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Spring 2024 GSRA Award Winners – Human Health and Culture

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.

Beyond resilience: A strength-based intervention for LGBTQ+ communities of color

Kriti Jain—PhD student, psychology 

Intersectionality suggests that individuals who hold multiple marginalized identities face unique challenges to their mental health. Queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) are a group that experiences additive minority stress, and it is necessary for research to examine the unique experiences of this understudied and underserved population to design interventions to address their specific needs. Kriti Jain, a doctoral student in psychology, proposes a trial to examine the feasibility and preliminary effectiveness of a strengths-based intervention to improve mental health, well-being, and positive identity in this population. The intervention is based on the psychology of radical healing and aims to empower QTPOC, promote radical hope, and support collective liberation.

The Event: A movie musical

Michael Ray—MMusic student, music 

Michael Ray, a master’s student in music, used the GSRA award to write, record, video, and edit an original 45-minute musical. Entitled “The Event,” the musical is an exploration of humanity’s relationship with Earth. Ray aspires to pull the audience into a fictional world that will allow them to feel deeply for the characters in situations not so very different from our own. Ray collaborated with a lyricist to write and create demos for eight songs, recruited recording artists, collaborated with a recording engineer to solidify the soundtrack, cast actors, hired a choreographer and costumer/props designer, and created the final project which was presented recently in the Knoxville area.

A multi-proxy study of human dispersals and paleodiets in the south-central Andes

Rebecca Ann Kraus—MA student, anthropology 

The peopling of the Andes Mountains is significant in South America’s population history as it fostered the formation of highly complex pre-Columbian societies. Because European colonization strongly affected the genomic diversity of Indigenous South American groups, a precise characterization of past population interactions and migration patterns can only be achieved by analyzing ancient DNA from pre-colonial populations. Rebecca Kraus, a master’s student in anthropology, proposes to study eight pre-colonial individuals from an Argentine archaeological collection by sequencing complete mitochondrial genomes, analyzing stable isotopes, and radiocarbon dating. These combined data will advance our understanding of genomic diversity, geographic mobility, and dietary trends among pre-colonial South-Central Andeans. The research outcomes will also contribute to locally-desired knowledge of the region’s past among the invested communities of northwest Argentina.     

Assessing visual short-term memory in infants and comparing 2D vs. 3D performance

Victoria Jones—PhD student, psychology

Navigating the visual world requires perception, maintenance, and processing of the sensory input in visual short-term memory (VSTM). Because an individual’s VSTM capacity may be predictive of later cognitive performances, it is critical to understand the development of this mechanism and the persistence of individual differences throughout infancy. VSTM capacity is difficult to assess in infants, relying primarily on 2D stimuli, like multi-colored circles, to assess memory. Victoria Jones, a doctoral student in psychology, proposes to study how well these 2D tasks translate to real-world 3D visual processing. This study will test infants using two visual short-term memory tasks; one using physical blocks (3D), and one using scanned images of the blocks (2D). The data collected from these tasks using similar measures could critically inform the generalizability of how well the skills being tested using 2D methods translate to real-world 3D tasks.      

Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS) analysis of burned mammal and fish remains

Taylor Bowden-Gray—PhD student, anthropology 

Archaeologists and forensic anthropologists depend upon accurate species identification of skeletal remains for their investigations. However, this can be challenging due to high fragmentation rates and poor preservation of bones in some contexts, which have rendered specimens unidentifiable beyond very broad categories. Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS), based on analysis of the amino acid composition of collagen, offers a method for identifying ambiguous or unidentifiable bone fragments. Taylor Bowden-Gray, a doctoral student in anthropology, aims to investigate the feasibility of analyzing burned bones, as high temperatures change the nature of collagen, possibly resulting in a loss of usable samples. Bowden-Gray plans to identify the degree of burning that can reliably yield collagen to identify different mammal and fish bone elements. By developing a system of visual criteria, in conjunction with the bone structures, researchers can make informed decisions on whether ZooMS will be a good option for species identification of burned remains.     

Feeling manipulated: analysis of the human cytomegalovirus’ viral protein vCXCL-1 on monocyte function 

Morgan Hetzel—PhD student, microbiology 

Human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) is a virus that remains dormant within humans until the host becomes immunocompromised due to cancer treatments, late-stage AIDS, organ transplantation or the lack of an immune system in a developing fetus. Approximately 85% of the adult population is infected with HCMV, and when it emerges, it can contribute to complications that can lead to hearing loss, long-term disabilities, and death. Morgan Hetzel, a doctoral student in microbiology, plans to study HCMV and how it has evolved genes that manipulate the immune system to work in the virus’ favor. One of the strategies employed by HCMV is to mimic proteins produced by our own immune system and Hetzel’s study will make it possible to distinguish between responses induced by host proteins versus those induced by HCMV. Data generated from this work will not only allow us to gain a deeper understanding of the mechanisms behind HCMV dissemination, but it could also lead to development of better treatment strategies for mitigating the symptoms of disease resulting from HCMV.       

