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Spring 2024 GSRA Award Winners – Agriculture and Environment

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-two outstanding research programs were awarded for spring 2024 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.

Impacts of lynx spider predation on plant-pollinator interaction communities

Sam Wilhelm—PhD student, ecology and evolutionary biology 

The globally unique cedar glades of central Tennessee are an ideal model system for understanding the direct and downstream impacts of flower-visiting insect predation on plant-insect interactions. Sam Wilhelm, a doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology, proposes to study the predation by the green lynx spider on plant-insect interactions. During his 2023 survey, he observed the prevalence of the green lynx spiders and the variety of insects falling prey to them. The goal of his new study is to construct a tri-trophic interaction network between plants, flower-visiting insects, and spiders to gain information on how predation impacts flowering plant communities that depend on insects for pollination services.   

Investigating the connection between harmful algal blooms and freshwater mussel die-offs: A One Health approach

Jeronimo Gomes Da Silva Neto—PhD student, comparative and experimental medicine 

Freshwater mussels play a critical role in maintaining aquatic ecosystem health, but these ecosystem engineers are facing dramatic and poorly understood declines. Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are the rapid growth and accumulation of algae or cyanobacterial colonies and produce toxins that are harmful to aquatic life, but their specific health impact and role in mussel die-off is unknown. Jeronimo Gomes Da Silva Neto, a doctoral student in the comparative and experimental medicine program, is leading a collaborative and comprehensive investigation into the potential causes of freshwater mussel die-offs by using a One Health approach which explicitly recognizes the connection between human, animals, and environmental health. The objective of the study is to assess the relationship between the concentration of toxins produced by HABs in the water and mussel tissue across time. The information collected will help in developing effective strategies for mitigating the impacts of HABs on freshwater ecosystems and improving well-being of humans and wildlife.     

Coupled mass transfer processes during underground hydrogen storage   

Joe-Sam Nkuah—PhD student, environmental engineering 

Several stakeholders in the energy industry all over the world have proposed using excess power generated by renewables and nuclear power industries to produce hydrogen gas, which can be stored for the future as fuel. Underground Hydrogen Storage (UHS), which involves the storage of large quantities of hydrogen gas (H2) in underground porous formations such as aquifers, salt caverns, or depleted gas fields, has been theoretically proven to be more reliable and cost-effective than other long-term storage options. However, the success of UHS will depend upon an understanding of how H2 interacts and moves through the host rock, to keep H2 from becoming lost and unrecoverable. Joe-Sam Nkuah, a doctoral student in environmental engineering, proposes the creation of a small-scale Planar Laser Induced Fluorescence (PLIF) system to study hydrogen gas interaction with porous media. This PLIF system will be accessible at all times to get efficient and reliable data for the study of processes that must be observed to establish safe and efficient deployment of UHS, which could be a breakthrough for the energy industry.     

Are oil palm plantations a sustainable alternative for freshwater ecosystems in degraded lands?   

Guido A. Herrera-R—PhD student, ecology and evolutionary biology

Oil palm plantations have expanded globally in recent decades, causing deforestation and threats to biodiversity in tropical countries. As a sustainable alternative to meet the growing demand for biodiesel, food products, and detergents provided by these plantations, there are proposals to cultivate oil palms in degraded lands and grasslands, such as the rainforests of the foothills of the Orinoco River in Colombia. Guido A. Herrera-R, a doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology, aims to evaluate the potential benefits of oil palm plantations in providing vegetation cover in degraded lands and the impacts of maintaining riparian forest buffers in streams on fish diversity. Hererra-R’s fieldwork in Colombia, made possible by this award, will inform the management and conservation of fish diversity within oil palm plantations.      

Testing the effects of acute heat on signal reception in female songbirds

Tara Anne Empson—PhD student, ecology and evolutionary biology 

Heat waves are increasing in frequency and severity across the globe bringing acute heat challenges that disrupt behaviors of animals, such as songbirds. Male songbirds sing less, and females discriminate less, when choosing between songs from their species and songs from another species, at higher temperatures. If female song discrimination and motivation change under acute heat, this could directly impact the strength of sexual selection acting on male songs. Tara Anne Empson, a doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology, proposes to study wild zebra finches, which display robust mating behaviors and have well-described responses to heat. Because wild zebra finches are vulnerable to heat waves in their native habitat, they are ideal for a study of the impact of heat on females of the species. This novel experiment will move the field forward by evaluating how heat is affecting female discriminatory behavior and mechanisms, contributing to the body of knowledge of how species respond to global change.     

Roles of local ecological knowledge and plant use in driving management of an invasive plant

Laurel Philpott—PhD student, ecology and evolutionary biology 

Invasive species are organisms introduced into an area that spread rapidly, outcompeting native species. Since such species cost the United States billions in damage annually, and their establishment is facilitated by climate change, it is increasingly important to predict which environments are susceptible to invasion (invasibility). Laurel Philpott, a doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology, intends to undertake a case study in Benin, West Africa, to examine the role of humans in predicting invasibility. Philpott wishes to investigate whether farmers with high local ecological knowledge are more likely to support the control of invasive species like Chromolaena odorata, which has become integral to community identity. Chromolaena odorata is recognized as an invasive weed, medicinal plant, fungicide, and contributor to soil fertility. This study will integrate ethnoecology and invasion biology to better forecast invasibility and public engagement in controlling invasive species.       

