UTIA AgResearch 2023 New Faculty

The Faculty Innovation Council introduces AgResearch’s new faculty (hired in 2023). The information shared here is intended to help faculty identify research partners by learning about the interests, research methods, and equipment of new faculty. New faculty have also shared research areas in which they hope to collaborate.

2023 Faculty Members:

Chetan Badgujar Profile Page
Chetan Badgujar
Assistant Professor, Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science

Faculty Profile:

Research Interests:

My research interest lies in agricultural automation and robotics for cropping and livestock systems; Developing a digital tool by integrating sensors, data, and AI for decision support, predictive and precision agriculture; Smart agricultural machinery,  robots and ground vehicles.

Research Focus:

My research focus is on addressing the critical food production challenges (cost, labor, safety, and food security) to feed the world by 2050 and beyond sustainably. My research thrusts range from conventional agricultural machinery to mobile robots, which falls into three primary categories:
• Mesh robotic technology with conventional and non-conventional food production with an individual or robotic fleet approach.
• Develop and integrate precision Ag technologies (equipped with advanced sensors, robots, and data) for crop input optimization and site-specific operation to reduce environmental footprints and costs.
• Introduce and implement AI in conventional machines and mobile robots/ground vehicles.

Expertise, Research Methods and Data Used:

Ground robotics, sensor technology, machinery, mechatronics, and artificial intelligence methods in agriculture.

Equipment Used:

Small ground vehicles and aerial robots or platforms for sensing and application in agriculture, including crops and livestock.

Equipment Needed:

Large Agricultural machinery and equipment (tractors, sprayers, and planters).

Collaborator Interests and Skills Desired:

Precision agriculture, cropping system (agronomy), smart farming, field crop physiologist, and entomologist.

Le Chen Profile Page
Le Chen
Assistant Professor, Agricultural and Resource Economics

Faculty Profile:

Research Interests:

Sustainable Agricultural Production and Policy, Conservation Practice Adoption, Risk Management, Agricultural Finance, Agricultural Land Value, Applied Econometrics.

Research Focus:

My research focuses on applied production economics, with special emphasis on the economics of soil health management practices (e.g. cover crops and conservation tillage), agricultural policies related to risk management, technology adoption, and dynamic decision making. 

Expertise, Research Methods and Data Used:

Expertise: Economics of Sustainable Production
Research Methods: Applied Econometrics
Data: Cover crop and no-till adoption data, RMA insurance data, USDA NASS Quick Stats data, USDA NRCS conservation payment data, EWG government payment data, soil erosion data.

Collaborator Interests and Skills Desired:

Agricultural Production, Environmental and Natural Resource Economics, Conservation, Soil Health.

Blair Caitlin Downey Profile Page
Blair Caitlin Downey
Assistant Professor, Animal Science

Faculty Profile:

Research Interests:

Cattle behavior; animal welfare; abnormal behavior; cognition; social behavior

Research Focus:

My research aims to address relevant animal welfare issues to solve real-world problems, generate creative solutions that can be implemented on farms, and lead to lives worth living for animals. My current research focuses on dairy cattle, particularly the ways in which barrenness (i.e. social, feed, environmental deprivation) affects abnormal behaviors, social dynamics, and cognition. I am primarily interested in how early life experiences influence the development and persistence of behavior in later life. Through my research, I seek to identify and validate non-invasive indicators of negative affect, and investigate motivation to perform natural behaviors that are traditionally limited in farm environments. 

Expertise, Research Methods and Data Used:

“Expertise: animal welfare, abnormal behavior, behavioral testing, behavioral coding, sampling/recording methods, reliability training, data visualization

Methods/data: Live/video observations, wearable technology”

Equipment Used:

Video cameras, including slow-motion recording capability; iPads for behavior scoring

Equipment Needed:

Heart rate monitors, thermal camera, force plates, durable touchscreens, laser/algometer for nociceptive threshold testing, GPS proximity loggers for pasture environments.

Collaborator Interests and Skills Desired:

Researchers investigating management changes (e.g. comparing different animal housing); gut microbiome; movement morphology and consistency.

Skill sets: engineering skills to develop novel enrichment, motivation testing apparatus, alternative animal identification.

