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Exemplar Research Questions

The following list provides some examples of topics on which faculty in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, would be interested in recruiting graduate students for entry in August 2019.

This list is not exhaustive – indeed, far from it. There are other faculty members who will be recruiting students in the Department. Also, the listed faculty members may recruit students who have different interests to those listed. But we prepared this list just to illustrate to prospective students some of the diversity of topics on which we envision recruiting, spanning conservation, macroevolution, global change ecology, molecular genetics, biology education, and systematics, among many other topics.

Download a PDF that contains the list below and additional information about the department.

Ben Fitzpatrick (

  • What explains the diversity of salamanders in the Southern Appalachians? Is hybridization a creative process for biological diversity?

Orou Gaoue (

  • How do ecological systems respond to chronic anthropological disturbance?
  • What are the demographic consequences of ecological interactions?
  • How do local people’s knowledge shape plant-human/culture interactions?

Karen W Hughes 

  • What roles do fungi play in wildfire recovery?
  • Are pyrophilous (heat loving) fungi locally adapted to wildfire regimes or are they cosmopolitan?

Paul Armsworth (

  • How can large-scale efforts to conserve biodiversity or ecosystem services, which are led by governments or international nonprofits, most effectively complement bottom-up conservation efforts led by local communities?
  • Conservation organizations often have a hierarchical management structure – how effectively do hierarchies allocate resources to support conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services?

Joe Bailey (

  • How will species range dynamics drive genetic divergence? How do feedbacks reinforce patterns of genetic divergence on the landscape?
  • Does contemporary evolution along the gradients of global change alter ecosystem function?

Mike Blum (

  • How does rapid evolution of foundational plants influence coastal marsh accretion and carbon storage?
  • How do sociodemographic and ecological conditions shape zoonotic disease risk in counter-urbanizing cities?

Jessica M. Budke (

  • What are the functional roles of parental structures for limiting offspring resource acquisition and are there tradeoffs in these structural investments?
  • How can molecular phylogenies illuminate evolutionary processes and refine taxonomic concepts?
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Nina Fefferman (

  • How do different types of selective pressures on individuals shape the evolution of animal social systems?
  • What role (if any) does infectious disease play in conservation management planning for endangered populations?

Jim Fordyce (

  • How does among population variation in plant phenotype affect population structuring of herbivores?
  • What role does host breadth play in range size and diversification rate of herbivorous insects?

Sergey Gavrilets (

  • How can we understand the origins of news species and the links between micro-evolutionary processes and macro-evolutionary patterns?
  • How can we understand and predict our social behavior and the evolution of human social complexity?

Xingli Giam (

  • How do human activities impact species, communities, and ecosystem function across spatial and temporal scales?
  • How will future demand for food and biofuels interact with likely agricultural yield improvements, climate change, and changes in land rental rates to affect future land-cover transformations and their subsequent impact on biodiversity?

Mike Gilchrist (

  • How do assembly costs and translation errors shape selection on codon usage and how do they play themselves out in the face of biased mutation and genetic drift?
  • Some pathogens replicate intracellularly within hosts and move between host cells through budding or bursting. How does the rate of intracellular replication affect the rates of immune response clearance by the host? How, in turn, does this lead to changes in the survival of the host and transmission of the pathogen between hosts?

Lou Gross (

  • How are biological processes integrated across scales and levels of biological resolution from within organism level to those operating at population/community/landscape levels?
  • How do we effectively utilize mathematical and computational methods for spatial control – what to do, where to do it, when to do it, and how to assess the resulting solutions – for problems in epidemiology, invasive species management and conservation biology?

Susan Kalisz (

  • How do invaders and antagonistic interactions alter soil fungal communities, the function of key plant mutualisms and shape the demography and life history evolution of native community members?
  • What role does the ecological context, specifically selection driven by the absence of mates and pollinators, play in the evolution of selfing and genomic changes within and between species? Is selfing an evolutionary dead end or a reversible mating system?

Stephanie Kivlin (

  • What structures the biogeography of plant-fungal symbioses at the global scale and how will these interactions be disrupted by climate change?
  • How do soil microbial composition and functional gene profiles affect soil carbon and nutrient cycling along environmental stress gradients and with climate change?

Charlie Kwit (

  • What are the effects (actual and predicted) and ramifications of land-use and climate change, management, and disturbance on biodiversity in natural, managed, and agricultural settings?
  • What important roles do animals play in the seed dispersal process in animal-mediated seed dispersal systems?

Brandon Matheny (

  • How can we recognize species of mushroom-forming fungi? Why are there so many species of fungi? How are they related to each other, and what factors have promoted their diversification?
  • What are general biogeographical patterns in fungi? What processes are responsible for patterns we observe?

Monica Papes (

  • Are spectral diversity metrics derived from hyperspectral imagery good indicators of forest species richness? What other remotely sensed indices can be used to investigate richness and seasonality of vegetation?
  • Does inclusion of species’ physiological limits improve the precision of ecological niche models and potential distribution estimates?

Ed Schilling (

  • What is the parentage of the presumed allopolyploid lettuces (Lactuca) in North America, how many species are present, when did they arrive from Eurasia, what has been the consequence of polyploidy for their biology and evolution.

Beth Schussler (

  • How can biology programs enhance graduate student instruction of introductory biology courses?
  • How do instructor active learning practices relate to student perception of their effectiveness in large introductory biology classes?

Jen Schweitzer (

  • Under what varied circumstances do soils and soil microbial communities determine plant traits and act as selective agents?
  • What is the role of plant-pollinator interactions on soil processes?

Kimberly Sheldon (

  • What are the processes generating spatial patterns of biodiversity? What are the roles of biotic and abiotic factors in determining species’ range limits?
  • How do population-level variation in physiology and climatic variation affect predictions of the impacts of climate change?

Dan Simberloff (

  • What are the direct and indirect effects of particular plant invasions? A direct effect might be shading, for example, or allelopathy, while an indirect effect might be changing the nutrient cycle (e.g., for instance, by being a nitrogen fixer) or the fire regime.
  • What are the non-target impacts of particular insects introduced for biological control?

Randy Small (

  • What is the role of polyploidy in governing the success (in terms of species richness) of plant lineages? Why are some polyploid lineages highly diverse, while others are not?
  • What can contemporary patterns of genetic variation within and among populations tell us about species boundaries and the process of speciation?

Joe Williams (

  • What are the causes/consequences of diversification of reproductive traits in plants?
  • How does a particular reproductive trait, or set of traits, in a clade of plants develop and how does it contribute to diversification of the clade?