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Research Awards: Agriculture and Ecology

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 spring, 22 student/faculty pairs were selected to receive the awards. Read some of the winning proposal summaries below that include topics such as wildlife, animal science, biochemistry, comparative and experimental medicine, and geography.

Problem-Solving Benefits of Mixed-Species Flocking

Scott Benson—PhD student, psychology
Todd Freeberg—professor, Department of Psychology

Recent research suggests that there may be cognitive benefits to mixed-species groupings that are not yet well understood. A likely candidate for these apparent benefits rests on an interaction between individual differences and social learning. Consistent differences between individuals within one species should contribute to the behavioral diversity along with other species in a mixed-species flock, such that increasing the species diversity in a flock necessarily increases the range of differences in that flock. More diversity increases the likelihood that at least one individual in a flock will approach a novel environmental challenge in an adaptive way, which can then be propagated through the flock members through social learning. Scott Benson, a PhD student in psychology, and Todd Freeberg, professor in the Department of Psychology, propose to use a “puzzle feeder” to measure the members of mixed-species flocks in aviaries to test the effects of diversity on boldness and problem-solving ability. One possible outcome is a bridge between animal personality and mixed-species groups researchers.

Feasibility and Safety of Intraarticular Ultrafiltration Probes to Collect Synovial Fluid in Horses

Alexandra Carlson—PhD student, comparative and experimental medicine
Elizabeth Collar—assistant professor, Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences

Successful monitoring of inflammation or disease of synovial joints (joints where two bones meet and whose movement is facilitated by fluid between them) in horses may involve taking samples of the synovial fluid over a period of time. The current sampling technique is by needle arthrocentesis, which involves inserting a needle through the skin and into the joint. However, each entry by the needle increases the risk of infection or damage to the joint. Alexandra Carlson, a PhD student in comparative and experimental medicine, and Elizabeth Collar, assistant professor in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, propose to study the use of ultrafiltration probes as a method of sampling synovial fluid in the fetlock joints of horses. Ultrafiltration probes, which allow for continuous sampling after an initial insertion, may provide a safer and more efficient method of synovial fluid collection than current techniques.

Evaluation of Forage Nutritive Value and Biomass Accumulation of Stockpiled Tall Fescue in Alabama and Tennessee

Malerie Fancher—MS student, animal science
Katie Mason—assistant professor, Department of Animal Science

The world’s population is on track to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. Because of this, it is vital to provide nutrient dense food while remaining conscious of environmental stewardship and a changing climate. A predominant agricultural commodity in Tennessee, beef cattle are seen as having an important role in the global ecosystem and food security due to the nutrient dense nature of beef and the use of non-arable land for grazing. Malerie Fancher, an MS student in animal science, and Katie Mason, assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science, propose a two-year study of 13 farms across Alabama and Tennessee to investigate the nutritive value and the net change in mass over time of tall fescue, the main feedstuff used by cattle producers in Tennessee, over the fall and winter months. The results will be used to update existing recommendations on stockpiling tall fescue, allowing producers to make better management decisions to increase grazing days and reduce costs, contributing to sustainability and environmental stewardship.

Unraveling Biogeochemical Controls on Hot Moments of Soil Nitrous Oxide Emissions During Progressive Cover Crop Residue Decomposition

Arjun Chhetri—PhD student, plant, soil, and environmental sciences
Debasish Saha—assistant professor, Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science

Organic sources of nitrogen, such as animal manure and nitrogen-fixing cover crops, can curb the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, which have been linked to an unprecedented increase in nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions. N2O is a greenhouse gas which depletes the ozone layer, and which has an atmospheric heat trapping capacity many times greater than carbon dioxide. However, decomposition of these organic sources can lead to large N2O emissions, which can potentially negate the climate benefits of organic production systems. Arjun Chhetri, a PhD student in plant, soil, and environmental sciences, and Debasish Saha, assistant professor in the Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science, propose to study the dynamics of cover crop residue decomposition, N2O fluctuations, and environmental conditions at the East Tennessee Research and Education Center’s Organic Grain Production Systems Experiment. The findings from this research will be helpful in understanding how to mitigate N2O emissions from production systems that solely or partially rely on organic fertilizers.

