Faculty, Staff, and Student Stories That Captivated Us in 2016

Innovative research. Great teaching. Inspiring personal stories.

Each year, UT shares hundreds of stories about the game-changing work and personal achievements of our students, faculty, and staff.

The Media Relations team in the Office of Communications and Marketing looked at stories that struck a chord with media, logged the most online hits, and made a lasting impression on many. Here are 10 of the most memorable:

  • Happy Graduation, Makayla—When death came knocking, all Makayla Claussen could think about was living long enough to earn her college degree. She graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree inkinesiology from the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences, and there was a very special guest there to cheer her on: Claudia Reverts of Emden, Germany, who donated the stem cells that helped Claussen beat a rare and potentially fatal autoimmune disease.
  • Giving Patients a Voice—Patients who are unable to communicate with their health care providers are now able to better verbalize their needs, thanks to a new app developed byRebecca Koszalinski, an assistant professor of nursing at UT. Speak for Myself allows intubated and voiceless patients to communicate pain, fear, anxiety, loneliness, and toileting requests to their doctors and nurses through an iPad or Android tablet.
  • Bats leaving the roost at Frio Cave.
    (Photo by Gary McCracken)

    Bat is Fastest Flying Mammal—When most people think of animals moving at high speed, they envision cheetahs or swiftly diving raptors. Now add the Brazilian free-tailed bat—a tiny nocturnal mammal—to the list. Gary McCracken, UT professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and one of the world’s leading experts on bats, was the lead author of a study published in Royal Society Open Science that showed the bat can achieve flight speeds faster than those previously documented for any bat or bird.

  • Election Season Social Media Buzz—A group of graduate students, calling themselves the Political Social Media Research Group, monitored social media during the presidential and vice presidential debates as well as on election night. The students were in a political communication seminar led by Stuart N. Brotman, the School of Journalism and Electronic Media’s Howard Distinguished Endowed Professor of Media Management and Law and Beaman Professor of Communication and Information in the College of Communication and Information. They used the Adam Brown Social Media Command Center to monitor multiple platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, and Instagram, to spot trends, flashpoints, and sentiment of the chatter.
  • Poems to Honor Zaevion Dobson—English Professor Marilyn Kallet told her students about Zaevion Dobson, the Fulton High School football player who was killed while heroically shielding friends while a group of men randomly fired bullets into a crowd. Kallet’s advanced undergraduate poetry class penned poems as tribute to Dobson, whose sacrifice caught the nation’s attention. The poems were compiled into a memorial packet that was shared with Dobson’s mother, Zenobia Dobson.
  • Using Wendell Scott and NASCAR to Discuss Civil Rights—Wendell Scott, the first and only African-American driver to win a race in NASCAR’s Grand National Series, competed throughout the segregated Jim Crow South during the tense days of the civil rights movement. UT geographers Derek Alderman and Joshua Inwood wrote in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, describing Scott’s fight to move about the racetrack on his own terms as a microcosm of today’s continued struggle for equal rights.

Henri Grissino-Mayer, a professor of geography, is an expert on forest fires. He is seen here doing an interview in the aftermath of the 2016 Gatlinburg wildfire

  • Gatlinburg Fire Aftermath – In the wake of the devastating fire around Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Henri D. Grissino-Mayer, a professor of geography, shared his expertise on forest wildfires. His research shows that when urban areas collide with forest, the fire threat escalates—to the point that a disaster like the Gatlinburg fire becomes almost predictable. “We love mountains, we love mountain homes, we love forests, we love to get out in the outdoors. But in doing so, we then have to prevent nature from doing what nature does, and that is burn our forests. Such burns are beneficial, and in fact our southeastern forests require fire for maintenance of ecosystem functions and regeneration of many fire-adapted species.”
  • Hyenas, Wolves Allies—Adversity often makes humans more likely to lean on one another, and the same type of thing happens in the animal kingdom. Vladimir Dinets, assistant professor of psychology, examined the unlikely friendship between striped hyenas (Hyaena hyaena) and grey wolves (Canis lupus) in the southern Negev, Israel. He suspects that the particularly inhospitable conditions of the extreme desert, as well as a need for food, might have pushed the two enemies into an unusual alliance. The study was published in the journalZoology in the Middle East.
  • Malaria and the Gut—UT researchers identified a set of bacterial genes that may help them find ways to lessen the severity of malaria. The finding built on an earlier discovery that microorganisms in the gut can help ease the disease, which kills hundreds of children every year.If we can find a way to mitigate this disease, we can positively influence a large number of people,” said Steven Wilhelm, the Kenneth and Blaire Mossman Professor in the Department of Microbiology. Other collaborators were Gary LeCleir, research assistant professor of microbiology; Shawn Campagna, associate professor of chemistry; and Joshua Stough, doctoral student in microbiology.
  • ‘Born This Way’ Theory Might Not Reduce Homophobia—The argument that sexual orientation is innate has become key in advocating for the rights of sexual minorities. But that argument might not be the most effective way to promote more positive attitudes toward lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, according to a study done by Patrick Grzanka and Joe Miles, both UT assistant professors of psychology, which was published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology.