A New Cash Crop

hemp Clint holding seed3

One of the world’s oldest crops seems altogether new again. As Tennessee, and the nation for that matter, redefines the much-maligned hemp plant, Volunteer State farmers and universities are angling to take advantage of an exciting new era for the oft-misunderstood plant.

The hemp industry is certainly not new; but, as Tennessee has moved toward legalization of the farming, processing, and research of industrial hemp, MTSU has positioned itself smartly for opportunities in science, agribusiness, and more.

Overcoming First Impressions 

At the word “hemp,” many people raise eyebrows. But just as two different corn plant varieties yield popcorn and corn-on-the-cob, the same is true of cannabis.

To be clear, industrial hemp is not marijuana.

Legally, hemp is defined as any cannabis plant variety that contains less than 0.3% of the psychotropic compound THC. Most marijuana plants in demand today contain THC levels from 5% to 20%. Thus, one cannot get “high” on hemp.

The plant’s stalk, woody core, and seed, however, can be used to make literally thousands of things. The plant, which was used extensively in America until the 1950s, is now growing again in Tennessee.

“It’s pretty unique in its ability to be used in a lot of very different ways,” said Dr. Nate Phillips, associate professor in MTSU’s School of Agribusiness and Agriscience. “From fiber to fodder to food to bioremediation, there’s so much out there.”

Tennessee legislators passed a bill in 2014 allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp in the state. A total of 54 Tennessee farmers did just that, growing a wide variety of the plant in the 2015 growing season. For 2016, 63 farmers secured licenses to plant, grow, and harvest industrial hemp.

A new hemp bill which passed the Tennessee General Assembly in the most recent 2016 session now allows for the processing of industrial hemp. Importantly for both MTSU and its Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research (TCBMR), the new law also expanded opportunities for  universities to conduct hemp research.

“Tennessee is evolving, and our lives will be different as a result of these bills passing,” said Dr. Elliot Altman, TCBMR director and head of MTSU’s Molecular Biosciences Ph.D. program. “The future is bright for this.”

“The industry in general has lot of promise,” added Phillips. “Although some hiccups on regulations and infrastructure development still have to get worked out.”


A Student Successhemp Clint cut out

Both Phillips and Altman credit MTSU graduate student Clint Palmer with both ramping up the University’s excitement about being involved in industrial hemp in Tennessee and in taking clear steps to be an academic leader in the state.

“All credit goes to him to bring it here,” Phillips said.

Palmer spent six months of his final undergraduate year seeking grant money for his hemp research agriculture project. In the summer of 2015, Palmer conducted a trial growing seven varieties of hemp—six of them for seed and one for fiber.

“Clint had the idea and followed through,” Phillips said. “He created that excitement about research and also brought in other younger people to participate who were not even in agriculture.”

Importantly, Palmer also piqued Altman’s interest in the medicinal qualities of hemp oil after the student met with the professor to ask about them during Tennessee’s first hemp growing season in 2015.

“I started pulling together that research and soon thought, ‘Wow,’ ” Altman said. “There is ample scientific research which shows that a number of non-psychotropic cannabinoids—compounds found in hemp seed—have antibacterial, anticancer, antiepileptic, antifungal, and immunomodulatory activities.”

“That’s the root of our excitement,” Altman summed up.


Growing the Industry

Wild hemp plant. Isolated on a white background.
Before changing his major from environmental engineering to agriculture, Palmer spent time in Colorado building a tiny house out of hemp-crete, just one of the products that can be made from hemp’s woody core.

Products from the stalk include everything from the aforementioned building material to mulch, boiler fuel, clothing, shoes, and carpet. In addition, seed from the hemp plant can be used nutritionally and clinically.

“The hemp extract market appears to be $400 million worldwide,” said Altman, a lifetime pharmaceutical developer with decades of intellectual property development expertise.

MTSU now works alongside organizations such as the nonprofit Tennessee Hemp Industries Association (TNHIA) to educate politicians and the public about the potential uses and financial upsides of industrial hemp.

“After the bills passed, farmers, entrepreneurs, and everyone fascinated by hemp starting asking us questions,” Altman said.

And as Tennessee farmers increasingly figure out both the nuances and financial upsides of growing hemp, they see clearly how they stand to gain.

