Skip to content Skip to main navigation Report an accessibility issue

Fall 2023 SFRA Award Winners III

Student Faculty Research Awards (now known as the Graduate Student 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, and creative activity; give students experience writing grants; and foster the mentoring relationship between faculty and graduate students.

Twenty-three outstanding research programs were awarded for fall 2023 across many colleges and departments. We hope that you will read about the work these graduate students and faculty partners are engaged in here at UT. If you are a graduate student who would like to be considered for the spring 2024 cycle of the newly named Graduate Student Research Awards, the application is now open until February 13.

Genomic insights into the invasion route of Bradford Pear

Alina Pokhrel—master’s student, entomology and plant pathology  

Marcin Nowicki—research assistant professor, entomology and plant pathology  

Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana; PC) is a tree native to several Asian countries that was brought to the United States as a method of managing fire-blight bacterium. PC grew in popularity for its aesthetic value leading to it becoming an aggressive invader. PC is considered invasive in 29 states, and it is banned from sale in multiple states. There has been no assessment of genetic diversity and invasion potential of US commercial cultivars using genomics approaches. The identification of genomic signatures and functional genes responsible for invasive adaptation is important for the study of the spread and adaptation of invasive species. Alina Pokhrel, a master’s student in entomology and plant pathology, and Marcin Nowicki, a research assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, propose a study with the objective of conducting a broad-scale genome scan and based on that genotyping, to identify the invasion route of cultivated PC plants that have become naturalized in the wild from the Southeast and Tennessee. Pokhrel and Nowicki expect to estimate the contribution of PC cultivars to invasion, which will help formulate effective management strategies.  

Cellulose nanofibers templated metal-Organic frameworks for fluorescent-visual detection of pesticides  

Kailong Zhang—PhD student, natural resources 

Mi Li—assistant professor, School of Natural Resources 

Pesticides are released into the environment to protect crops and increase food production but left uncontrolled, they can become environmental and public health concerns. Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) are porous and very tiny crystals with the ability to interact with various molecules. MOFs have the potential to detect pesticide residue with the use of ultraviolet light. Integrating MOFs with sustainable and plant-derived cellulose nanofibers (CNF) can enhance the processability and sustainability. Kailong Zhang, a PhD student in natural resources, and Mi Li, assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources, have three tasks they hope to accomplish with the help of this award. They are aiming to synthesize a CNF/MOF hybrid, test the hybrid to see if it can detect pesticides using luminescence qualities, and report and publish their findings. They anticipate that this will present a more sustainable and applicable alternative to current detection systems, leading to a more secure environment and enhanced agricultural product safety.    

Improving surveillance methods for the economically important pests of beef cattle  

Katy Smith—PhD student, entomology and plant pathology  

Rebecca Fryxell—associate professor, entomology and plant pathology  

The United States cattle industry loses an estimated $5.7 billion to fly and tick feeding annually. Flies and ticks can cause health concerns to the cattle and traditional methods of fly and tick prevention are time-consuming and often unsafe for producers. Katy Smith, a PhD student in entomology, plant pathology, and nematology, and Rebecca Fryxell, associate professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, want to automate the experience by creating a S.M.A.R.T. (sensors, monitoring, analysis, and reporting technologies) surveillance platform, but the purpose of this study is to evaluate beef cattle producers’ willingness to adopt a S.M.A.R.T. surveillance platform. First, they are going to gather feedback on specific features and explore producers’ preferences for technology to improve the S.M.A.R.T. surveillance platform before evaluating the producers’ willingness. Producers are historically slow to adopt new production methods, but by gaining an understanding of their decision-making processes, the researchers can tailor their outreach and education efforts to better suit their needs. 

Cryptic diversity and speciation in the salamander capital of the world

Rebecca Chastain—PhD student, ecology and evolutionary biology  

Benjamin Fitzpatrick—professor of practice, ecology and evolution biology

Explaining the breadth and complexity of biodiversity is a fundamental goal of ecology and evolutionary biology. The existence of cryptic species, or groups of species that are closely related and difficult to tell apart without DNA data, raises fundamental questions about what species are and how they become genetically distinct. Rebecca Chastain, a PhD student in ecology and evolutionary biology, and Benjamin Fitzpatrick, professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, have rigorously sampled DNA from two species of salamanders from the genus Desmognathus, common in the Great Smoky Mountains, with over 500 DNA samples taken thus far. The complex genetic story behind the shovel-nosed (SN) salamander and black-bellied (BB) salamander provides an opportunity to test multiple hypotheses to account for their divergences. With the data that Chastain and Fitzpatrick have collected, they will perform statistical analyses to compare these alternative hypotheses to resolve an important debate over roles of geographic isolation and ecological divergences in speciation.      

Loggerhead sea turtle health in a warming world 

Samantha Gammon Kuschke—PhD student, comparative and experimental medicine  

Deb Miller—professor of practice, School of Natural Resources  

The loggerhead sea turtle is one of the seven species of sea turtles that nest in the continental United States. All loggerhead sea turtle populations are listed as endangered or threatened, due in part to climate change increasing both beach and ocean temperatures. These climactic shifts are negatively impacting loggerhead sea turtle health and therefore survival. Samantha G. Kuschke, a comparative and experimental medicine PhD student, and Deb Miller, professor in the School of Natural Resources, are investigating the relationship between neonatal loggerhead sea turtle health and incubation temperatures, as it relates to climate change. This study will aid in the continued development and refinement of management, husbandry, and conservation techniques for loggerhead sea turtles and increase our understanding of this imperiled and enigmatic species. 

A pilot study assessing the potential role of Leptospira in equine recurrent uveitis  

Porsha Reed—master’s student, comparative and experimental medicine  

Sree Rajeev—professor in biomedical and diagnostic sciences  

Equine recurrent uveites (ERU), also known as moon blindness, is associated with Leptospira infection and is the most common cause of blindness in horses. ERU is challenging to diagnose and manage due to varying causes and nonspecific clinical signs or in some cases no clinical signs. Porsha Reed, a master’s student in comparative and experimental medicine, and Sree Rajeev, professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, aim to identify the proportion of horses with Leptospira renal and eye colonization or both. Confirmation of asymptomatic Leptospira colonization in equine eyes and the nature of antibody response will aid in designing future studies to prevent the transmission and apply effective control measures.  

Digital Twin for a Multi-Input Multi-Output (MIMO) Process System with Fault Detection Capability  

David Anderson—master’s student, nuclear engineering 

Jamie Coble—associate professor, nuclear engineering  

A digital twin (DT) is a virtual model built to accurately reflect a physical system that is coupled to an operating system through data transfer. DTs are heavily marketed and are a hot topic in the world of nuclear reactor instrumentation and controls. David Anderson, a master’s student in nuclear engineering, and Jamie Coble, associate professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering, propose to build a DT for an experiment demonstrating maintaining specified fluid levels in a coupled two-tank system, a common process control problem. They have added two fault modes into the design to represent component failures, such as a “leaking valve” or pump degradation. Anderson and Coble aim to enhance process control, real-time fault detection, fault-tolerant strategies, and insights into predictive maintenance. This project not only offers a gateway to transformative technology but also positions Anderson and Coble as pioneers in the application of DTs to real-world, nonlinear systems, fostering innovation and advancements that will have a profound and lasting impact on multiple industries.