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A hero shot sof campus, from the top of Hodges Library, showing Downtown Knoxville and campus which includes Haslam College of Business, Ayres Hall, Neyland Stadium, Claxton Education Building, Hesler Biology Building, Alumni Memorial Building

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is committing $50 million over the next five years to recruit 44 top-tier research faculty members across multiple disciplines to address some of the most pressing and complex challenges of our time. It is the largest faculty hiring initiative in recent UT history.

“These seven clusters represent UT’s Volunteer ideals to create knowledge and opportunities that benefit communities in our state and nation and around the world,” said Chancellor Donde Plowman. “The subsequent hires will foster translational research that makes life and lives better and prepare UT graduates to lead in the communities and workplaces of tomorrow.”

With the goal of enhancing the university’s research excellence, fostering opportunities for transdisciplinary collaboration, developing real-world solutions to grand challenges, and responding to growing industry workforce demands in Tennessee and the region, the clusters include bioinformatics, genomics and quantitative-based solutions for food security; climate-smart agriculture and forestry; food and nutrition security; foundational artificial intelligence; future mobility; precision health and environment; and science-informed artificial intelligence.


Bioinformatics, Genomics, and Quantitative-based Solutions for Food Security
Collaborators: College of Arts and Sciences; Haslam College of Business; Tickle College of Engineering; UT Institute of Agriculture, including AgResearch, Herbert College of Agriculture, and UT Extension

In the face of changing environmental conditions and pest and disease pressures, scientists around the globe must develop, harness and apply new technologies to address threats to global food security. This challenge requires interdisciplinary research supporting the sustainable intensification of agriculture to optimize productivity and land and resource use. One solution, and the overall thematic area of this cluster, is development of climate-resilient crops (often described as precision or digital agriculture). UT is poised to become a global leader in this area. Advances in genomics and computational methods in bioinformatics and machine learning offer potential solutions. However, relating data-driven solutions and gaining societal understanding and acceptance of new approaches remain huge challenges that require coordination of diverse skills and expertise. This cluster will integrate several disciplines and technologies to address this urgent need and make a marked impact.

Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry
Collaborators: Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy; UT Institute for Agriculture, including Herbert College of Agriculture and UT Extension; Tickle College of Engineering

Innovative technologies such as telecommunications, artificial intelligence, advanced sensor technology, real-time aerial imaging and autonomous mechanical agricultural platforms are currently evolving at rapid rates. At the same time, expansion of policies and markets for ecosystem services are providing the financial certainty and know-how to hasten the diffusion of these technologies. By combining experimental data with data science at the intersection of agriculture, forestry, engineering and economics, this cluster aims to help farm and forestry enterprises adapt to climate change.

Food and Nutrition Security
Collaborators: College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences; UT Institute of Agriculture, including Herbert College of Agriculture and UT Extension; College of Nursing

Despite food production advancements in the past half century, more than 820 million people still experience hunger and more than two billion people experience malnutrition worldwide. Tennesseans experience those issues at a higher rate than most Americans; for example, out of the 50 states Tennessee ranks 41st for food insecurity, 38th for obesity, and 46th for diabetes. The use of a sustainable food system framework is one recommended approach to address this challenge. This approach addresses all factors involved in the production, processing, distribution, preparation, consumption and disposal of food products as well as the broader economic, social and environmental factors. While other institutions have focused on specific components of a food system such as supply chain or consumer behavior, UT has strengths in all areas of a sustainable food system approach. This cluster will coordinate interdisciplinary expertise to focus on enhancing consumer food acquisition behaviors and improve diet quality, address health disparities associated with food and nutrition insecurity, and accelerate UT as a leader in food and nutrition security.

Foundational Artificial Intelligence — Closing the Gap to Human Intelligence
Collaborators: College of Arts and Sciences, Tickle College of Engineering

The ultimate goal of artificial intelligence is to build a machine that performs cognitive functions that are more associated with humans, such as thinking, learning, problem solving and reasoning. However, despite the remarkable success of the unfolding AI wave empowered by deep learning, current AI practices are in stark contrast to human intelligence. This cluster aims to develop AI solutions inspired by cognitive neuroscience with a strong focus on dynamic learning — a cornerstone of human intelligence. The cluster will enable a comprehensive investigation of learning dynamics from the developmental, functional, mathematical and implementation perspectives.

Future Mobility
Collaborators: College of Arts and Sciences, Haslam College of Business, Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, Tickle College of Engineering

As the automotive and transportation industries continue to undergo rapid technological change, there is a need to meet the heightened demand for advanced mobility research and development initiatives. This cluster will impact two major areas — the greening of transportation and the building of a green transportation economy that will drive economic growth for the state. Faculty will explore, invent and validate new technologies, processes, systems and services that are responsive to mobility consumer and industry needs; prepare a workforce to contribute to Tennessee’s mobility economy through education, reskilling and upskilling; and create shared research testbeds and facilities that support developing and deploying cutting-edge mobility solutions in real-world environments.

Precision Health and Environment
Collaborators: College of Arts and Sciences; College of Communication and Information; Tickle College of Engineering; UT Institute of Agriculture, including the College of Veterinary Medicine; College of Nursing

The link between exposure to environmental conditions and human health has shown outcomes at multiple levels including vector-borne diseases, infectious diseases, cardiac conditions, respiratory conditions, mental health conditions and cancers. Among these, cardiac health, respiratory illnesses and cancer-related disorders are the top three health care problems across the state of Tennessee. Building on UT’s strengths in domain-specific data collection, analysis and modeling, and decision-making, this cluster will integrate campus expertise in community engagement and enhance UT’s capacity to study the connections between environment and human health and wellness through advanced data analytics and precision health.

Science-informed Artificial Intelligence
Collaborators: College of Arts and Sciences, Tickle College of Engineering, UT Institute for Advanced Materials and Manufacturing, UT–Oak Ridge Innovation Institute

Tennessee is a growing high-tech hotbed with some of the most sophisticated manufacturing facilities in the world, particularly in the area of advanced materials and manufacturing. These intelligent engineering systems generate a rich library of complex data that persistently challenges the current state of the art in artificial intelligence. This cluster aims to develop foundational multiscale, multimodal models for artificial intelligence that respect the various physical laws and the chemical properties that govern the underlying process. Faculty will optimize scientific and mathematical AI for intelligent engineering systems, particularly for additive manufacturing and hypersonic defense systems.


Tyra Haag (865-974-5460,