Emine N Fidan Profile Page
Emine N Fidan
Assistant Professor, Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science

Faculty Profile:

Research Interests:

Water resources; flooding; water quality; disaster dynamics; geospatial analytics; machine learning applications in hydrology

Research Focus:

My research explores the complex dynamics of our environment using data analytics and modeling approaches. We pursue questions regarding how human actions influence ecosystem health and downstream water resources through an interdisciplinary, management-focused perspective. To accomplish this, we leverage data from disparate sources ranging from discrete field samples to remotely sensed satellite imagery. Data-intensive modeling techniques include Bayesian statistical learning, neural networks, classification and regression trees, multivariate analysis, graphical models, and geospatial analytics. Research projects include flood modeling in agriculture-dominated landscapes, assessing surface water quality dynamics after major storm events through explanatory modeling, characterizing different agricultural features in Tennessee using high-resolution aerial imagery and computer vision, and quantifying microplastic abundance/type in different urban watersheds.

Expertise, Research Methods and Data Used:

I have expertise in environmental data science, hydrology, watershed science, geostatistical modeling, machine learning modeling, ArcGIS, R programming, and using the UT HPSC (ISAAC).
I use geospatial data (remotely sensed imagery as well as large-scale open-access data products), water quality data, flood extent data, climate data, and other environmental data. 

Equipment Used:

I have a computational lab with a 16-GB RAM iMac computer and access to the UT supercomputing cluster ISAAC. 

Collaborator Interests and Skills Desired:

Faculty members who are interested in studying public health, socio-environmental dynamics, ecological health, surface water quality, and biodiversity from a watershed or geospatial perspective. Also faculty members who have large amounts of environmental data and want to conduct statistical and modeling analyses.

Tabibul Islam Profile Page
Tabibul Islam
Assistant Professor, Plant Sciences

Faculty Profile:

Research Interests:

Controlled environment (CEA) fruit physiology, biochemistry, and molecular biology; RNA-based plant trait delivery; Biopesticides; Biostimulant; Phytohormone; Fruit production, and quality; Source-sink relationship; Plant-microbe interaction. 

Research Focus:

My research group is focused on the physiological, biochemical, and molecular aspects of Controlled/protected environment (CEA) fruit production. The philosophy of my research program is based on exploring biological phenomena at the levels of plants, organs, genes, proteins, and metabolites and translating this knowledge into practical strategies to enhance the productivity and quality of fruit crops in the CEA system. I am employing cutting-edge methodologies and advanced techniques in molecular biology and functional genomics to explore complex molecular mechanisms related to various aspects of CEA fruit production. These aspects include source-sink relationship, flowering, fruit growth and development, fruit quality and nutritional properties, environmental stress responses and tolerance, plant-microbe interaction, etc. 

Expertise, Research Methods and Data Used:

• Investigates the plant responses to the biotic and abiotic stresses and their tolerance mechanism by utilizing various plant physiological, biochemical, and molecular biology techniques.
• Characterization of the water and nutrient use efficiency of plants in hydroponic, greenhouse, and field conditions.
• Understanding the growth, development, and phenology of fruit crops.
• Omics (Transcriptomics, Proteomics, Metabolomics).
• Native RNA sequencing (MinION; Oxford Nanopore Technologies)
• Isolations of nucleic acid (DNA/RNA), RT-qPCR, ddPCR.
• Gel electrophoresis (2D-SDS-PAGE, SDS-PAGE, BN-PAGE, Agarose gel electrophoresis), Western blot analysis.
• Cloning, Genetic transformation.
• dsRNA synthesis in a prokaryotic system.
• Different biochemical analyses (ROS, enzymatic activities, redox status, primary and secondary metabolites, etc.) using Spectroscopy (UV/Vis and fluorescence).
• Column chromatography, TLC, GC, HPLC, LC-MS/MS.
• Histochemical analysis, Microtome sectioning, Scanning electron microscopy, Fluorescence microscopy.

Equipment Used:

PCR; qPCR; Different electrophoresis system; Microplate reader, LC-MS, MinION (Oxford Nanopore); Antimicrobial Assay setup; Fluorescence microscope; Geno-grinder; Refractometer; etc.

Equipment Needed:

LC-MS for phytohormone quantification; Prokaryotic expression system for biomolecules (RNA, peptides).

Collaborator Interests and Skills Desired:

RNAi (Virus-induced gene silencing, Spray-induced gene silencing etc.); Crop physiology and biochemistry; Fruit quality and sensory properties; Microbiome; Soil-Plant-Microbe interactions, Bioinformatics.

