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2021 Summer GRA Awardees Announced

Nineteen graduate students will receive $3,600 stipends from UT’s Summer Graduate Research Assistantship (GRA) Fund managed by UT’s Office of Research and Engagement.

“Graduate students are a huge driver of research progress,” says Jennifer Webster, interim director of research development. “The Summer GRA Fund is an important internal mechanism for enabling student participation in scholarship and discovery, beyond what is possible through external funding sources. We’re pleased to support these projects in Summer 2021 and broaden graduate student involvement in research in a wide range of departments and colleges at UT Knoxville and the UT Institute of Agriculture.”

The graduate student assistantships are listed below, along with their faculty advisors, department, and project title:

Chermaine Cole, with Stan Bowie in the College of Social Work, “PGSWE, Phase II: An Evidence‐based Replication Research Proposal for Improving Outcomes in Recruitment and Graduation Among MSW Students of Color.” The PGSWE Scale was developed to identify institutional and individual factors in former graduate students’ personal, professional, and educational histories that may have a significant influence with specific types of graduate school outcomes. Cole’s research focuses on revising the PGSWE subscales and examining the career experiences of African American women in parks and recreation organizations.

James Littrell, with David M. Butler in the Department of Plant Sciences, “Interactive Effects of Volatile Fatty Acids and Fe2+ and Mn2+ in Suppressing Fusarium oxysporum (Fo) Implicated in Black Root Rot Complex of Strawberry.” Anaerobic soil disinfestation (ASD) is a method of soilborne disease management effective against a wide range of soilborne pathogens, including bacteria, fungi, and nematodes. Littrell’s project seeks to better understand the mechanisms of ASD in an effort to provide guidance on cost-effective and minimally toxic fungicide treatments.

Timara McCollum, with Leia Kristin Cain in the Educational Psychology and Counseling Department, “Ethical Considerations in Mixed Methods Research.” Individual identity provides a lens through which people make meaning and sense of their physical and symbolic spaces in relating to others, even while conducting research. McCollum’s work will examine researcher reflexivity and positionality, which refers to how a researcher’s beliefs, judgments, and practices during the research process may influence the research outcomes.

Abigail DiMercurio, with Daniela Marie Corbetta in the Department of Psychology, “The Role of Manual Exploration and Object Views in Early Word Learning.” This research is part of an ongoing effort to better understand the formation and changes occurring in infants’ looking behavior at objects and scenes. DiMercurio’s project specifically examines the role of creating multiple objects views through manual exploration for early word learning in infants. This works aims to connect the fields of motor and language development and highlight the importance of exploration and play in infancy.

Amy Loy, with R. Mark DeKay in the College of Architecture and Design, “Visualizing Human Experience in the Building Design Process.” This project examines the disconnect between humans and the natural world. Since people currently spend 90% of their time indoors, they lack the sensory experience of interacting with their environment. Loy’s research examines how the experience of nature and natural forces can be represented during the design process to bring back the connection to nature within architecture.

Jacob Smith, with Georgi Gardiner in the Department of Philosophy, “Character Evidence in the Law.” Smith’s research examines the ways in which defendants’ and witnesses’ character is used in U.S. legal procedure. The primary aim of this work is to determine whether the rules governing character evidence are epistemologically consistent with each other. The project also attempts to uncover how the use of character evidence could correlate with prejudicial stereotyping of defendants and witnesses.

Meagan Stewart, with Megan Haselschwerdt in the Department of Child and Family Studies, “The Relationship between Barriers to Help‐Seeking and Help‐Seeking Among Socioeconomically Diverse Intimate Partner Violence Victims.” Stewart’s research focuses on the experiences of intimate partner violence survivors across the socioeconomic spectrum to better understand these women’s diverse help-seeking and disclosure decisions and experiences.

Anisha Singh, with Kristina W. Kintziger in the Department of Public Health, “Understanding the Interrelationships Between Chemical Contaminants, Harmful Algal Blooms, and Temperature and Their Effects on Respiratory Illnesses Among Coastal Residents.” This project focuses on harmful algal blooms (HABs) due to Karenia brevis, which causes Florida red tide. Singh’s research will explore the impacts of chemical contaminants, and air temperature on Florida red tides and consequent impact on human health.

Michael Mykins, with Keerthi Krishnan in the Department of Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology, “Investigating the Role of Perineuronal Nets on Motor Deficits in a Mouse Model for Rett Syndrome.” Rett syndrome is a rare genetic neurological disorder that occurs primarily in girls and more rarely in boys. Rett syndrome leads to severe impairments, affecting nearly every aspect of the child’s life. Mykins’ research examines the underlying cellular mechanisms that contribute to poor motor function in a female mouse model for Rett Syndrome.

