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March 12, 2024 | Katelyn Keenehan

First-ever Research Symposium reveals amazing innovation at UTK

The Innagural Postdoctural Research Symposium featured presentations from 16 research teams at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Last Friday, we had the opportunity to hear from post-doctoral researchers from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) about their innovative studies at the inaugural Postdoctoral Research Symposium. We got a glimpse into what’s going on inside of the labs on campus, and how some of this research can be practically applied.

Various students, faculty, and businesses from a broad range of fields attended in the spirit of collaboration, and to support their colleagues.

Dr. Ernest Brothers, the Associate Dean of the Graduate School kicked off the event by sharing the mindset behind this new initiative. He said the goal of the Postdoctoral Research Symposium was to forge a path from research in the lab to practical application in the community.

Furthermore, Brothers shared his hopes that the inaugural event would spark more collaboration between different departments across the University and elevate the campus’ research profile.

Each research team had three minutes to present their projects.

Metabolomic insights

Dr. Courtney Christopher took the stage first to talk about her research on the gut microbiome. She said understanding and targeting the gut microbiome is key to helping humans live healthier lives. Her research shows changes in the gut microbiome can lead to metabolic imbalances and chronic inflammation, contributing to various diseases. Her metabolomics studies will help us all better understand how these factors affect the gut and other organs.

Her Principal Investigator (PI) is Dr. Shawn Campagna, who is a Professor in the Chemistry Department.

Worms, microbes, and beneficial bacteria

Dr. Jennifer Heppert is working on a complex project about worms called “Entomopathogenic Nematodes.” These worms work alongside bacteria to eat and kill insects, and Heppert is studying exactly how those partnerships work in the soil. She is looking into a specific nematode-bacteria pair: Steinernema and Xenorhabdus. With this pair, she is altering genes, making certain bacteria glow (to see how they work inside the worms), and logging a library of resources for other microbiology researchers going forward.

Her mentor on the project is Dr. Heidi Goodrich-Blair, the Head of Microbiology at UTK.

Decoupling plant-fungal in North American forests

Dr. Joseph Edwards is looking into the large-scale effects of soil microbiomes. However, it’s not the easiest subject to research since there is very little long-term data to pull from. Edwards looked at data from U.S. forests and found that fungal communities in the soil change more in warmer areas over time. He also found changes in fungal communities didn’t always match changes in tree communities. This suggests that different factors might be influencing the shifts in these groups of organisms separately.

His PI on the project is Dr. Stephanie Kivlin, the Director of Graduate Studies at UTK.

Motility regulation in Azospirillum brasilense

All living things can sense and react to changes around them. When bacteria notice changes, they adjust how they move, like swimming faster or changing direction. Dr. Hannah Hughes is studying Azospirillum Brasilense, a nitrogen-fixing bacterium that colonizes the rhizosphere of grasses and cereals. In summary, it attaches to plant roots and helps them grow.

Hughes is looking into how Azospirillum Brasilense controls its movement using nitrogen and oxygen. She hopes her research helps others better understand how bacteria function in different situations.

Her mentor on the project is Dr. Gladys Alexandre, the Head of the UTK Department of Biochemistry & Cellular and Molecular Biology (BCMB).

The Vaginal Microbiome

Throughout life, the vaginal microbiome changes for women. Dr. Jéssica da Conceição Mendonça said there is not enough research to accurately understand the factors that affect those changes.

“They’re much more complex than we originally thought, containing both good bacteria and bad bacteria,” she said.

Her research focuses on how those bacteria compete for nutrients, and how we can use those findings to create better outcomes for women’s health and successful pregnancies.

Her mentor on the project is Dr. Lindsey Burcham, an Assistant Professor in the Microbiology Department.

Functional oligomers from used polymers

There’s a big need to recycle single-use plastic items like water bottles. Right now, the usual way to recycle plastics involves melting them down; however, that process leads to the loss of some key qualities.

Dr. Alison Biery and Shelby Watson-Sandors, work alongside their Principal Investigator, Dr. Mark Dadmun, who runs the Dadmun Lab in the College of Arts and Sciences and is a joint Professor between UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The team found a better way to recycle used bottles. Instead of breaking them down into individual pieces, they turn them into short-chain polymers. These can then be made into new, high-quality plastic or combined with other materials to make even better products.

They hope to continue research on how to make new products that are more useful and practical for recycling purposes.

Treating Type-2 Diabetes

Diabetes is a common health problem where the body struggles to regulate blood sugar levels. Dr. Praveen Jadi’s research proposes a new way to help by targeting a specific enzyme called soluble epoxide hydrolase (sEH) found in pancreatic β-cells, which are crucial for insulin production. By inhibiting sEH, he can make β-cells stronger and better able to handle high blood sugar levels.

