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Big Orange. Big Ideas. They’re fueling UT Knoxville on its journey to become a Top 25 public research university. Here are two faculty members who are bringing big ideas to life in the classroom, through their research and through community service.

Tricia Hepner

Tricia Hepner
Tricia Hepner, center, with graduate students Adrianne Kembel, left, and Jaymelee Kim, right.

Tricia Hepner’s office is in Knoxville, but the heart and soul of her work is in Africa.

Hepner began her career as an expert in political and legal anthropology and human rights issues in the Horn of Africa. While she continues to work with refugees from the region, increasingly dangerous field conditions prompted her to refocus her research slightly southward to Africa’s Great Lakes region.

It is there, specifically in northern Uganda, that Hepner works with other professors and students to tackle complex post-conflict rebuilding issues.

Hepner, an associate professor of anthropology, matches students with non-governmental organizations relevant to their area of study. The students spend four weeks in the town of Gulu and surrounding villages talking to community members, working in hospitals, and contributing to peace-building initiatives.

“Students get the opportunity to apply knowledge from the classroom through service work. We focus on building relationships and learning Ugandan perspectives,” said Hepner. “They make friends with people whose lives have been shaped by the conflict and peace building. It really creates a much richer educational experience than is typically available from studying these issues at a distance.”

Hepner and Professor Rosalind Hackett co-direct the popular Gulu Study and Service Abroad Program (GSSAP), a five-week intensive course on human rights and humanitarian service work in northern Uganda. View the GSSAP blog at

Theresa Lee, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences calls Hepner “a superb teacher and researcher who offers her students hands-on experience—and life-changing experiences—in Africa.”

Hepner is a member of UT’s Disasters, Displacement, and Human Rights (DDHR) focus in anthropology and chairs the migration and refugee studies division of UT’s Center for the Study of Social Justice.

In her free time, Hepner enjoys hiking in the southern Appalachian region and watching mixed martial arts.

Hepner received her bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Barnard College, Columbia University and her master’s degree and doctorate in anthropology from Michigan State University.

Suzanne Lenhart

Suzanne Lenhart
Suzanne Lenhart at a girls' summer camp.

What do wildlife and math have in common?

They meld together Suzanne Lenhart’s research.

Lenhart, a mathematics professor and a Chancellor’s Professor, infuses ecological and natural resource issues with applied mathematics to model populations and diseases in species such as wild hogs, feral cats, and cattle. Her work has been funded by the National Science Foundation.

“Through ‘optimal control’ I try to suggest interventions and management decisions,” she said. “If one is managing a certain population of animals, what type of advice could I give? Through my research I’m trying to show the benefits of taking one action over another.”

In the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Lenhart uses optimal control to study how to manage the spread of feral hogs and protect native species. This mathematical technique suggests strategies to affect the dynamics of a population over a period of time.

“These wild hogs are very invasive. We are trying to estimate the number of hogs in the park and model their dynamics and their spread of disease,” she said.

Lenhart is also the NIMBioS associate director for education, outreach, and diversity. In this position, she organizes summer research programs and conferences for undergraduates and summer camps for female students.

“I feel very strongly about working to promote diversity in the field. I especially want to give women the opportunity to learn about and understand different career options and convince them that they can make a positive contribution,” Lenhart said.

Lenhart also works with the Association for Women in Mathematics and the local chapter of the Association for Women in Science. She co-organizes the Bearden High School Math Club, which she has visited one afternoon per week for the past decade. In her free time she enjoys playing tennis.

Lenhart received her bachelor’s degree from Bellarmine College and her master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Kentucky.

Sarah Lowe

Sarah LoweWhile working on websites for American Experience at a PBS station in Boston, Sarah Lowe picked up an interest in history.

Now an associate professor in the School of Art, Lowe channels her interest in history and her interactive media background to develop mobile platforms.

Lowe’s latest project, the “Beck Tour” mobile app for iPhone and iPad, takes the user on a contextual tour of Knoxville’s African American cultural hot spots. Users can read about the history, see photographs, and listen to narrative storytelling.

“The civil rights sit-in took place at the current UT Conference Center, which used to be Rich’s department store. You can imagine what was going on at that time,” Lowe said. “I love the ability to be more experiential with history.”

Lee said Lowe is “an outstanding teacher who brings her research and teaching to a diverse set of communities both inside and outside the university.”

This semester, Lowe and her students are working with Knoxville’s historic Blount Mansion. They will design a digital tour guide offering visitors a variety of historical perspectives, from the Blount family to Native Americans, slaves, and other Knoxvillians of the time. The project will be available on the Blount Mansion website with the goal of getting it to a mobile platform for tourists visiting the estate.

“Through these design projects, my students begin to see the value of history and how they can help tell a particular story,” Lowe said. “The person using the mobile app can then come to their own conclusions and see history from multiple cultural perspectives.”

A perk for Lowe’s students is the coveted chance to interact with professional clients and designers, while discovering ways to give back to the community.

“Teaching design isn’t just about aesthetics” Lowe said. “It’s about understanding how design can help organizations with a good mission, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Lowe received her master’s degree in graphic design from North Carolina State University and her bachelor of fine arts degree from UT.

Jay Rubenstein

Jay RubensteinJay Rubenstein, associate professor of history, has experienced a renaissance of his own while at UT.

“When I first started working on medieval history, one of the things that I liked about it was that it was completely irrelevant,” Rubenstein said. “The Middle Ages was a sort of exotic, beautiful, but an uncared-about flower. It didn’t seem to have any connection to the big issues of the world.”

Following the events of September 11, 2001, all of that changed.

“In the last ten years, issues like theology, politics, and religious warfare—all of these topics—suddenly were in the headlines and people were looking back to things like the Crusades to try and explain them,” he said.

Rubenstein, a former Rhodes Scholar and 2007 recipient of the prestigious Macarthur Fellowship, explored these topics in his most recent book, Armies of Heaven: the First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse. The book is a gripping, apocalyptic narrative detailing the First Crusade of 1096-1099.

“I went in expecting the book to be very much a study of how people reacted to the Crusades in Europe and how people returning from the Crusades reintegrated into life. What I didn’t expect it to turn into was a study of apocalyptic thought and how ideas about the end of the world intersected with ideas about the Crusades.”

Rubenstein, who teaches for UT’s acclaimed Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, channels these often-controversial ideas into the classroom.

“The biggest challenge was to convince students that, yes, people were actually willing to fight for religion; that alone will drive a war,” he said.

Lively discussions between students often spark ideas for Rubenstein’s research and writings.

“Students now are more likely to come into class with ideas and interests. When I first started teaching it was more of a challenge to get people interested in the Middle Ages, but now if I offer a class on the Crusades there’s a certain sense that ‘yeah, this is interesting, it’s something I should know.'”

Outside the medieval research arena, Rubenstein enjoys watching old movies, reading crime novels, and traveling with his wife.

Rubenstein received his bachelor’s degree from Carleton College, his master of philosophy from the University of Oxford, St. John’s College, and his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley.