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Fall 2022 Student Faculty Research Awards

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. Last fall, 28 student/faculty pairs were selected to receive the awards. Read some of the winning proposal summaries below that include topics in psychology, social work, engineering, ecology, communication, biology, and more.

The application for spring 2023 for the Student Faculty Research Awards is now open! Visit tiny.utk.edu/sfra for more.

Development of a thermoelectric-based single-stream heat exchanger to pasteurize fluid milk

Kartik Verma—MS student, food science
Jiajia Chen, PhD—assistant professor, Department of Food Science

The food and beverage industry has been identified as one significant sector contributing to energy consumption and carbon emissions and fluid milk production is energy and carbon-emission intensive. The challenges and limitations in current milk pasteurization, which involves a complex and energy intensive process of heating, cooling and pumping using fossil fuels, indicates significant potential for reduction in carbon emission and improvement in energy efficiency. Kartik Verma, an MS student in food science, and Jiajia Chen, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science, are investigating the use of a thermoelectric-based single-stream heat exchanger (TESS) as a way to address these challenges. This proposed heat exchanger technology has the potential to improve energy efficiency, eliminate the onsite use of natural gas, save facility space, and reduce maintenance cost for milk production.

Toward 3D printing in confined spaces using flexible robotic arms

Joshua Gaston—PhD student, mechanical engineering
Caleb Rucker—associate professor, Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering

The technology for 3D printing provides an ability to create complicated structures that could not have been fabricated using traditional means. 3D printers have even been used to print buildings, engine parts and even biological components like bone. However, these printers are often limited by the rigid and bulky robotic structures that most possess, and they are unable to effectively print in confined spaces, such as in the human body or in industrial construction. Joshua Gaston, a PhD student in mechanical engineering, and Caleb Rucker, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering, are working towards a solution using a type of robot called a continuum robot. Continuum robots are able to controllably bend anywhere along an arm, like an octopus. In order to accomplish this, Gaston and Rucker will create a design that maintains both sufficient flexibility and precision to print in a confined space, advancing both 3D printing technology and continuum robot design and control.

A plant’s hidden underworld: Uncovering pathogen interactions with HADES

Bridget O’Banion—PhD student, microbiology
Elizabeth Fozo—associate professor, Department of Microbiology

The human population is expected to surpass 9 billion people by the year 2050 and farming yields must increase by at least 70% to meet this need. This goal is challenged by disease-causing microorganisms that reduce annual crop yields by up to 30%. Bridget O’Banion, a PhD student in microbiology, and Elizabeth Fozo, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, are investigating the hidden world of plants beneath the ground, particularly the root system, with the aim of improving crop resilience. The root microbiome of plants is similar to the human gut microbiome and just as we develop digestive probiotics to improve our health by adjusting our microbiome, finding ways to manipulate the plant microbiome is a promising avenue for improving plant resilience to disease. They will combine the extensive knowledge of host-microbe interactions in the UT Department of Microbiology with a world-leading facility in the Netherlands, known as HADES, to explore the “underworld” of plants and investigate biological questions at a previously unattainable scale.

Are gait deviations associated with cycling deviations in children with cerebral palsy?

Sean Brown—PhD student, kinesiology and sport studies
Songning Zhang—professor, Department of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport Studies

Cerebral palsy (CP) is a motor disability where there is a lesion to the brain before complex motor pathways are developed. This condition, which is the most common motor disability in children, creates atypical movement patterns and individuals with CP typically present with altered muscular architecture. Sean Brown, a PhD student in kinesiology and sport studies, and Songning Zhang, professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport Studies, recognize the important contribution of physical activity in the physiological and social development of children, especially those with CP. However, the physical patterns of a child with CP can limit their ability to participate in general physical activity. The purpose of their research project is to investigate the development of a stationary cycle with adjusted crank arm length to see if it can facilitate use by individuals with CP, providing that physical activity that is so important. They also plan to investigate how the cyclic pattern of cycling can result in more efficient walking patterns for individuals with CP.

