Skip to main content

Four UT faculty members have received Faculty Early Career Development awards from the National Science Foundation for 2019. The recipients include one professor from the Tickle College of Engineering and three from the College of Arts and Sciences.

The national program recognizes early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to advance the mission of their department or organization.

UT’s 2019 award winners are:

Tessa Burch-Smith, an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology, whose research focuses on understanding the process of plant growth, development, and defense, and how plant cells coordinate responses to environmental signals.

“In the long term, the research will illuminate our understanding of cell-to-cell and organism-wide signaling in plants during plant development and in defense against pathogens,” Burch-Smith said. The research may help scientists learn how to direct more sugar to a plant’s edible parts, resulting in larger or more nutritious fruits and seeds or encouraging greater plant reproduction.

Burch-Smith’s research will also provide experiential learning opportunities for deaf and hard-of-hearing students at UT and across Tennessee.

“Deaf, hard-of-hearing, and underprivileged students from Tennessee will participate in summer research with the goal of recruiting them as members of the future science workforce,” Burch-Smith said. “Additionally, the research will provide significant opportunities for training graduate, undergraduate, and high school researchers.”

Listen to a Science Minute audiocast with Burch-Smith.

Steven Johnston, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Johnston’s research looks at the properties of quantum materials, which are at the forefront of condensed matter physics research. Johnston is developing new theoretical tools that will help scientists interpret findings from powerful experimental techniques.

Johnston’s focus is on providing new theory frameworks to support experiments using resonant inelastic X-Ray scattering, or RIXS. This method scatters an X-ray beam off a material’s electrons and can probe multiple properties in a single experiment, resulting in rich but complicated data. Johnston will work to develop theoretical approaches and computational codes that can help determine what RIXS data is truly measuring and what can be determined from RIXS findings.

Johnston’s proposal includes broadening the impact of this research by establishing an American Physical Society Bridge program at UT. The program is designed to strengthen the physics community by increasing the number of graduate students from underrepresented minorities via transition programs, mentoring, and networking. Read more about Johnston’s research.

Jian Liu, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Liu is also intrigued by the properties of quantum materials, specifically magnetism.

New magnetic materials are necessary for developing a next generation of processors, memories, and sensors to be smaller, faster, and more secure. Liu’s goal is to build, atomic layer by atomic layer, quantum antiferromagnets that can be controlled externally.

To engage budding scientists, Liu is working with the Governor’s School for the Sciences and Engineering and local high schools. He also has an eye on incorporating his research into the department’s undergraduate physics courses.

“After three years of teaching those classes, I feel like we’re using a lot of examples and demonstrations that are seminal but based on old techniques or old devices. But today all the students are dealing with smart phones, smart devices—very user-friendly, user-oriented devices—and they don’t get to see the physics behind because those devices are all packaged,” he said. “There’s a lot of technology and physics that you can demonstrate by using those devices.”

Read more about Liu’s research.

Mariya Zhuravleva, assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Zhuravleva works in the development of crystals, advancing functional materials that could not be previously synthesized using conventional methods.

Among her notable achievements at UT is the introduction of a technique known as micro-pulling-down, a method that could reduce crystal growth times for exploratory research.

“Most growth techniques have limited applicability to complex materials systems, but micro-pulling-down takes advantage of gravity to greatly speed up the process and to uniformly distribute ions into crystals, which is important to discover the desired characteristics of the crystals,” said Zhuravleva.

The crystals Zhuravleva and her colleagues grow feature a property known as scintillation, meaning they emit light in the presence of radiation, giving them promise in areas as diverse as radiological medicine and nuclear security. Read more about Zhuravleva’s research.


Karen Dunlap (865-974-8674,