Moving forward, he hopes to test this idea using both lab experiments and patients. If successful, his method could lead to better diabetes treatments in the future.

His mentor for the project is Dr. Ahmed Bettaieb, who is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences.

Arts-based data visualization in schools

Dr. Amanda Galbraith is helping research new ways to engage students in the classroom and believes artistic data visualization may be the key. At UTK, Dr. Joy Bertling and Dr. Lynn Hodge are leading a project funded by the US Department of Education to see how these visualizations can be used in classes for fourth through eighth graders. Researchers like Galbraith found that students who learn with these visualizations can create their own to show local data, and teachers who use them feel more confident teaching both STEM and arts subjects. Now, the team is working to make their resources available to more educators.

Eco-friendly plastic creation

Dr. Yunxuan Wang is researching a new method of producing plastics that don’t rely on toxic chemicals like diisocyanates, which are currently used in commercial production.

She uses “lignin,” which comes from plants, making it more environmentally friendly. Her process involves several steps: first, lignin is epoxidized, then carbon dioxide (CO2) is added, then reacted with diamine to create lignin-based plastics. This method helps reduce environmental impact.

Wang’s mentor on the project is Arthur J. Ragauskas, the Interim Department Head and UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair for Biorefining.

Intelligent decision-making in manufacturing

Dr. Guilherme B. Zuccolotto’s research aims to improve decision-making in manufacturing industries by creating a system called PCOEx-PMS. It uses statistical models to measure how well people, materials, equipment, and information perform in the manufacturing process. It also looks at how people-related metrics influence overall performance.

His mentor is Dr. John Kobza, the Department Head of Industrial and Systems Engineering

Vaccine against Leptospira infection

Leptospirosis is a disease that causes many human and animal deaths each year. The vaccines available now don’t protect against all types of the bacteria that cause the disease and don’t provide long-lasting immunity.

Dr. Liana Barbosa uses computer-based techniques to find new targets for vaccines by analyzing the bacteria’s genetic and structural information. Her team has identified certain proteins that could be good targets for a vaccine, as they have features that suggest they could trigger a strong immune response.

Her mentor in the research is Dr. Sreekumari Rajeev.

How farming methods affect emissions

Dr. Jashanjeet Kaur Dhaliwal has a team working under Dr. Debasish Saha, an Assistant Professor in the Biogeochemical Nutrient Cycling Lab at UTK. They are looking into different farming methods like no-tillage and cover crops, and their environmental impact. Their research looked at how nitrous oxide emissions change with farming methods. According to their research, fields with cover crops emitted more nitrous oxide than those without cover crops.

Prototype for smart microwave ovens

Dr. Ran Yang is researching a microwave method that allows better control over the frequency and power levels, which are important for even heating. His results showed a 30 percent improvement in reheating and a 20 percent improvement in defrosting compared to current microwave methods. It could become the basis for smarter, more efficient microwave ovens for homes and industries, offering better performance and environmental benefits.

His mentor on the project is Dr. Jiajia Chen,  an Assistant Professor in the Department of Food Science.

Enhancing the functionality of pea proteins

Dr. Surangna Jain is studying how to improve the functional properties of pea proteins, which often have limited uses due to poor solubility and quality. She used chemical processes to graft pea proteins with propylene glycol alginate (PGA). They tested different combinations of pea protein and PGA under various conditions to find the best results. The process created strong bonds between the pea proteins and PGA, improving their properties.

Her mentor on the project is Dr. Qixin Zhong, a Professor at the Department of Food Science.

Sustainable aviation fuel

Dr. Bernard Asare-Bediako’s research focuses on using captured carbon dioxide (CO2) to make useful chemicals and fuels, which helps reduce CO2 emissions in the atmosphere and combat climate change. They explored two methods to produce dimethyl carbonate (DMC) and sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) using CO2 as a raw material.

The team’s findings show promising ways to use CO2 for making valuable chemicals and fuels, contributing to efforts to combat climate change and promote sustainability.

His mentors on the project are Dr. Nicole Labbé and Dr. Nourredine Abdoulmoumine. They are Professors at the Center for Renewable Carbon at UTK.

Spotting harmful bacteria

Last but certainly not least, Dr. Alaa Sewid addressed the need for affordable and easy-to-use methods to detect harmful bacteria like E. coli in food, especially in places with limited resources. The team is exploring isothermal nucleic acid amplification technology (INAAT). Their innovative method efficiently concentrates bacteria from large volumes of water and can detect E. coli in just 40-50 minutes. This innovation could lead to a practical and cost-effective way to detect harmful bacteria in food on-site.

Her mentor on this project is Dr. Shigetoshi Eda, a Professor in the Department of Forestry, Wildlife & Fisheries.


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