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2016 Spotlights

Relationships are vital in every field of study. Connections to other professionals play a large role in generating new ideas and solving persistent problems. For Dr. Tessa Burch-Smith, assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry & Cellular and Molecular Biology, these relationships were the most important part of her time as a member of the Science Alliance’s Collaborative Cohort.

Burch-Smith studies intercellular signaling in plants. Her work as a cohort fellow adapted several of the tools from her existing research to study Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) photosynthesis. CAM photosynthesis is performed by plants in the Crassulaceae family, including succulents and other desert dwelling plants that thrive in water stressed environments. Understanding how these plants work is key to the development of hardy, drought resistant crops.

burch-smith-finalFor Burch-Smith, her participation in the Collaborative Cohort program provided an opportunity to work with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) scientists who are part of an international symposium interested in CAM photosynthesis. Collaborating with these professionals on her existing project has given Burch-Smith access to the bioinformatics and gene studies conducted by the symposium and allowed her to become involved with other areas of the CAM project.

Additionally, according to Burch-Smith the interactions between the cohort fellows themselves have been instrumental in her professional development over the last two years as they have shared strategies for lab management, mentoring and publishing as part of their regular meetings.

“The cohort has one member from Chemistry, one from Biology and two engineers. We’ve been able to establish connections outside of our departments that we might not have otherwise made,” said Burch-Smith.

Once her term with the Collaborative Cohort is over, Burch-Smith intends to continue her work with the goal of providing a framework for encouraging CAM photosynthesis in other families of plants.

Dr. Tessa Calhoun of the University of Tennessee’s Department of Chemistry has focused her research on nonlinear microscopy. Recently, as a part of the Science Alliance’s Joint Directed Research Development program, Calhoun constructed a new microscope for use in nanoparticle interfacial chemistry. As a Collaborative Cohort fellow, Calhoun has focused her efforts on transient absorption microscopy. The results of her research have the potential to shed light on drug interactions with cell membranes.

According to Calhoun, the goal of her work as a cohort fellow is to image small molecule drugs as they interact with the membranes of living cells through advancing imaging technology. Observing a molecule’s interaction with a cell membrane has most commonly relied on fluorescence, exciting the molecule with a single pulse of light and waiting for it to spontaneously emit. Unfortunately, not all systems fluoresce.

To bypass this difficulty, Calhoun uses transient absorption, a method that adds a variable second pulse of light, to stimulate a response. This particular technique has been used before, but rarely with biological systems.

“I built my first version of this experiment as a post-doc and brought it here,” said Calhoun. “The Cohort really allowed me to build the second generation. “ Calhoun’s team is attempting to advance this technique by speeding up how quickly images are produced, as well as broadening the range of energies used to create the imaging.

In addition to expanding her research, Calhoun says the Collaborative Cohort fellows formed a helpful community of cross-disciplinary scientists who were able to share information with each other on a variety of topics.

“Getting together with a group of diverse scientists, we’re all tenure track so in a broad sense we all have the same goals so there’s a lot of common ground there, as you go through those struggles together,” said Calhoun. She added that the regular meetings between the cohort fellows have opened the door to possible future collaborations.

“I think a huge goal of it was starting to facilitate cross talk between such different disciplines and people so passionate about what they’re doing, and at the stage in their career where they’re still trying to explore and expand,” said Calhoun.

Calhoun plans to continue her work in transient absorption microscopy after the completion of her term with the Collaborative Cohort.

Research doesn’t always meet expectations. On rare occasions it can, however, exceed them. The members of Dr. Ramki Kalyanaraman’s Joint Directed Research Development (JDRD) team are experiencing that very phenomenon as they move forward with their research. Currently in its second year, Kalyanaraman’s project has yielded not only his expected outcome, but an unforeseen discovery.

Kalyanaraman’s team began their JDRD project by attempting to improve the materials used for optical sensor applications. Optical sensors are finding their way into a variety of modern technologies, including motion sensing, medical and even chemical detecting technology.

