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, and students will receive training in laboratory safety and best practices. Training may last for several weeks to months, depending on how much time can be devoted.

Title: Microbial response to hydrocarbon contamination

Project: Coastal marshes in southern Louisiana have been studied since May 2010, prior to oiling by the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2011, the Coastal Waters Consortium was established to address fundamental research related to determining the chemical evolution and biological degradation of hydrocarbons in the environment (natural and anthropogenic) and the effects of hydrocarbon and other stressors to coastal ecosystems. Microbial genetics methods are offering insight into ecosystem stress indices for a marsh community and ecosystem. The primary goals of ongoing and future research is to follow ecosystem recovery by understanding how microbial communities are distributed in the marshes, how communities change in response to stress, and to determine mechanisms controlling community response and how ecosystem feedback processes may be affected. This research is funded in part by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative and will continue until 2017. Several undergraduates have worked on this project in the past 3 years. Their research has been presented at conferences and has become part of scientific publications.

Expectations: 10-20 hours per week for training, independent work, data management, and weekly group meetings; presentation of results at a professional meeting; potential participation in Spring EUREKA competition. Some funding is available to pay a student as a student worker/research assistant, OR the project is available for 3 hours of Geology 493 credit (± senior thesis).

Experience: Major in Geology or Environmental Studies; interest in biology/microbiology, geochemistry, including some prior coursework. Interest in computer use and programming.

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 some animals have dual symbiotic systems. Among the recognized associations, bacterial endosymbiosis with lucinids, a group of bivalve clams, appears to be among the most ancient, at ~430 million years old. Our work has identified unexpected endosymbiont diversity that indicates dual symbiosis from one clam in marine seagrass beds in Florida and The Bahamas. The goals of this research are to assess endosymbiont diversity and abundance using a combination of molecular and microscopy methods, including fluorescence in situ hybridization, and to evaluate metagenomics data to identify different metabolic processes. Field work is possible because lucinids can have a profound impact on seagrass bed biogeochemistry. We are most interested in methane cycling in climatically sensitive, nearshore marine systems. This project is part of a larger project funded by the National Science Foundation and will continue until 2018.

Status: Any student status is eligible (Freshman – Senior), as the project will be tailored to the student's interests, experience, and future goals. Some funding is available to pay a student as a student worker/research assistant, OR the project is available for 3 hours of Geology 493 credit (± senior thesis).

Expectations: 10-20 hours per week for training, independent work, data management, and weekly group meetings; presentation of results at a 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. Prior biology and chemistry coursework is desired. Lab and computer skills are also encouraged.


Title: Distribution and conservation of cave biodiversity in the Valley and Ridge

Project: Of the >50,000 caves reported in the United States, over 1/5 are in the state of Tennessee. Tennessee is part of one of the richest karst areas in the world and may have the highest number of obligate cave animals of any other state. Spatial patterns of cave biodiversity, species richness, and endemism in Tennessee reveal that the Valley and Ridge has been historically undersampled. There is still much to be learned about the distribution of cave animals, their evolutionary history in relation to landscape evolution, and of ecosystem dynamics, including habitat type, geochemistry, and microbiology. Almost nothing is known about the diversity of microbes in Tennessee caves. This hinders our ability to understand ecosystem structure and response to disturbances because cave ecosystems are especially vulnerable to disturbances like flooding or contamination. This project is collaborative with cave biologists from Illinois, Texas, and Tennessee. We are addressing sampling gaps in Valley and Ridge caves by conducting over 100 biological inventories in two years, and by documenting species occurrence to define geographic extent and patterns in spatial distribution. Student projects can involve conducting cave field work, measuring water quality from the caves, and conducting laboratory analyses of water, sediments, and microbial biofilms. 

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). Limited research assistantship funding is available for this project.

Expectations: 5-20 hours per week for training, independent work, data management, and weekly group meetings; presentation of results at a 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. Prior biology and chemistry coursework is desired. Computer skills are also encouraged. A student does not have to be interested in caving or doing field work to be involved with this project.

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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