Microbial N2O Reduction Under Acidic pH Conditions

Guang He—PhD student, plant, soil, and environmental sciences
Frank Löffler—professor, Department of Microbiology

The increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, such as CO2, CH4, and N2O, have been a major factor in climate change. The high concentration of N2O, which contributes to ozone depletion, in earth’s biosphere is unprecedented, and emissions from acidic agricultural soils are a predominant source of N2O. One of the only known processes for reducing N2O is through microbial reduction to N2, but this seems to be limited to neutral soils, not acidic soils. Guang He, a PhD student in plant, soil and environmental sciences, and Frank Löffler, professor in the Department of Microbiology, intend to study an enrichment culture derived by He from low pH (high acidity) tropical forest soil that can reduce N2O in a low pH environment. By gaining a detailed understanding of the microbiology and the ecology of N2O reduction in low pH environments, this research can possibly lead the way for innovative biotechnologies to curb the emission of this greenhouse gas, which has such ozone destruction potential.

Investigating Pastoralism and Drought from Andean Lake Sediments

Jamie Alumbaugh—PhD student, geography
Sally Horn—professor, Department of Geography

Tropical forests in mountainous regions of the northern Andes and Central America are bordered by páramos, or high-elevation grasslands. These areas support diverse species that are native to the area, they contribute to water supplies, and bring income to impoverished communities through eco-tourism. Although we know that modern human activities and climate change are impacting páramos, there are gaps in our understanding of factors such as fire, drought and the raising of livestock that have impacted these landscapes over time. Jamie Alumbaugh, a PhD student in geography, and Sally Horn, professor in the Department of Geography, are examining these factors by studying a sediment core that spans the last 13,000 years from Laguna Culebrillas, a glacial lake surrounded by páramo in the Andes Mountains in Ecuador. By studying sedimentary ancient DNA (sedaDNA) and stable carbon isotopes, they intend to provide taxonomic information on ancient ecosystems and paleoclimate data.

Do Different Forest Management Practices in the Southern Appalachians Affect Seed Dispersal Patterns?

Nicole Lussier—PhD student, ecology and evolutionary biology
Charles Kwit—associate professor, Departments of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

More than 40% of temperate plants depend upon dispersal of their seeds by animals to ensure the survival of the population. However, due to impacts such as habitat loss and fragmentation through illegal logging and unsustainable deforestation practices, seed-dispersing animal populations are threatened, which in turn, threatens these plant species. Nicole Lussier, a PhD student in ecology and evolutionary biology, and Charles Kwit, associate professor in the Departments of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, plan to increase our understanding of the influence of different forest management practices on frugivorous (fruit-eating) animal species. By studying seed dispersal networks in differently managed forest stands, they hope to contribute to sustainable resource utilization and biodiversity conservation by understanding how different forest management practices impact crucial ecosystem functions.

Genetic Assessment of Southern Appalachian Brook Trout Reintroductions in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Rebecca Smith—PhD student, ecology and evolutionary biology
Benjamin Fitzpatrick—professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

When human impacts cause the local extinction of a species at a particular site, reintroduction of the species to that site from another area is essential to maintaining and recovering these species, and this is a primary goal of restoration ecology. The native brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) of southern Appalachia are a threatened species in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the park management has ongoing efforts to restore them by reintroducing individuals to areas where they have been eliminated. However, since the populations being used in those reintroductions involved mixing from multiple populations (due to the relatively small numbers from any one site), there are concerns about unintended consequences. Rebecca Smith, a PhD student in ecology and evolutionary biology, and Benjamin Fitzpatrick, professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, propose a genetic analysis to assess brook trout reintroductions. This assessment will contribute to informed decisions regarding brook trout and stream management strategies, both within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and in other regions.