Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Exemplar Research Questions

The following list provides some examples of topics on which faculty in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, would be interested in recruiting graduate students for entry in August 2014. EEB Graduate program applicants are expected to make direct contact with potential research advisers prior to submitting an application. In general, only those applicants for whom at least one potential research adviser (thesis or dissertation) has been identified will be accepted.

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.

Faculty member: Paul Armsworth (

  1. 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?
  2. Conservation organizations often have a hierarchical management structure – how effectively do hierarchies allocate resources to support conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services?

Faculty member: Joe Bailey (

  1. How will species range dynamics drive genetic divergence? How do feedbacks reinforce patterns of genetic divergence on the landscape?
  2. Does contemporary evolution along the gradients of global change alter ecosystem function?

Faculty member: Alison Boyer (

  1. What makes a species more or less prone to extinction: in deep-time mass extinctions, in human-mediated Late Pleistocene or Holocene extinctions, and in contemporary conservation settings?
  2. How are functional, taxonomic, and phylogenetic diversity of island vertebrates affected by human-mediated extinctions and introductions? How does this compare to mainland environments?

Faculty member: Ben Fitzpatrick (

  1. What is the coevolutionary relationship between turtles and Salmonella?
  2. What determines the form of hybrid zones between salamanders in the Great Smoky Mountains?

Faculty member: Jim Fordyce (

  1. How does among population variation in plant phenotype affect population structuring of herbivores?
  2. What role does host breadth play in range size and diversification rate of herbivorous insects?

Faculty member: Mike Gilchrist (

  1. 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?
  2. 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?

Faculty member: Darrin Hulsey (

  1. Do genetic, development, or functional levels of organismal design most heavily influence the rates of trait evolution?
  2. How might simple versus complex mechanical systems in the jaws of fishes evolve differently?

Faculty member: Charlie Kwit (website under construction, email:

  1. 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?
  2. What important roles do animals play in the seed dispersal process in animal-mediated seed dispersal systems?

Faculty member: Brandon Matheny (

  1. Why are there so many species of fungi? What traits promote diversification and evolutionary radiations in fungi?
  2. Why are there so many species of ectomycorrhizal fungi in temperate areas of the globe in contrast to the tropics? Are ectomycorrhizal fungi ancestrally tropical in distribution?

Faculty member: Brian O’Meara (

  1. How have plants evolved in response to global temperature change through time?
  2. How would you develop a method for inferring species boundaries despite past migration?

Faculty member: Nate Sanders (

  1. What are the causes and consequences of species losses and gains in a changing world?
  2. What role does individual variation play shaping communities and ecosystems?

Faculty member: Jen Schweitzer (

  1. What is the genetic basis for plant-soil linkages and feedbacks in a changing world?
  2. Can phylogenetic history predict ecological traits and ecosystems services?

Faculty member: Ed Schilling (

  1. 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.

Faculty member: Beth Schussler (

  1. How can biology programs enhance graduate student instruction of introductory biology courses?
  2. How can introductory biology curricula be structured to enhance specific student learning outcomes such as nature of science, self-efficacy, and core biology concepts?

Faculty member: Dan Simberloff (

  1. 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.
  2. What are the non-target impacts of particular insects introduced for biological control?

Faculty member: Joe Williams (

  1. What are the causes/consequences of diversification of reproductive traits in plants?
  2. 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?

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