“A very small group of farmers is doing it right now and they are creating history,” said Colleen Keahey, TNHIA founder and president. “They want to be the first.”

During Tennessee’s first growing season in 2015, farmers planted experimentally.

“Farmers used seed, some of which was from Canada, and figured out what could go wrong,” Palmer said. They learned answers to questions like “What are the pests that can affect growth?” and “What’s needed to increase yield?” Most of those farmers are growing 1–5 acres to total about 1,185 acres of hemp in 34 Tennessee counties. Other states growing industrial hemp in 2015 included Kentucky, Colorado, Vermont, and Oregon.

“In the end, farmers want to know how much they’ll make,” Palmer said. “So they’ll try it on small acreage to see how it does. Most do a rotation of corn, soy, and wheat. Hemp fits
in perfectly with that. It has the same needs.”

Domino effect

With the new legislation fresh on the books permitting hemp processing and research, both Tennessee farmers and University researchers are gearing up for higher levels of activity. Palmer said a greenhouse will be built on campus property to grow subspecies. Early research will isolate the content of each plant. Phillips said he is hopeful and foresees opportunities to coordinate with TCBMR on the production side.

A clear new path to processing and distribution will also open doors for entrepreneurs.

“There will be lot of movement in this area,” Altman predicted.

Because of TCBMR’s proven ability to isolate and identify bioactive compounds in plants, it could be the vehicle to certify farmers’ products as well.

“The major problem with the hemp flower extract industry has been that consumers don’t know what they are buying as there are no certified products available that guarantee the bioactivity of the hemp cannabinoid extracts,” Altman explained. “The Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research would like to understand which cannabinoids have what medical properties and whether the cannabinoids can act together to generate more potent activities. This would lead to the creation of superior hemp flower extracts whose bioactivity can be certified.”

“TCBMR can be the evaluator and can certify bioactivity. We’ve proven we’re very good at assays (bioactivity tests) and can certify any product made,” Altman added.

“Anything TCBMR can do to help the farmer, we want to do.”

The purpose of TCBMR is to deliver compounds that can help people. The applied science appeals deeply to Altman and to his graduate students who want to make a difference
in people’s lives.

“I think all the students would say that this matters: ‘I’m doing something important,’ ” he said. “All of our students come in loving medicine and love the idea they might be creating a drug to help somebody somewhere.”

Palmer plans to start research on hemp as he pursues his doctorate in Molecular Biosciences under Dr. Altman’s tutelage.

“Once you educate with facts, it’s not hard to understand the potential for hemp,” Palmer said. “I think it can really open up doors for ag research and bring students into agronomy.”




A Herd Mentality


One professor’s efforts in cattle husbandry yield medical advances for humans as well

By Allison Gorman

Warren Gill, School of Agribusiness and Agriscience faculty, in one of the Science Building labs for the EXL Magazine.

Warren Gill, School of Agribusiness and Agriscience faculty, in one of the Science Building labs for the EXL Magazine.

Dr. Warren Gill has spent his career using farmer’s instincts and academic detective work to keep Tennessee’s cattle healthy.

It was Gill who, in the early 2000s, got to the bottom of a mysterious illness that had been plaguing Tennessee-bred calves. Then a member of the University of Tennessee’s agriculture faculty, he linked the affected herds’ rough coats to a copper deficiency. When he tested their forage, the results were puzzling: it was low in copper, but also extraordinarily high in sulfur.

“I had to draw on my old chemistry background,” he recalled. “Sulfur and copper combine, particularly in the presence of molybdenum, to make an insoluble compound. . . . Sure enough, we had a serious high sulfur problem that was manifesting itself in a copper deficiency.”

After four years spent gathering samples throughout Tennessee and into Kentucky, Gill identified the culprit: coal-burning power plants.

Years later, that discovery would lead Gill to an improbable partnership with a geneticist from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Now their work together has taken on new dimensions—global, human, and life-saving. And it’s all part of their effort to build a better cow.


A Skin-Deep Solution

Fixing copper deficiency in cows is relatively easy, Gill says; you adjust their mineral supplements. What isn’t easy is getting liver samples from cows to test for copper deficiency. For years, however, that was the only good option.

