Faculty Receive Highly-Competitive Research Awards

Funding from agencies such as the National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Department of Energy supports faculty research and creative activities across all disciplines in the College of Arts and Sciences and drives innovative research and engagement at UT.

Several of our faculty received highly-competitive awards this year to support research and creative activities in the natural sciences and humanities.

A Striking Paradox

budkeJessica Budke, assistant professor of ecology and director of the UT Herbarium, received an NSF CAREER award to study parent-offspring conflict in mosses.

“The conflict is a striking paradox where parents have to balance limited resources between investing in their offspring and reserving resources for their own survival and future reproduction,” Budke said. “Moss plants are an ideal system to study this conflict since their offspring remain physically attached and nutritionally dependent on the parent plant throughout their lifespan.”

Using field-collected plants and natural history specimens, Budke will use an innovative and integrated research approach that incorporates comparative analysis of function morphology, physiology, and evolution to explore and understand the processes that have led to diverse adaptations for regulating parental-offspring resource allocation across species.

Learn more about her research, which will lay the groundwork for future biodiversity studies in mosses.

Humanities Flourish with Grant Funding

Amy Elias, Hillary Havens, and Amir Sadovnik received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a set of interdisciplinary undergraduate courses integrating the humanities and computer science. UT faculty currently work on digital humanities research that includes cultural analytics, 3D mapping of archeological sites, educational technology applications, digital film studies, game studies, gamification of learning, data analysis, and artificial reality technologies.

Elias, director of the UT Humanities Center, attributes this success to the university’s creative programming and support of groundbreaking research.

“The humanities are centered on paying deep attention to how structures—such as a novel, a set of historical actions, or a belief system—are put together and interact culturally,” she said.

Read more about the collaboration to develop digital humanities courses at UT.

Gaoue Receives NSF Grant for Research in Benin

gaoueUT Associate Professor Orou Gaoue will lead an international project to study complex ecological interactions in the context of local community. Gaoue — who previously spent 10 years researching how humans affect the environment by chopping off branches to feed cattle — became interested in studying human-environment interactions and extinction through an ethnobiological lens, which combines ecology, math and anthropology to focus on the human understanding of the environment.

“It’s an idea that I like. It’s a project that I love,” Gaoue said. “It’s an opportunity that I wanted, not just to do research, but to make a difference because opportunities like this for our students to go do research overseas, to do international research is limited.”

Read more about Gaoue’s ecological research and internationally-based educational opportunities for students.

Developing a Better Understanding of Math Educators 

anne hoAnne M. Ho, a senior lecturer of math, received an NSF grant to study math educators to support teachers who fall between the traditional divisions of high school and college teaching.

“Math courses are an integral part of every student’s high school and college experiences so it’s important that teachers for these courses are well-supported,” Ho said. “This project brings these educators into the spotlight so that researchers in math education can better understand their teaching practices, perceptions, and needs. Ultimately, my long-term goal is to find better ways to aid these math teachers in helping their own students.”

Read more about how her project highlights educators in the secondary to tertiary (S2T) transition with implications for teaching practices in both settings.

Papers of Andrew Jackson Project Awarded Federal Funding

The Papers of Andrew Jackson, a long-running project in the UT Department of History, received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to support its continued work. As part of the history department, The Papers of Andrew Jackson is a valuable resource for all faculty, staff, and students. Michael Woods, project director and associate professor of history, and his editorial staff collect and publish Jackson’s entire extant literary record.

“Andrew Jackson was as controversial a figure in his own time as he is in ours, but his historical significance is beyond doubt,” Woods said. “We seek to place modern discussions of Jackson, his era, and his legacy on a firm evidentiary foundation.”

Learn more about the editorial team’s work producing the series that brings Jackson’s most important papers to the public in easily readable form.

Reducing Uncertainty


Olivia Prosper, assistant professor of mathematics, received an NSF CAREER award for her work to improve mathematical modeling for infectious diseases. Emerging infectious diseases are an inevitable part of our world. Mathematical models can inform scientific understanding of these complex and ever-changing systems, as well as public health policy. Prosper focuses on mechanistic models, which are models that describe key processes that drive dynamic, real-world systems. Coupled with empirical data, these models can be used to assess the efficacy or test hypotheses about the underlying biology.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored both the importance of mechanistic models and the challenges of implementing these models to inform policy,” Prosper said. “One of these challenges that spans disciplines is when there is a mismatch between the data available and the data required to inform the models and reduce uncertainty in the predictions.”

Learn more about her goal to create a methodology to develop mathematical models that produce reliable outputs and measures of uncertainty.

Responding to Climate Change

Kimberly Sheldon, assistant professor of ecology, received an NSF CAREER award for her project examining behavioral shifts of dung beetles in response to temperature change.

“Dung beetles remove and recycle waste and are thus both ecologically and economically valuable, but these beneficial insects may be in trouble,” Sheldon said. “Like all insects, dung beetle development and survival are impacted by temperature. Researchers predict that warmer temperatures will result in population declines and tropical insects, which make up the vast majority of biological diversity on Earth, may be particularly at risk.”

Read more about Sheldon and her team’s research on how dung beetles in Tennessee and Ecuador respond to warmer and more variable temperatures.

Building a Broader, More Secure Internet 

siopsisPhysics Professor George Siopsis is a co-PI on a new DOE project to devise, develop, and demonstrate a regional scale quantum internet testbed. Nicholas Peters of Oak Ridge National Laboratory is the project lead, with deputy and co-PIs from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Purdue University, Amazon Web Services, and Qubitekk, founded by UT alumnus Duncan Earl.

“Currently, almost all people working in quantum communications are physicists,” he said. “This is because this is emerging technology and to make any contributions, one needs to have a good grasp of quantum mechanics and optics. We are trying to change that to include electrical engineers, computer scientists, and other disciplines. I am working with both (the) arts and sciences and engineering colleges to develop the right interdisciplinary curriculum.”

Learn more about quantum computers and the team’s work a qubit – the engine of quantum computing.

Neutron Star Mergers

steinerAndrew Steiner, associate professor of physics, is the principal investigator on a National Science Foundation award to create the Nuclear Physics of Multi-Messenger Mergers research hub, which will emphasize training a diverse cadre of new doctoral graduates to ensure a next generation of scientists will broaden the field and carry the research forward.

“One way I like to think of it is using neutron stars as a laboratory,” he said. “Everything is made out of atoms and nuclei, and nuclei are dictated by how neutrons and protons interact. One way of understanding how they work is by pushing them a little in one direction or the other. We make them a little hotter, a little denser; we put them in a different environment (or) give them a little bit of a magnetic field—all of these things are kind of knobs that we turn so that we can figure out more about what’s going on. Neutron stars allow us to study matter in many different ways.”

Learn more about how Steiner’s work will provide additional data from gravitational waves to usher in a new era of “multi-messenger” astronomy.