Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences


Undergraduate Research Opportunities

See Also: Undergraduate Research Achievements

Please keep an eye on this page for specific opportunities.

Note: If you are interested in research opportunities with other faculty, please contact them directly…most faculty will create and tailor a research project to your particular interests.

Specific Opportunities

Prof. Annette Engel

Prof. Annette Engel has a variety of undergraduate research opportunities, depending on student interests, experiences, and future goals. Some of the projects are defined (see list below), but other projects are more flexible and can be developed specifically for each student. Most students take a path that starts with assisting graduate students doing field work or lab experiments to gain experience, and then transitioning to a more independent project over time. If the desire is to gain more laboratory experience, it is also possible to assist with projects for as few as 5 hours per week. Some projects may have funding support. In all circumstances, attendance in group lab meetings is required.

Title: Deciphering the evolutionary history of metabolism in extreme environments from the Epsilonproteobacteria
Project:Life on Earth emerged over 3.8 Ga years ago in what many scientists arguably consider an extreme environment, similar to extant marine deep-sea hydrothermal vents or terrestrial hot springs. Members of one major proteobacterial group, the Epsilonproteobacteria, dominate many of these environments, most likely due to their abilities to utilize inorganic carbon, molecular hydrogen, and a range of sulfur compounds for energy and growth. Many epsilonproteobacterial isolates from marine hydrothermal vent environments have been sequenced, and these genomes have provided metabolic clues to what has allowed the Epsilonproteobacteria to survive in marine extreme environments. However, little is known about the genomic potential of Epsilonproteobacteria from extreme terrestrial environments, including hot springs and caves, as well as how the terrestrial groups relate to those that thrive at hydrothermal vents. For this project, a comparative study of epsilonproteobacterial metagenomes and genomes from both marine and terrestrial environments will uncover the deepest branching clades. These data will be acquired from already existing databases, as well as from new data just recently acquired. The research will help us to understand the evolution of Epsilonproteobacteria, but also the evolution of metabolism in extreme environments. This research should also assist in the interpretation of metabolic signatures recorded in geologic materials, thereby greatly enhancing the predictive nature of where life originally arose on Earth and where life processes are possible in unexplored terrestrial and extraterrestrial environments within the Universe.
Status: Any student status is eligible (Freshman – Senior), as the project will be tailored to the student’s interests, experience, and future goals. The project is available for 3 hours of Geology 493 credit (± senior thesis).
Expectations: 7-10 hours per week that includes training, independent work, and weekly group meetings; presentation of results at professional meeting; potential participation in Spring EUREKA competition.
Experience: Major in Geology or Environmental Studies; interest in biology/microbiology, including some prior coursework. Lab and computer skills.
Contact: Annette Engel (aengel1@utk.edu) Office: EPS 410 • Laboratories: SERF 502/503

Title: Arsenic cycling by Chloroflexi in hot springs, El Tatio, Chile, to uncover the evolutionary history of microbe-arsenic interactions
Project: Recent energy utilization and power production from geothermal reservoirs worldwide have sparked interest in knowing more about the mobility and behavior of metalloids, such as arsenic, from geothermal fluids. In these systems, there is concern that arsenic in any form decreases the quality of recirculation fluids, that the volatile arsenic compounds are potential health risks, and that precipitation of arsenic-containing solids will clog pipes and become a disposal hazard. Many different microbes contribute to arsenic speciation and mobility in natural waters through energy conservation reactions and detoxification mechanisms, and can help to remediate arsenic concentrations, speciation, and mobility. However, most of what we know of microbial arsenic cycling is from sulfidic, extreme pH conditions, such as from continental geothermal systems like Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Mono Lake in California, or even in aquifer sediments from Bangladesh. Microbial arsenic cycling above 60o C is not well understood, and especially from fluids that are non-sulfidic and have circumneutral pH, which are the most desirable type of fluids for geothermal energy production. Therefore, there is a need to study the types of microbes and biogeochemical reactions responsible for arsenic cycling at high temperatures. A natural model system exists at El Tatio geyser field in northern Chile, where natural arsenic concentrations are among the highest reported in the world. Moreover, diverse communities of bacteria occur in microbial mats from hot springs, and surveys of arsenic oxidation genes indicate there are several types of bacteria responsible for converting arsenite to arsenate. Although the diversity of arsenite-oxidizers changes from the highest temperatures to lower temperatures, one of the most prevalent groups of bacteria encountered is the Chloroflexi. These microbes are known to oxidize arsenic, but the diversity of such microbes in natural systems, especially hot springs, has been previously unknown. For this project, molecular genetics and culture-based experiments will be applied to uncover the distribution and diversity of Chloroflexi groups associated with arsenic cycling and the metabolic potential and regulation of arsenic oxidation.
Status: Any student status is eligible (Freshman – Senior), as the project will be tailored to the student’s interests, experience, and future goals. The project is available for 3 hours of Geology 493 credit (± senior thesis).
Expectations: 7-10 hours per week that includes training, independent work, and weekly group meetings; presentation of results at professional meeting; potential participation in Spring EUREKA competition.
Experience: Major in Geology or Environmental Studies; interest in biology/microbiology, including some prior coursework. Lab and computer skills.
Contact: Annette Engel (aengel1@utk.edu) Office: EPS 410 • Laboratories: SERF 502/503

