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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 2023.

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.

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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Liz Derryberry (

  • How are birds adjusting their song to the urban environment?
  • How has song urbanization affected signal salience?
  • Are urban songs adaptive?

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?

Ben Fitzpatrick ( )

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

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?

Orou Gaoue ( )

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

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?

Karen Hughes

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

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?

Brian O’Meara ( )

  • In my lab, we develop and apply phylogenetic tools to address evolutionary questions. They are usually generated by a direct research need: how can we tell whether this group is evolving at a different rate?
  • How can we choose between phylogeographic models without limiting ourselves to a pre-selected small set?
  • Is there hidden variation in states that lets some herbaceous plants retain the ability to make wood while others have lost this ability?

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?

Laura Russo (

  • How do we identify win-win scenarios between conservation and agriculture?
  • How do networks of interactions form between plants and pollinators?
  • What are the patterns and processes that operate on these networks?
  • Can we manipulate and manage complex networks of species interactions?
  • Can we quantify diffuse coevolution acting on the interactions between plants and pollinators?

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?

Sebastian Stockmaier

  • How do animals change their behavior in response to infection and how does this affect their fitness and the fitness of their conspecifics?
  • What are the social costs and benefits of behaving sick?
  • How do infection-induced behaviors scale up to affect group or population level transmission dynamics?
  • How do pathogens manipulate host social behaviors?
  • What are the behavioral contact patterns between species that facilitate cross-species transmission?

Jessie Tanner

  • How do receivers of animal signals make decisions in realistically complex, noisy environments?
  • What are the causes and consequences of the within-individual variation (inconsistency) in animal signals?
  • How are multivariate traits shaped by selection from multiple sources (i.e., pre- and postcopulatory sexual selection, natural selection)?

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?