devastating effects in young domestic dogs. Despite a widely available vaccine, thousands of puppies contract this disease every year, and often as many as 10% do not survive. Studies across the United States have shown a remarkably high prevalence of antibodies to CPV in coyotes, but research into this disease in the southeast is limited. Eliza Baker, a dual DVM and PhD graduate student in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Richard Gerhold, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical and Diagnostic Sciences, propose to help fill this gap in CPV knowledge in the southeastern US, where coyotes have relatively recently migrated from the southwest. By testing fecal samples of coyotes (and foxes) from North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, the team hopes to increase our understanding of the disease ecology of CPV and the implications for both wildlife and domestic animals.

Population Genetic Structure and Evolutionary History of a Unique Belize Theobroma cacao L. Population

Holly Brabazon—PhD student, entomology, plant pathology and nematology
Margaret Staton—associate professor, Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology

Tropical rainforests of Central America are threatened by the expansion of agriculture, especially slash-and-burn methods of cultivation used by tropical forest farmers worldwide. Holly Brabazon, working toward a PhD in entomology, plant pathology and nematology, and Margaret Staton, associate professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology propose to investigate a way to reduce the negative impacts of agriculture on forest ecosystems through chocolate; more specifically, Theobroma cacao L., or cacao. Cacao which naturally grows under the shade of the forest canopy is typically of higher quality than that grown in full sun, but the yield is often lower, leading to the destruction of forested land to grow high-yield varieties. By investigating a wild variety of a highly desired cultivar of cacao, the team hopes to increase the economic feasibility of growing cacao under the rainforest canopy in an effort to preserve native rainforests.

Characterization of the Rheological Properties of Cell Cultures for Cultivated Meat Production

Fernando Cantarero—PhD student, food science
Jiajia Chen—assistant professor, Department of Food Science

Cultivated meat (also known as cell-based, lab-grown, or cultured meat) is an innovative technology that has gained wide interest in academia and the food industry, due to its potentially significant environmental benefits and the impact on animal welfare. The commercialization of cultivated meat products, such as “cultured chicken,” has been enabled by research on cost-effective culture media and cell lines. However, Fernando Cantarero, a PhD student in food science, and Jiajia Chen, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science, state that “large-scale cell cultivation in industrial-scale bioreactors” is necessary to further expand the commercialization of cultivated meat. The team proposes a study to properly define the physical properties of these cell cultures and use that knowledge to optimize the performance of bioreactors and reduce the cost of producing cultivated meat.

Corrosion Impacts on Design Capacity of Rock Dowels Under Shear Displacement

Syed Mudasir Gulzar—PhD student, civil engineering
Angelica Palomino—associate professor, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering

Rockfalls or subsequent debris flows kill 25-50 people in the US each year and obstruct roadways, delaying or halting traffic for hours to weeks. Over 2000 sites in Tennessee are considered high risk for rockfalls. Rock dowel embedment is one mitigation technique to prevent one of the common causes of rockfalls. This involves a steel reinforcement bar, or dowel, being installed in jointed rock, where there are gaps between vertically adjacent rock blocks, connecting the unstable rock to stable rock below. However, Tennessee presents conditions favorable to corrosion of these dowels, which can cause uncertainty with respect to their strength and durability over time. Syed Mudasir Gulzar, a PhD student in civil engineering, and Angelica Palomino, associate professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, propose a study that examines the relationship of Tennessee rock conditions to corrosion and the resulting impact of that corrosion on the strength and durability of dowel rods. They hope that the results may be used to better estimate the design life and capacity of rock dowels.

Validation of a Minimally-Invasive Rumen Wall Sampling Method for Use in Sustainable Beef Production

Madison Henniger—PhD student, animal science
Phillip Myer—associate professor, Department of Animal Science

Because the cost of feed for livestock remains one of the highest costs for beef producers, the improvement of feed efficiency is a top priority for researchers working to positively impact the sustainability of beef production. An area of investigation is the study of the microbiome of the wall of the rumen, or compartmentalized stomach, of beef cattle. However, sampling from the rumen wall it typically a deeply invasive process, often requiring animal harvesting or a fistula, a permanent hole between the rumen and the outside of the animal. Madison Henniger, a PhD student in animal science, and Phillip Myer, associate professor in the Department of Animal Science, propose the investigation of a novel, less-invasive method of sampling and to use that method to compare the bacterial communities of the rumen wall with other contents of the rumen. They hope to improve animal health and well-being through the use of less invasive methods of research and provide results that can lead to strategies to improve nutrition and feed efficiency in beef cattle.

Promoting Plastic Degradation: Understanding the Regulation of AprE through Promoter Characterization

Elise Phillips—PhD candidate, microbiology
Todd Reynolds—professor, Department of Microbiology

The accumulation of plastic in our ecosystem is increasingly being recognized as a significant global problem. This issue is important because of associated health risks and the high environmental carbon cost from manufacturing. Biologically-derived plastics (bioplastics), such as polylactic acid (PLA), have been developed as a more biodegradable alternative to traditional plastics. However, PLA, while widely used, is one of the most difficult for microorganisms to break down. Elise Phillips, a PhD candidate in microbiology, and Todd Reynolds, professor in the Department of Microbiology, have already been involved in the identification of the enzyme AprE as being responsible for the breakdown of PLA by the bacterium Bacillus pumilus B12. Using this knowledge, they propose to engineer a highly active PLA-degrading strain of B. pumilus B12. This will not only provide more effective strategies to breakdown PLA, but since B. pumilus is a common soil bacterium, this investigation can lead to a better understanding of the optimal environmental conditions for PLA breakdown without the need for genetic modification.

Assessment of Histopathological Determinants of Health

Amy Webb—PhD student, comparative and experimental medicine
Michelle Dennis—associate professor, Department of Biomedical and Diagnostic Sciences

Around half of the planet’s coral reefs have been lost since the 1950s. In the Caribbean, widespread mortality has been most recently associated with Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, which has caused such significant decline in Florida and the Caribbean that a program was launched to transplant thousands of corals to aquariums around the country as a method to save species from extinction. However, aquaria have their own diseases that must be treated, and the appropriate treatment regimen for coral is not well understood. Amy Webb, PhD student in comparative and experimental medicine, and Michelle Dennis, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical and Diagnostic Sciences, working with Ilze Berzins (One Water, One Health, LLC) and Roy Yanong (Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory, School of Forest, Fisheries, and Geomatics Sciences, University of Florida), will expand a study previously supported by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Conservation Endowment Fund to microscopically assess the health impacts of four treatments commonly used in aquarium settings. The goal is to help those working in aquarium settings understand what effects their treatments might have on corals to guide them in making treatment choices.