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front of ayres hall in the springtime. photo by molly mullin.

Five graduate students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, have been selected for the National Science Foundation’s 2022 Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

The program supports outstanding graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields who are pursuing research-based graduate degrees. The oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, it has a history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success academically and professionally.

Dixie L. Thompson, vice provost and dean of UT’s Graduate School said, “The NSF-GRFP is one of the most prestigious national fellowship programs designed to support graduate student research. Having five of our students win these awards, and each from a different field of research, shows the quality of our students as well as the excellence in mentoring and support that they receive.”

These are the UT students receiving fellowships:

Ashley Babjac of Dallas, Texas

Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Tickle College of Engineering

Babjac’s research explores applications of machine and deep learning models to various bioinformatics domains. Her project uses autoencoders to reduce high-dimensional datasets and modeling DNA/mRNA sequences with the use of novel natural language processing strategies in combination with transformer networks. These models will lead to groundbreaking biological insights with applications in fields including health care, agriculture, and infrastructure.

Keri Burge of Madison, Alabama

Department of Anthropology, College of Arts and Sciences

PSKeriBurgeBurge’s project uses stable isotope analysis of archaeological materials to better understand the effects of environmental and sociopolitical factors on historical agropastoral risk management strategies in the Andes. The goal is to produce data-based evidence of past human–environment interactions, which can help archaeologists and climate change policy makers become allies to indigenous peoples who are advocating for climate justice.

Tyler Cultice of Springfield, Ohio

Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Tickle College of Engineering

Cultice’s research focuses on the cybersecurity of quantum computers by utilizing quantum properties to create novel security primitives, which provide the building blocks for higher-level security strategies. His work seeks to propose new designs, applications, and frameworks for the emerging field of quantum computation.

Logan Dunn of Maryville, Tennessee

Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology, College of Arts and Sciences

Dunn’s research seeks to understand how neurons reorganize connections in response to learning and experience. Using a mouse model of Rett syndrome, a severe neurodevelopmental disorder, Dunn is working to better understand the role of the protein MECP2 (methyl-CpG-binding protein 2) in this process. Dunn is interested in investigating how the dysregulated expression of MECP2 over time within distinct types of neurons results in dysregulated neuroplasticity.

Alivia Nytko of Knoxville, Tennessee

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, College of Arts and Sciences

Nytko’s research seeks to understand how coupled plant–atmosphere and plant–soil feedbacks vary along aridity gradients. Through the integration of above- and below-ground feedback loops, it will elucidate how environmental gradients can affect the ecology and evolution of ecosystems and shape the interactions that enable species to persist under rapid anthropogenic climate change.


Four additional UT students received honorable mentions:

Scarlett Wilson of Charleston, Tennessee—Department of Physics and Astronomy, College of Arts and Sciences

Kaitlyn Toth of Silver Spring, Maryland—Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Tickle College of Engineering

Harini Radhakrishnan of Columbia, Maryland—Department of Physics and Astronomy, College of Arts and Sciences

Sarina Mitchell of Wheaton, Illinois—Department of Microbiology, College of Arts and Sciences

Since 1952, NSF has funded more than 60,000 Graduate Research Fellowships out of more than 500,000 applicants. Currently, 42 recipients have gone on to become Nobel laureates, and more than 450 have become members of the National Academy of Sciences.


Chris Schmitz (865-974-8304,

Sean Hendricks (865-974-7521,