Title: Evolution of dual symbiosis in lucinid bivalves
Project: Numerous symbiotic associations between chemosynthetic bacteria and marine bivalves have been identified over the last three decades. Most of these associations are with thiotrophic (sulfur-oxidizing) bacteria, but methanotrophic (methane-oxidizing) and dual symbiosis of thiotrophic and methanotrophic bacteria has also been reported. Among the recognized associations, bacterial endosymbiosis with lucinids, a group of bivalves, appears to be among the most ancient, at ~430 million years old. Although dual symbiosis has not yet been thoroughly described in lucinids, our work has identified unexpected endosymbiont diversity suggestive of a dual symbiotic system from Phacoides pectinatus host from marine seagrass beds in Florida and The Bahamas. This project will assess endosymbiont diversity and abundance using a combination of molecular and microscopy methods, including fluorescence in situ hybridization, the evaluation of metagenomics data, targeted metabolic experiments using isotopes, and field aquaria experiments. Lucinids have a profound impact on seagrass bed biogeochemistry. As such, the research findings will improve our understanding of methane cycling in climatically sensitive, nearshore marine systems. This project is part of a larger project funded by the National Science Foundation.
Status: Any student status is eligible (Freshman – Senior), as the project will be tailored to the student’s interests, experience, and future goals. The project is available for 3 hours of Geology 493 credit (± senior thesis).
Expectations: 10-16 hours per week that includes training, independent work, and weekly group meetings; presentation of results at professional meeting; potential participation in Spring EUREKA competition.
Experience: Major in Geology or Environmental Studies, or Microbiology; at a minimum, an interest in biology/microbiology, including some prior coursework, is desired. Lab and computer skills.
Contact: Annette Engel (aengel1@utk.edu) Office: EPS 410 • Laboratories: SERF 502/503

Prof. Michael McKinney

Title: Freshwater mussels and human impacts
Project: Freshwater mussels are excellent indicators of human impacts such as water pollution. This project involves studying the effects of coal mining and urban sprawl on living mussels. Fieldwork and lab work are required. This includes species identification and installation of silos containing live mussels.
Status: Project is available for 3 hours of Geology 493 credit (± senior thesis)
Expectations: 6-10 hours per week that includes training, independent work; presentation of results at professional meeting; potential participation in Spring EUREKA competition.
Experience: Junior or Senior in Geology or Environmental Studies
Contact: Michael McKinney (mmckinne@utk.edu) EPS room 317a

Title: Land snails and human impacts
Project: Land snails are a very understudied group of organisms. But they are excellent indicators of human impacts, especially land development. This project involves collecting and identifying land snails in different habitats ranging from urban to natural areas. Fieldwork and some lab work are required. Status: Project is available for 3 hours of Geology 493 credit (± senior thesis)
Expectations: 6-10 hours per week that includes training, independent work; presentation of results at professional meeting; potential participation in Spring EUREKA competition.
Experience: Junior or Senior in Geology or Environmental Studies
Contact: Michael McKinney (mmckinne@utk.edu) EPS room 317a

Prof. Linda Kah

Title: Stable isotopic analysis of modern lacustrine carbonates
Project: Lithified microbial mat structures are a prominent feature of Laguna Negro – a hypersaline lake system in the high Andes (4100 m elevation), Argentina. In order to diagnose the origin of carbonate and its relationship to microbial activity and/or climate evolution of the lake system, we are looking for a student interest in developing a detailed record of isotopic and elemental change through these lithified structures. For this project, the student will become familiar with the petrographic elements involved in the accretion of lithified mat structures (using standard petrographic and luminescence techniques), will create a high-resolution time-sequence through the structures (using microdrill techniques); and will measure a variety of isotopic characteristics (using different mass spectrometric techniques). There is also potential for measuring trace element composition of microdrilled powders (using ICP-OES). Data will then be analyzed by the student with consultation with faculty advisors.
Status: Project is available for 3 hours of Geology 493 credit (± senior thesis)
Expectations and Rewards: 10 hours per week that includes training, independent work, and bi-monthly group meetings; project provides a superb opportunity for the student to present results at a professional meeting in the fall; training in stable isotope methodologies can easily be leveraged into more extensive analytical training. Results of analyses will be part of a larger project and student workers will share authorship with other members of the UT faculty and an international team of scientists.
Experience: Junior in Geology or Environmental Studies; attention to detail is a must; looking for a student who is interested in developing strength in laboratory analytical techniques.
Contact: Linda Kah (lckah@utk.edu; EPS room 311) and Michael Hren (mhren@utk.edu; EPS room 214)

