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Amelia Earhart, circa 1936. Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress

In 2018, the research and creative and community work of UT’s faculty and students grabbed the attention of people the world over. From local media coverage to the biggest outlets across the world, UT was mentioned in thousands of articles and broadcasts.

Here are the year’s top stories featuring the work of our faculty and students:

History’s Greatest Mystery: In March, Richard Jantz, professor emeritus of anthropology and director emeritus of UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center, captured the world’s interest with a study, published in Forensic Anthropology, concluding that bone measurement analysis indicated the remains found on a remote island in the South Pacific were likely those of legendary American pilot Amelia Earhart.

Jantz re-examined seven bone measurements conducted in 1940 by physician D. W. Hoodless. Hoodless had concluded that the bones belonged to a man. Using several modern quantitative techniques—including the use of Fordisc, a computer program for estimating sex, ancestry, and stature from skeletal measurements—Jantz found that Hoodless had incorrectly determined the sex of the remains. The data revealed that the bones have more similarity to Earhart than to 99 percent of individuals in a large reference sample.

A lengthy list of major media outlets carried the story. The story of Jantz’s discovery accounts for nearly 30 percent of the UT News website’s page views for the year.

Ancient Crocodiles: In January, the New York Times took interest in Aldabra Atoll, an island in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar. The island is a predator-free paradise for more than 100,000 giant tortoises. However, a new study suggests that a recently discovered species of crocodile may have preyed upon them in prehistoric times.

For the article, the reporter interviewed UT paleontologist Stephanie Drumheller-Horton, who said, “The findings were supported by other examples of crocodile bite marks in the fossil record. Aldabra giant tortoises would have been tough nuts to crack, even for crocodiles, who can generate incredibly high bite forces.”

Carla Hayden, left, and Dolly Parton talk during the a celebration of the Imagination Library at the Library of Congress in February.
Carla Hayden, left, and Dolly Parton talk during a celebration of the Imagination Library at the Library of Congress in February.

Dolly on My Mind: Two stories featuring the philanthropy of East Tennessee hero Dolly Parton made our list of most-covered topics.

In collaboration with Land Grant Films, students from the School of Journalism and Electronic Media created 100 Million Stories, a documentary about Parton’s Imagination Library and the celebration of their 100 millionth book. Imagination Library delivers free high-quality books to children from birth until they begin school without regard to income. Six students traveled to Washington, DC, in February to interview Parton and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden during a special event celebrating the program.

In the aftermath of the November 2016 wildfires that destroyed 1,300 homes and left the community of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in emotional and economic crisis, the Dollywood Foundation launched the My People Fund. The fund provided families who had lost their homes with $1,000 a month for six months and a final gift of $5,000 in May 2017.

Working closely with the My People Fund, Professor Stacia West and others in the College of Social Work gathered information from a sample of recipients. The final research report conveys that cash transfers, compared to specific donations, may be an important and underutilized approach to recovery following a natural disaster.

Tennessee River

Experiencing the Tennessee River: A group of students in the School of Landscape Architecture have been working on the Tennessee RiverLine, a major multimodal trail project to make the entire Tennessee River more accessible. The system will stretch from Knoxville to Paducah, Kentucky.

The 652-mile trail will be like no other—it will engage users on foot, canoe or kayak, and bike—and is made possible through a team of partners including the National Park Service, Tennessee Valley Authority, and Tennessee State Parks. The project has captured imaginations and was amplified through Associated Press coverage in more than 40 markets.

Millenials and Cheating:A 2017 study exploring why some young adults cheat on their partners grabbed headlines into 2018. The study, published in the Journal of Sex Research, found that young adults who tend to feel their developmental needs are not being fulfilled by their primary partner participate in infidelity to meet those needs.

Jerika Norona, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology, is the study’s lead author. Co-authors are Spencer Olmstead, associate professor of child and family studies, and Deborah Welsh, head of the Department of Psychology.

Stewart et al Science Perspectives image

Smart Houseplants: In the future, your houseplants could alert you to health hazards in your home. That’s the subject of research by Rana Abudayyeh, assistant professor in the School of Interior Architecture; Neal Stewart, professor of plant sciences in the Herbert College of Agriculture; and Susan Stewart, a 2018 interior architecture graduate. This captivating topic landed in Popular Mechanics and the Daily Mail among other publications.

Hidden Worlds:The work of Karen Lloyd, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, landed two spots in the most-covered list. In September, a study published in mSystems concluded that uncultured microbes—those whose characteristics have never been described because they have not yet been grown in a lab culture—dominate nearly all the environments on earth except for the human body. The study is the first time the population of uncultured microbes has been estimated. Newsweek carried the story of “microbial dark matter” to its estimated 6 million readers.

In December, Lloyd’s work with the Deep Carbon Observatory on deep sea microbiology was highlighted as the group announced a staggering finding: microorganisms living underneath the surface of the earth have a total carbon mass hundreds of times more than that of humans. The research took an international multidisciplinary team 10 years to complete. The work dramatically expands what is known about life in the deep biosphere and the visualization of the tree of life, a biological analogy first proposed in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to explain the relationship between living and extinct organisms. The research was discussed in The Guardian, IFL Science, Mother Jones, Cosmos, and Astronomy Magazine.

U.S. Senate candidates Marsha Blackburn and Phil Bredesen debate in the Toyota Auditorium at the Howard H, Baker Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. (Adam Brimer / University of Tennessee)

Election 2018:The run-up to November’s midterm elections and the Tennessee governor’s race drew hundreds of media mentions of UT’s political science experts as they weighed in on historically dismal turnout in Tennessee and the influence of celebrity endorsements, like Taylor Swift’s pitch for young people to register to vote and expressing her support for former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen for a US Senate seat.

In October, UT’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy hosted a debate between Representative Marsha Blackburn and Bredesen. A partnership between the Baker Center and Nexstar Media Group Inc., the parent company of local ABC affiliate WATE-TV, the hourlong forum was broadcast statewide. The questions spanned issues that included Supreme Court nominations, gun control, and tariffs. This key moment in a nationally watched race—one that drew major political action committee funding and generated nonstop campaign advertising—garnered coverage in hundreds of national and international outlets. UT’s name and visual branding were on display in newspapers, websites, and broadcast segments in hundreds of markets.

Want to learn more about what our media partners and internal audiences are interested in reading? Visit the Office of Communications and Marketing quarterly impact reports to read more about our UT’s most popular stories, creative projects, videos, and social media.