Behavioral resistance and resilience in a rapidly changing world

Amy Luo—PhD candidate, ecology & evolutionary biology
Elizabeth Derryberry—associate professor, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

White-crowned sparrows in San Francisco demonstrated remarkable behavioral resilience during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, when noise dropped to levels not heard since the 1950s. In response, sparrows immediately sang with lower minimum frequencies, producing songs that mirrored rural populations. This rapid return to a previous behavioral state suggests that white-crowned sparrows are behaviorally resilient to disturbance; they ‘bounce back’ quickly when noise pollution is removed. Noise has returned to pre-pandemic levels with loosening COVID-19 precautions, yet urban sparrows continue to produce ‘lockdown’ songs, suggesting high resistance to renewed disturbance. Amy Luo, a PhD candidate in ecology & evolutionary biology, and Elizabeth Derryberry, associate professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, hope to measure behavioral resistance to the rapid onset of urban noise pollution by recording songs and background noise levels in the spring of 2023 and investigate the functional consequences of behavioral resistance for territory-holding males. By leveraging longitudinal data from before, during, and after the COVID-19 lockdown in San Francisco to investigate behavioral resistance, the researchers hope to better understand how individual species behaviorally navigate disturbances in an increasingly unstable biosphere.

Effects of masking on infant visual scanning of talking faces

Lauren Slivka—PhD student, psychology
Greg Reynolds—professor, Department of Psychology

Research on infant face processing has shown that infants demonstrate shifts in the distribution of selective attention to different features of a speaker’s face across the infancy period. However, the impact of widespread masking associated with the COVID-19 pandemic on early language development and infant selective attention to audiovisual speech remains largely unexplored. Preliminary research has shown slower emotional recognition in older children when presented with pixelated stimuli of faces wearing masks compared to unmasked faces. The mouth region is a facial feature which typically provides a rich source of information regarding speech and affect; however, masking covers a speaker’s mouth and likely interferes with perception of this important facial feature. Through their research, Lauren Slivka, a PhD student in psychology, and Greg Reynolds, professor in the Department of Psychology, aim to explore the impact of masking on 6- and 12-month-old monolingual English-learning infants’ selective attention to native and non-native audiovisual speech produced by a masked or unmasked speaker. Their research could be a crucial first step in determining the impact of masking on infant selective attention to audiovisual speech during a foundational period of language development and social development.

Academic journals and podcasting: A data driven analysis

Scott Greeves—PhD student, journalism and electronic media
Mark Littmann—College of Communication and Information

Since 2010, there has been an exponential growth in the production of science podcasts. With an ever-growing audience of over 50 million Americans, podcasting represents a powerful medium for scientific outreach and science communication. Additionally, because science podcasts are inherently more attractive to younger and more diverse audiences when compared to traditional scientific publications, podcasts are improving the traditional pathways for knowledge sharing and consumption, helping bridge the perceived disconnect between science and the public. Recognizing the overwhelming utility of podcasts to engage the public and circulate ideas between experts, many academic and peer-review journals are now venturing in podcasting. While existing literature has examined ‘science podcasting’ more generally, this body of work broadly focuses on podcasts with a scientific theme, not podcasts that are produced by academic journals. This distinction is significant because journals gatekeep the most current, reputable, and cutting-edge science in our societies. Scott Greeves, a PhD student in journalism and electronic media, and Mark Littmann, PhD, in the College of Communication and Information, plan to conduct a detailed content analysis of podcasts produced by journals of the Oxford Academic Press. Their research may help illuminate the value of academic podcasting, encouraging more journals to follow suit with remarkable implication for scientific communication and outreach.

