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Invisible Organisms with an Enormous Impact

Understanding the distributions and functions of microscopic fungi and bacteria is what drives new Assistant Professor Stephanie Kivlin’s research.

Stephanie Kivlin“Microbes can sometimes get a bad reputation, causing disease, food spoilage, etc.,” Kivlin says. “But, people are often surprised to learn that most microorganisms are beneficial for humans; increasing crop yields, purifying water, and recycling nutrients from dead plants back into soils.”

Because there are more than 1,000,000,000 microorganisms in a scoop of soil, determining exactly where, when, and how microbes perform these beneficial functions is still an open line of research. These questions motivated Kivlin to follow a career in microbial ecology after being trained as a microbiologist. She has since pursued research to connect the function of these tiny organisms (< 0.01mm) to whole ecosystem scale resource dynamics.

Kivlin’s research occurs in locations near and far from Knoxville. She spends her summers assessing microbial response to the 2016 Chimney Tops 2 fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and elevational patterns of microorganisms and the soil resources they affect in the western Colorado Rockies at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. The rest of year, she models microbial biogeography and ecosystem resource cycling at regional to global scales.

Students participate in a long-term warming experiment at the RMBL collecting fungal endophytes from grass leaves for metabolic analysis.

Students participate in a long-term warming experiment at the RMBL collecting fungal endophytes from grass leaves for metabolic analysis.

Kivlin is especially thrilled to be joining the UT EEB faculty. “I have always valued and encouraged collaborative science. The unique opportunity to collaborate with plant and soil ecologists, mycologists and spatial ecologists in the UT EEB department combined with associations with ecosystem modelers at the Oak Ridge National Lab is the perfect fit for my research program.”

Kivlin’s field site view from Rosy Point, Gothic, Colorado.

Kivlin’s field site view from Rosy Point, Gothic, Colorado.

Kivlin is no stranger to the excellent microbial and ecosystem ecology group already established in the department. To start her lab, Kivlin brought on recent UT EEB PhD graduates Jessica Moore and Leigh Moorhead, with expertise in ecosystem modeling and response to disturbance, as postdoctoral researchers. Moore and Moorhead took advantage of the UT-ORNL connection by conducting their PhD research at ORNL.

“The unique opportunity to collaborate with leading ecosystem experts at ORNL enticed me to select UT for graduate school, and I’m excited to further my ORNL collaborations throughout my post-doc,” Moore says.

“Ecosystem and microbial ecology have always been a strength of the UT EEB department, so I was exceptionally fortunate to attract two postdoctoral researchers whose graduate careers I had been tracking over the last five years,” Kivlin says. “We are all looking forward to building intra- and inter-departmental scientific synergies!”

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