Utilizing the SI-MC comparative natural laboratory to identify plant-microbial interactions important to ecosystem-level resilience to climate change  

Sarah Love—PhD student, ecology and evolutionary biology 

Identifying how dominant species have adapted in response to past climate change is fundamental to understanding what traits are important for populations to persist and for an ecosystem to function under contemporary climate change. Sky islands (SI), which are isolated peaks surrounded by desert lowlands, have become increasingly isolated under a warming, drying climate. Adjacent mountain chains, (MC) have experienced cooler, wetter habitats, and higher rates of gene movement between populations. The distinct landscapes across these two environments have been maintained for over 10,000 years, allowing for tests of climate-driven adaptation and evolution across large geographic scales. Sarah Love, a doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology, plans to use this award to further her work in examining the climatic adaptations of the long-lived tree, Populus angustifolia, and associated soil microorganisms across these two environments. The work aims in part to increase understanding of how biological systems have responded to past and current climate change and pinpoint locations that may act as areas where long-lived organisms can survive during changes in climate.       

Establishing genetically diverse conservation seed orchards from Tennessee swamp white oak populations

Jesse Parker—MS student, forestry 

Reforestation is an essential component of nearly all international, national, and local plans to address biodiversity loss associated with changes in land use and climate and other stressors such as diseases and pests. One key barrier to initiating reforestation projects in the US is the national shortage of available seed for producing seedlings. Additionally, inadequate attention paid to the origin and genetic composition of seed sources can result in premature failure of reforestation efforts. Jesse Parker, a master’s student in forestry, is developing a conservation seed orchard for swamp white oak, a native Tennessee forest tree species that is at risk from habitat loss and environmental change. He will use this award to conduct a genetic analysis of swamp white oak populations to inform the development of this seed orchard and deepen our understanding of this uncommon species. This project will result in a long term, stable source for seed of known origin and genetic composition: an important step towards climate-smart conservation of this species and eastern deciduous forests more broadly, ensuring that they are resilient in the face of environmental pressure.

Investigation of the potential applications of an autonomous ground robot for row crop (corn) scouting

Subhash Chandra Bose Tadiparthi—PhD student, biosystems engineering 

Farmers or agronomists regularly scout their fields to assess crop health, insects, weeds, diseases, and nutrient deficiencies. Currently, much of this scouting is done manually (regular field walks, sample collection, etc.), which is time-consuming, labor-intensive, demands expertise, and is prone to judgment and biases. While drones with remote sensing cameras can quickly and efficiently monitor large fields, they cannot see under the canopy, as it is close to the ground. Subhash Chandra Bose Tadiparthi, a doctoral student in biosystems engineering, aims to deliver a working prototype Autonomous Ground Robot (AGV) platform for crop monitoring and scouting. This platform would be equipped with the necessary equipment to monitor large fields with automated data collection and would be sized to effectively navigate narrow row spacing in real-world fields. This proposed robotic platform would bring a paradigm shift in crop monitoring by automating traditional methods and streamlining informed decision-making.

Investigating the capacity of the black soldier fly Hermetia illucens to minimize pathogens in livestock waste

Allyson Marie Dekovich—PhD student, entomology and plant pathology 

Heightened demands for animal products worldwide have resulted in billions of tons of livestock waste per year, but excessive animal waste has devastating impacts on the environment. UT is actively promoting efforts to enact a circular bioeconomy, in which renewable biological resources are used to reduce waste and promote environmental sustainability. Allyson Marie Dekovich, a doctoral student in entomology and plant pathology, is studying the use of the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens), primarily used as feed for livestock and poultry, as one such biological resource. This insect can consume virtually any biowaste, reduce waste by up to 50%, and efficiently convert waste to biomass, contributing to a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Dekovich will be focusing on the microbial composition of waste material before and after Hermetia illucens consumption as well as the potential pathogens they may spread into the food chain, to assess its viability as an economical and sustainable option for animal feed and waste remediation.

Understanding the physiology of turfgrass: modelling the carbon assimilation response to light quality

Conlan Micheal Burbrink—PhD student, plant, soil, and environmental science 

The primary goal for any sports field manager is to provide a high performing and safe playing surface for athletes to play on. While all playing surfaces are subjected to some level of wear that degrades the condition of the field, the stadium infrastructure often shades turfgrass, reducing the ability for plants to recover quickly. When given enough time between sporting events the turfgrass can still recover from the traffic; however, during periods of high traffic, turfgrass can lose coverage quickly, potentially increasing the risk of human injury. Conlan Micheal Burbrink, a doctoral student in plant, soil, and environmental sciences, intends to investigate how altering light quality impacts turfgrass surface growth to learn what quality of light yields high quality turfgrass. The study is to be conducted at the FIFA Indoor Pitch Simulator to simulate the growing conditions of an indoor stadium, leading to greater understanding of the impact of light on turfgrass field playability and safety.