Music intervention for people with neurological impairments (MIPNI) pilot study

Tyler Morris—PhD student, biomedical engineering
Xiaopeng Zhao—professor, Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering

Socially assistive robots (SARs) are designed to guide people with neurological impairments (PNI) through various activities that are preprogrammed and tailored to their condition or personality. One newly emerging activity comes in the form of music intervention, in which patients participate in sing-alongs and dance to their favorite songs to encourage physical exercise, as well as stimulate their cognitive capabilities and social acuity. These sessions have been proven to provide benefits not only to a participant’s mental acuity but to their overall behavior and mood as well. Tyler Morris, a PhD student in biomedical engineering, and Xiaopeng Zhao, professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering, hope to combine the widespread effectiveness of music intervention with the increasing use of social robots in a SAR application they are calling Music Intervention for People with Neurological Impairments (MIPNI). Using the social robot Pepper, Morris and Zhao hope to use the MIPNI system to help PNIs improve their physical, cognitive, and behavioral conditions. This study will also further the development of the MIPNI system, making it more effective and responsive to participant input.

Investigating middle eastern immigrants’ security & privacy practices and norms

John Sadik—MS student, computer science
Scott Ruoti—assistant professor, Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science

It is well known that individuals in different parts of the world have different cybersecurity practices and norms. However, there is a gap in the knowledge base regarding what those different practices and norms are outside of the United States of America and Europe, particularly among non-cybersecurity experts. Even less well understood is how these differences can impact individuals when they immigrate to a new country. This knowledge gap makes it difficult for research and development efforts to address these populations’ unique needs, leading them to have substandard cybersecurity outcomes. John Sadik, a master’s student in computer science, and Scott Ruoti, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, hope to fill this knowledge gap by conducting interviews with immigrants originating from the Middle East regarding their security and privacy practices and norms. Through this research, they expect to develop a deeper understanding of the security and privacy practices and norms present in Middle Eastern countries, how these practices change over time following immigration to a new country, and identify unmet needs for these immigrant groups regarding cybersecurity.

Retaining teachers: The impact of housing affordability and location on teacher wellbeing and turnover

Anna O’Dell—PhD student, social work
Courtney Cronley—associate professor, College of Social Work

The COVID-19 global pandemic intensified the already crisis-level teacher shortages in U.S. public schools. In a 2022 Gallup Panel Workforce Study, 44% of K-12 school staff reported feeling always or often burnt out. At the same time, cost of living factors like housing and transportation have increased substantially across the United States, while teacher salaries remain stagnant in many communities. Research, thus far, has highlighted increased compensation, teacher preparation, and improving teaching conditions and satisfaction as strategies to increase and retain teacher staffing levels. While teacher and school-level factors are critical points of intervention, the larger macro-level factors remain overlooked, namely the economic and infrastructure barriers related to housing affordability and housing location constraints. Anna O’Dell, PhD student in social work, and Courtney Cronley, associate professor in the College of Social Work, plan to address the gap in knowledge by conducting an exploratory national survey of how housing affordability and location impact teachers’ professional wellbeing and turnover. Results from their research could point to novel policy interventions such as subsidized housing and teacher-centered housing services to support teachers’ ability to afford, live, and work in their school communities.

Bio-based materials research and curriculum development

Cecile Grubb—PhD student, materials science and engineering
David Harper—joint professor, School of Natural Resources and Department of Materials Science and Engineering

Many industries, such as the automotive industry, are interested in the development of bio-derived materials as they work to meet the increased consumer demand for “green” materials and to respond to legislation around carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions. Cecile Austin Grubb, a PhD student in materials science and engineering, and David Harper, joint professor in the School of Natural Resources and Department of Materials Science and Engineering, are personnel in the Center for Renewable Carbon (CRC) at UT. They plan to develop a partnership between the CRC and Western Washington University (WWU) to create an undergraduate curriculum that focuses on bio-derived materials. While WWU has significant expertise in industrial manufacturing processes and prior experience in developing relevant undergraduate curricula, the CRC has been partnering with Volkswagen Group of America to develop novel composites using natural fibers and other bio-derived materials for use in automotive applications. As it has been shown that sustainability-related coursework has increased enrollment and retention rates for groups traditionally underrepresented in engineering fields, then resulting curriculum from this partnership can engage more women and underrepresented minorities in engineering disciplines that have become even more relevant in today’s economy.