Title: Modeling dramatic changes in oceanic Sr-isotopic composition
Project: Approximately 460 million years ago, the world’s oceans experienced an abrupt change in strontium isotope composition. This abrupt isotopic change has been attributed variously to an increase in seafloor spreading, a decrease of continental weathering, and the enhanced weathering of young volcanic arc systems. New data, however, suggests that this dramatic change in Sr-isotope composition may have arisen from oceanographic causes – namely mixing of a globally stratified ocean. For this project, the student will be exploring the potential for an oceanic cause for isotopic change by modeling both strontium incorporation into marine carbonate phases and the potential rapidity of isotopic change with the mixing of two different isotopic reservoirs.
Status: Project is available for 3 hours of Geology 493 credit (± senior thesis)
Experience and Rewards: Junior or Senior in Geology or Environmental Studies; desire to learn general modeling techniques is a plus. Will likely result in co-authorship on a peer-reviewed publication.
Contact: Linda Kah (lckah@utk.edu; EPS room 311)

Title: Sulfur-isotope composition of ancient carbonate rocks
Project: Through geologic time, the oxygenation state of the Earth’s surface environments has been recorded in the sulfur isotopic composition of marine carbonate rocks. In recent years, we have come to appreciate how Earth oxygenation has fundamentally changed oceanic chemistry. This project will train a student in the extraction of trace sulfate from marine carbonate rocks, and the student will interpret the results of sulfur isotopic analyses within the scope of changing oceanic chemistry.
Status: Project is available for 3 hours of Geology 493 credit (± senior thesis)
Expectations and Rewards: 6-10 hours per week that includes training, independent work, and bi-monthly group meetings; presentation of results at professional meeting
Experience: Junior or Senior in Geology or Environmental Studies; lab experience preferred, but not required; needs attention to detail.
Contact: Linda Kah (lckah@utk.edu; EPS room 311)

Title: Sulfur-isotope composition of ancient evaporites
Project: Gypsum is a common sedimentary component of evaporative marine depositional environments. The high solubility of gypsum, however, often leads to either its wholesale dissolution or its diagenetic recrystallization as a more stable phase, such as calcite. It is not well-understood how the sulfate ion behaves during the recrystallization process. This project will explore the occurrence of sulfur phases within diagenetically recrystallized gypsum via systematic chemical extraction of sulfur phases.
Status: Project is available for Geology 493 credit (± senior thesis)
Expectations and Rewards: 6-10 hours per week; presentation of results at professional meeting; potential travel to Indiana University to participate in late-stage analysis.
Experience: Junior or Senior in Geology or Environmental Studies; lab experience preferred, but not required; needs attention to detail.
Contact: Linda Kah (lckah@utk.edu; EPS room 311)
Sulfur-isotope composition of Mesoproterozoic seawater


Paid Internship

ORISE administers many programs that provides paid educational and research experiences and have eligibility requirements that vary from program to program. Students or faculty will need to go to the following link(s) and select the program that interests them. Each program's web page has instructions on eligibility requirements, application submission, and a link to the online application or a printable application. All ORISE programs require applicants to submit the appropriate application and supporting documentation. The program's web page also provides the name and e-mail address of a program specialist who can help answer any questions that students may have concerning eligibility requirements or submitting an application for a particular program. When e-mailing questions to the program specialist the program name should be included in the e-mail. When students choose a program that interests them, they will need to CAREFULLY read the eligibility requirements. Many of the programs administered by ORISE are open only to U.S. citizens or permanent resident aliens.

  • http://www.orau.gov/hereatornl - This web page is for the Higher Education Research Experiences at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (HERE). The program has an online application. Deadlines are stated but they are flexible for the HERE program. There are multiple academic levels in the HERE program, i.e., entering freshman, undergraduate, post-BS, a graduate student or a faculty member.
  • http://www.scied.science.doe.gov – The students will find information about the Department of Energy's Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) as well as an electronic application which can complete online. The SULI program is for undergraduates and graduating seniors. At this site students can also find applications for the Community College Institute (CCI) and the Pre-Service Teacher (PST) programs.
  • http://www.ornl.gov/sci/nuclear_science_technology/nstip/nesls.htm - The Nuclear Engineering Student Laboratory Synthesis (NESLS) program is a cooperative research initiative geared toward students working in physics and nuclear engineering applications. Through one- to three-year summer internships, NESLS offers engineering student on-the-job educational and research opportunities at a multidisciplinary national laboratory.
  • http://see.orau.org - This link is the gateway to many of the education and research experiences offered through ORISE. The web page has links for faculty, recent graduates, graduates, and undergraduate students.



 

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