Sathyanarayanan Rengaswami, with Mathew Langford in the Department of Mathematics, “Traveling Waves for Fully Nonlinear Geometric Flows.” Geometric flows describe the evolution of geometric shapes over time. Often, this evolution depends on a function of the object’s curvature, which is known as curvature flow. Rengaswami’s research seeks to understand general curvature flows by studying highly symmetric solutions.

Hunter Leef, with Michael A. Langston in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, “Unraveling the Molecular Mechanisms of Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus” The main focus of Leef’s research is Type 1 diabetes, a complex autoimmune disease that currently accounts for roughly four out of every five pediatric diabetes cases in the United States. This project will help accelerate the pace of discovery by serving the computational, statistical, and scientific needs of the diabetes research community.

Pradip Adhikari, with Joon Sue Lee in the Department of Physics, “Advanced In‐plane Nanowires for Quantum Transport.” Adhikari’s research focuses on the development of advanced Selective Area Growth (SAG) nanowires with reduced defects and high electron mobility for sophisticated quantum transport studies using Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE) technique. Epitaxy is used in nanotechnology and in semiconductor fabrication because it is an affordable method of high-quality crystal growth for many semiconductor materials.

Jimmy Feng, with Nikki Luke in the Department of Geography, “Geographies of Power: Mapping Household Energy Burden and Disconnection in Atlanta.” Feng’s research posits a new theory of access to human needs that can help understand the opportunities available for food, healthcare, and other basic requirements. With a case study of food access in Knox County, Feng further examines the usefulness of different types of data, such as online reviews, website information, and surveys, as well as relevant space-time Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and statistical learning methods in validating the new theoretical framework.

Avery Blockmon, with Janice Musfeldt in the Department of Chemistry, “Phase Transitions in Quantum Materials.” My research focuses on studying the vibrational and electronic properties of molecule-based materials under different extreme conditions, including ultra-low temperatures and high magnetic fields. These findings have applications in nanotechnology, hard drive storage capacity, and quantum computing.

Faisal Islam, with Madhuri Sharma in the Department of Geography, “Gendered Effect on Livelihood and Mobility Decision Making Processes in Climate Vulnerable Coastal Bangladesh.” Islam’s research will focus on the gender dynamics of agricultural livelihood decision-making processes in Bangladesh, using nationally representative household datasets to find out factors that are responsible for gender gaps in the decision processes. The outcome of this work will help inform gender-sensitive national policies and programs that tackle the issues of climate change and development.

Noah Walton, with Vladimir Sobes in the Department of Nuclear Engineering, “Should Fuel Rods be Round?” Walton’s research focuses on the advancement of nuclear energy technology as a solution to the world’s clean and economic energy needs. This project contributes to this engineering pursuit on a fundamental level, focusing on the efficiency of the individual fuel element by optimizing algorithms in nuclear reactor design.

James Goates, with Dawn Marie Syzmanski in the Department of Psychology, “Identity Development, Experiences, and Practice among Non‐binary Therapists.” Goates’ research examines the experiences of non-binary psychotherapists both in and out of the therapy session. By interviewing current non-binary therapists, Goates hopes to illustrate their experiences of identity integration, development, and disclosure as well as experienced microaggressions.

David Dooley, with Cong Trinh in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, “Optimizing the Potency of CRISPR‐Cas Antibacterials.” The increasing prevalence of antimicrobial resistant (AMR) pathogens has necessitated the development of novel antibacterial treatments. A potential solution to this problem is CRISPR-Cas systems, which act as genomic scissors, allowing the cleavage of a pathogen’s DNA at specific locations. Dooley’s research investigates which sites to cut, how many cuts to make, which CRISPR enzymes to use, and which delivery methods are best suited for destroying the pathogen of interest.

Regis Nisengwe, with Adam Willcox in the Department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries, “Investigating Environmental Behaviors of Farmers in Rwanda.” The focus of Nisengwe’s research is environmental behaviors among farmers in northern Rwanda, especially the factors that influences farmers’ behaviors and attitudes towards natural resources and the environment. This project uses an integrated model that builds on existing behavioral theories and frameworks to explain farmers’ environmental behaviors in northern Rwanda.

The Summer GRA program awards faculty members who provide a plan for graduate students to supplement and enhance research support. Funding is based on the merits of the research/scholarship, feasibility of the project, past and potential productivity of the investigator(s), potential to increase publications and external funding, alignment with UT’s strategic goals and objectives, and research/scholarship priorities identified by colleges/departments.