Edited Kalyanaraman 1When Kalyanaraman began his research, the most effective element for these sensors was silver, which unfortunately degrades rapidly once exposed to air, sometimes within a matter of hours. Over the course of the first year his JDRD team found a way to mitigate this degradation and, simultaneously, discovered a new material. Since then, Kalyanaraman’s team has published two papers and is moving forward with their discovery.

“We filed an invention disclosure last year and now Oak Ridge National Lab is getting ready to file a full patent. It will be a joint Oak Ridge-UT patent,” said Kalyanaraman. “We are quite excited that it could lead to some real licensing rights down the line, in the near future actually.”

In the meantime, Kalyanaraman’s team has accomplished exactly what his project proposed. By combining silver with cobalt, they have improved the rate of degradation by more than 250%. As a result of that work, Kalyanaraman published a paper in January of 2016 in the journal Scientific Reports, and plans to submit proposals to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the fall.

Edited Kalyanaraman 12His research has also led to further supportfor a graduate student via NSF, who is being supervised by Kalyanaraman’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) partner, Dr. Raphael Pooser. Additionally, new collaborations have been formed with ORNL scientist Dr. Benjamin Lawrie, who was recently named a joint faculty member in the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering.


Dr. Joshua Sangoro, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has spent his term in the Collaborative Cohort working with polymerized ionic liquids. Part of a new class of polymer electrolytes, these liquids have the potential to serve as replacements for the less stable electrolytes currently in use in a variety of technologies, such as lithium ion batteries.

Through his affiliation with the Collaborative Cohort, Sangoro was connected with several ORNL scientists, including Kunlun Hong of the chemical sciences division, who have synthesized some of the liquids for Sangoro’s research. Additionally, Hong has supervised graduate student Thomas Kinsey at the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences in his work on the project, allowing Kinsey to split his time between UT and ORNL labs.

A first time faculty member, Sangoro believes the Collaborative Cohort provided a solid framework for professional development, allowing him to focus his work.

“When I began I had goals that were not very realistic and would have required a much larger team, but it got me to think in the right direction,” Sangoro said. “The goal has now become to get preliminary results and secure funding to create a project that can sustain itself.”

The project has, in fact, yielded some preliminary results since Sangoro began his term as a member of the Cohort, which led to a proposal submitted to the Army Research Office. Additionally, he secured a National Science Foundation grant and published several articles as a result of his work during this time.


In 2014, the Science Alliance unveiled the Collaborative Cohort program. Designed to nurture collaboration between underrepresented UTK faculty and ORNL scientists, the program launched with an inaugural class of four, including Dr. Stephanie TerMaath of the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering.

During her two years with the Cohort, TerMaath’s work has centered on advances in the treatment of hydrocephalus, a debilitating disorder caused by an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the brain. Currently the only treatment available to patients suffering from hydrocephalus is invasive surgery to implant a cerebral shunt.

TerMaath Final 2The shunt is inserted into the patient’s ventricle (a cavity within the brain) where it diverts the excess CSF fluid out and into another part of the body to be absorbed. Unfortunately, these shunts have a high failure rate and need to be replaced multiple times over the course of a patient’s life, statistically requiring anywhere from two to four surgeries as often as every ten years.

These flaws are TerMaath’s focus as her cohort work has sought to improve the shunt’s design through modeling and computational fluid dynamics. Her affiliation with the Collaborative Cohort has provided TerMaath the ability to support graduate student Sofy Weisenberg as she works with ORNL scientists Dr. Judy Hill and Dr. Charlotte Barbier.

“I would never have been connected with Judy and Charlotte without this program,” said TerMaath, a sentiment echoed by Weisenberg.

“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me as a graduate student to obtain a badge at Oak Ridge National Lab to collaborate with experts in the field,” Weisenberg said.

TerMaath’s work thus far has yielded a model she and her team will use to address what they believe to be a possible cause of the failures in existing shunts. She has plans to continue her work past the end of her Cohort term and credits her time in the program with providing the opportunity to forge the relationships and collaborations needed to do so.