Amanda L. May Profile Page
Amanda L. May
Research Asst Professor, Center for Renewable Carbon

Faculty Profile:

Alejandro Molina Moctezuma Profile Page
Alejandro Molina Moctezuma
Research Assistant Professor, School of Natural Resources

Faculty Profile:

Research Interests:

Population ecology; movement; survival; aquatic ecology; fisheries; fish community; quantitative ecology; ecological methods

Research Focus:

I am a fisheries scientist interested mainly in movement, survival and population dynamics of fish and any other taxonomic group. I am interested in all things survival, movement, quantitative and aquatic

Expertise, Research Methods and Data Used:

Bayesian statistics, modeling and simulations, estimation of survival

Equipment Needed:

Telemetry equipment

Collaborator Interests and Skills Desired:

Movement ecology, quantitative methods, survival, population dynamics, 

Alessandro Occhialini Profile Page
Alessandro Occhialini
Assistant Professor, Plant Sciences

Faculty Profile:

Research Interests:

Plant synthetic biology, genetic engineering of plant cells, plastid genetic engineering, synthetic genomes, CRISPR-Cas technology

Research Focus:

The main focus of my research is to use the most precise and advanced techniques of synthetic biology, including CRISPR-Cas techniques and synthetic genomes, to produce the next generation of “valuable plants” with an increased impact on human population (improving crop production, food biofortification and plant resilient to environmental stresses).

Expertise, Research Methods and Data Used:

Plant synthetic biology, genetic engineering of plant cells, plastid genetic engineering, synthetic genomes, CRISPR-Cas technology

Equipment Used:

Standard molecular biology lab, Gene-Gun transformation, and growth facility for tissue culture

Equipment Needed:

Electron microscopy facilities, analytical chemistry facilities

Collaborator Interests and Skills Desired:

Modelling and computer scientists

Bruno C. Pedreira Profile Page
Bruno C. Pedreira
Associate Professor & Director, Plant Sciences
Responsible Area(s)
Agriculture and Natural Resources

Faculty Profile:

Gabriela Perez Quesada Profile Page
Gabriela Perez Quesada
Assistant Professor, Agricultural and Resource Economics

Faculty Profile:

Research Interests:

Environmental and resource economics, water economics, production economics and applied econometrics.

Research Focus:

My research focuses on the interactions between agricultural production, natural resources, and the environment. I am particularly interested in better understanding how water scarcity and climate change impact agricultural production, and how economic agents and institutions of the agricultural sector adapt to them. I am also interested in the role of policy mechanisms in agricultural producer decision making, and the implementation of behavioral interventions and collective action efforts to conserve natural resources.

Expertise, Research Methods and Data Used:

Econometric models, spatial data, various secondary data sources 

Collaborator Interests and Skills Desired:

Economics, natural resources, business analytics, machine learning, hydrology, agronomy, etc

Taylor Kathryne Ruth Profile Page
Taylor Kathryne Ruth
Assistant Professor, Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications

Faculty Profile:

Research Interests:

Science communication; adoption of innovations in science; misinformation in the media; processing of complex information; message testing

Research Focus:

My research program focuses on the nexus of agricultural literacy, science literacy, and media literacy and answers the central question of “How do these literacies influence the public’s attitudes and behaviors within the context of agriculture and natural resources (ANR)?” My research explores these concepts through multiple approaches – including testing the effects of media literacy on consumer behaviors/attitudes, exploring the role of agricultural literacy on individuals’ decision-making processes related to innovations in ANR, and developing programs to enhance scientists’ science communication skills to address science literacy concerns. This multifaceted approach would allow us to address growing concerns of science literacy, agricultural literacy, and media literacy in modern society. 

Expertise, Research Methods and Data Used:

I have extensive experience in Mixed Methods Research designs that use both quantitative and qualitative methods to gather data to explore research questions in a holistic way. Specifically, I have extensive experience with survey design and administering large-scale surveys to collect state, regional, and national samples.

I also have expertise in designing, moderating, and analyzing focus group research to gain in-depth insights into how stakeholders view ANR topics of interest. Additionally, many of my studies involved message design and testing to explore how message frames, sources, and images impact stakeholders’ attitudes and behaviors.

Equipment Needed:

I have been able to use social-listening software, like Meltwater, on past projects to track online conversations related to ANR topics and identify online social networks related to these topics and top influencers. I would like to identify similar programs here at UTK or include Meltwater in future grant applications when appropriate.