Determining selection or training of constricted migration of melanoma cells

Christopher Playter—PhD student, biochemistry & cellular and molecular biology 

The leading cause of death associated with cancer diagnosis is metastasis, where cancer cells spread from where they first formed to another part of the body. Why some tumor cells metastasize while others do not is still unknown, as is why these metastasizing cells are different and more aggressive than the original tumors. Christopher Playter, a doctoral student in biochemistry & cellular and molecular biology, intends to investigate two possible reasons for these differences. One possibility is that these cells are more aggressive due to selection, representing the initially aggressive subset of the tumor. The other possibility is that the cells have undergone training during migration, where force and stress exerted during the process of migration change the properties of the cell over time. Playter will use single-cell RNA-sequencing to compare cells from both migratory and non-migratory cells to determine the relative contributions of selection and training to the final aggressive migratory state. This knowledge will help in understanding how metastatic cells become aggressive in cancer patients and suggest gene profiles that could inform future clinical prognosis of a cancer patient’s likelihood of experiencing metastasis.        

Reevaluating plant δ15N as a forensic tool to identify clandestine graves

Sarah Schwing—PhD student, anthropology 

When a human body decomposes, the 15N-enriched nitrogen from the body becomes available to plants. Sarah Schwing, a doctoral student in anthropology, proposes a study to test a non-destructive technique for detecting clandestine graves where the ground surface has long since healed the visible scar of disturbance. The goal is to examine whether plant δ15N values can be used to detect hidden human burials. Schwing’s project design utilizes four pre-existing graves and two control graves to compare the original δ15N levels to the plant growth. Results from this study can contribute to efforts to recover buried human remains and associated forensic evidence for use in identifying victims and as potential evidence in a court of law. 

Exploring the experiences of veterinary students with disabilities

Claire Burdick—MSSW student, social work 

In higher education, apparent and less apparent disabilities are underrepresented due to the history of exclusion for disabled people due to assumptions about their capabilities and lack of legislation protecting disability rights. Many colleges of veterinary medicine (CVMs) in the U.S. are working towards increasing the diversity of their student bodies and the veterinary profession with cultural competency training, outreach to communities that are underrepresented, and examining admission criteria. Claire Burdick, a master’s student in social work, seeks to expand upon emerging research on diversity and inclusion in veterinary education by exploring the experiences of veterinary students with disabilities in academic and experiential learning. Burdick’s project will amplify underrepresented voices in research by listening directly to them and learning what supports they want and need for a successful higher education experience.

Bacterial analysis of expressed breast milk pre- and post-bottle feeding

Emily Wojtowicz—PhD student, nutritional sciences 

Breastfeeding is widely recognized as the ideal feeding method for infants due to its numerous health benefits for mother and child and its positive impacts on society, the environment, and the economy. Unfortunately, several barriers to breastfeeding exist, including perceived insufficient milk supply and returning to work. More than 84% of breastfeeding parents express breastmilk within the first four months postpartum, often to provide breastmilk to alternative caregivers during times of separation. Leading health agencies recommend discarding breastmilk remaining in the bottle within two hours of initiating feeding due to safety concerns despite major gaps in the literature to support these recommendations. This burdens mothers trying to compensate for discarded breast milk and exacerbates concerns about perceived milk insufficiency. Emily Wojtowicz, a doctoral candidate in nutritional sciences, will utilize her skills as a registered dietitian (RD) and international board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) with support from the biomedical nutritional science program to investigate the bacterial composition and potentially pathogenic bacteria within expressed breastmilk pre- and post-bottle feeding. Investigating the safety parameters surrounding re-feeding expressed breastmilk is crucial in establishing evidence-based recommendations, safeguarding infant health, and potentially revising outdated guidelines to ensure the optimal utilization of expressed breastmilk without compromising maternal and infant well-being. .

Impact of social determinants of health and profiles of traumatic, adverse, and positive childhood experiences on cognitive and psychological symptoms in multiple sclerosis

Caterina Obenauf—PhD student, psychology 

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a chronic autoimmune disease impacting the central nervous system, manifesting in symptoms ranging from depression to fatigue. Understanding risk factors for non-visible symptoms of MS is vital for early detection and monitoring since worsening of cognitive symptoms precede worsening of physical symptoms in MS. Social determinants of health, such as traumatic and adverse childhood experiences, are recognized as contributing significantly to MS-related disability and access to healthcare, but limited research exists on their impact on mental health. Caterina Obenauf, a doctoral student in psychology, intends to study the effects of traumatic and childhood experiences (both positive and negative) on people with MS. The approach taken in this study will ensure that experiences of people with MS are not overshadowed by a deficit-oriented perspective, taking a nuanced approach that explores positive childhood experiences and post-traumatic growth. This not only challenges prevailing assumptions about the capabilities of people with disabilities, but also promotes their dignity by recognizing the significance of resilience.