Collaborator Interests and Skills Desired:

I believe my work would complement any projects dealing with potentially sensitive or controversial scientific topics for the public – my research would be able to support these teams of faculty to determine the best way to communicate about their research with key stakeholder groups to encourage adoption.

My research can also add value to grant teams by providing expertise in consumer research to identify influences on behaviors and attitudes, which would help strengthen the outreach/education component of proposals. 

Ryan Leonard Sharp Profile Page
Ryan Leonard Sharp
Associate Professor, School of Natural Resources
Responsible Area(s)
Agriculture and Natural Resources

Faculty Profile:

Research Interests:

Stewardship, visitor use management, parks and protected area management, human dimensions of natural resources, effectiveness of educational programs / interpretation

Research Focus:

Understanding the complex dynamic between visitor use and conservation in parks and protected areas.

Expertise, Research Methods and Data Used:

Outdoor recreation and park management – Social Science. 

Aaron Joseph Staples Profile Page
Aaron Joseph Staples
Assistant Professor, Agricultural and Resource Economics

Faculty Profile:

Research Interests:

Consumer behavior; food and beverage policy; alcohol markets; supply chains

Research Focus:

My research program emphasizes decision-making across food and beverage supply chains, including consumer and producer responses to emerging markets, market conditions, and policy changes.

Expertise, Research Methods and Data Used:

My expertise is in consumer behavior, demand analysis, and marketing. I use both primary and secondary data in my research. Primary data includes choice experiments, auctions, and other valuation techniques often embedded in online (or in-person) surveys. Secondary data includes industry and government datasets. I also plan on incorporating scanner data into my future research projects. Both the primary and secondary data are analyzed using choice modeling and regression analysis.  

Collaborator Interests and Skills Desired:

Food and beverage markets; sensory analysis; food science; spatial analysis

Lu Wang Profile Page
Lu Wang
Assistant Professor, School of Natural Resources
Responsible Area(s)
Agriculture and Natural Resources

Faculty Profile:

Research Interests:

Sustainable materials; Advanced manufacturing; Industrial and Agricultural applications; Materials recycling

Research Focus:

  1. High-performance natural fibers reinforced polymer composites
  2. Large-scale 3D printing of biocomposites for structural applications
  3. Renewable nanomaterials to improve crop yields

Expertise, Research Methods and Data Used:

Biopolymers (especially polysaccharides), Biocomposites, Packaging materials; Adhesion & adhesives, Large-format 3D printing, Plant nanotechnology

Equipment Used:

Pellet-fed 3D printer

Equipment Needed:

Unidirectional prepreg tape production line

Blake Whitman Profile Page
Blake Whitman
Assistant Professor, Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science

Faculty Profile:

Research Interests:

Construction & Post-Construction Stormwater Management; Erosion & Sediment Control Technology Innovation; UAV Applications in Construction, Construction Work Force Development

Research Focus:

My research efforts focus on developing scientific understandings of stormwater treatment technologies used to minimize impacts of construction, urban, and agricultural stormwater runoff.  My vision is to craft innovative and practical stormwater management solutions that are recognized nationally as best ‘standards of practice’ through applied research, product evaluations, and knowledge transfer.  In addition to stormwater research, I’m interested in workforce development within the construction, primarily focusing on equipment operational training (e.g., CDL training, heavy equipment training, safety training, etc.).

Check out my research website to see what I’ve done: https://blakewhitman89.wixsite.com/mysite

Expertise, Research Methods and Data Used:

Research methodologies utilized to accomplish research objectives include large-scale testing, small-scale testing, bench-scale testing, and in-field monitoring.  It’s gonna be hot, bring your work boots and water bottle!

Equipment Used:

Large, small, and bench-scale testing apparatuses.  Various types of construction equipment (e.g., skid steer) are employed to build testing apparatuses and perform tests. If you want to learn how to operate construction equipment, look no more!  With more than 20 years of equipment operational experience, I’m the guy that can teach you and help you build your research facilities. 

Equipment Needed:

Mini excavator, skid steer, bulldozer, excavator, equipment training simulators.

Collaborator Interests and Skills Desired:

I welcome all faculty with an intertest in my areas of research to reach out! Let’s have lunch! I’m available on MWF.  I look forward to collaborating with faculty with real-world, hands-on experience in the construction industry, particularly heavy civil construction. Let’s talk dirt!