The problem was solved and a research partnership born in 2012, when Gill—who by then had joined MTSU’s School of Agriculture and Agriscience—met Dr. James West, a Vanderbilt specialist in gene editing. Together they developed a skin test for copper deficiency using blood, skin, and liver samples from affected cows.

While gene testing had been used to identify parentage and some diseases in cows, Gill said, “nobody [had] ever come out with a nutritional gene test. We hope that it will be very widely used. It’s very much needed.”

When Gill and West collaborated again, they were focused on a far greater need.

It was 2013, and Gill had just attended a conference where ranchers and farmers discussed the challenges of developing livestock that could withstand the scorching temperatures typical of so many of the world’s impoverished regions. The Brahman cattle raised there are inefficient breeders and grazers relative to the amount and quality of the beef they produce; however, they’re heat-tolerant, with short, white coats. Angus cows, bred for cooler climates, are the opposite in every way, down to their tender, abundant beef and double layers of long, black hair.

What we need, Gill thought, is a short-haired, white Angus. But with the global population estimated to hit 9.6 billion by 2050—up 38 percent from 2010—conventional genetics would take too long. Perhaps West could use genetic material from various cattle breeds to create “overnight” what otherwise would have
taken decades.

Gill floated the idea to West, who signed off on it.

By November 2015, the first fertilized white Angus eggs were ready for transfer to their bovine incubators. If the transfers take and the pregnancies are viable—Gill is hoping for 25 percent success—the calves will be born midsummer on his farm in Petersburg, Tennessee. They’ll share traits of three breeds: the Angus; the Silver Galloway, a heritage breed with darker skin and long, white hair; and the Senepol, a slick-coated breed famous for its heat tolerance.

Gill has seen plenty of calves born—after all, he was raised on the farm he now runs—but he’ll witness these births, too.

“When Dr. West looks at these genes, he knows what’s in there,” he said. “But, like the rest of the world, I don’t really believe it until I see a white Angus.”

Meanwhile, the researchers are incubating a new business, Ag Genetics, which will market the technology—such as the copper deficiency test—for which MTSU and Vanderbilt hold the patents.

Following the Research Where it Leads

The collaboration has also taken a new turn and gained a new ally. This latest development is focused not on the product, but on the process of Gill and West’s research, and that process may have promising implications for some
cancer patients.

Black Angus at the MTSU Farm at Guy James.

Black Angus at the MTSU Farm at Guy James.

To gather the genetic material for the white Angus, Gill harvested testicular stem cells that West then strengthened in his lab. Debra Friedman, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt, said a similar process could be used to reverse sterility in male cancer patients—a frequent side effect of chemo and radiation. Ultimately, she said, “this [research] could lead to interventions for male children and adolescents where sperm stem cells could be drawn through needle biopsy before treatment, expanded in culture, and then reintroduced after treatment, ameliorating the sterility conferred by the treatment.”

Friedman is now working with West and Gill on that application, one the men hadn’t anticipated. West notes that they used testicular stem cells simply because it seemed a cost-effective option. “It’s hard to predict the direction research will take until you follow it to the end,” he said.

That journey is one Gill has gone all in for, even stepping down as director of MTSU School of Agribusiness and Agriscience, in order to have more time to pursue this life-saving research. What began as an inquiry into nutrition deficiencies in cattle has rapidly expanded into a multi-faceted research project, a new business, and, possibly, a new breed of bovine. With so much potential, there’s no end in sight.

MTSU’s Spiderman

How “Spill Doctor” Ryan Otter found truth in the ashes of Tennessee’s worst environmental disaster

by Allison Gorman



In early 2009, Dr. Ryan Otter (Biology) stood awestruck on the banks of the Emory River in Roane County. What two months earlier had been a serene fishing alcove now looked like a lunar landscape or a present-day Pompeii. Under his boots, where there should have been vegetation, there was gray sludge. And the water in the alcove was simply gone, displaced by wet fly ash, a thick chemical stew that had spilled into the river when an earthen retention pond ruptured at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant.

“It was amazing, the volume of this thing,” Otter says. “I mean, it was a billion gallons of fly ash that clogged up a river. It looked like a war zone. And I thought, ‘This is a billion gallons of something that we know contains metals that can be toxic. How can this not be catastrophic?’”

That’s the kind of loaded question Otter doesn’t allow himself—or his students—to ask. An ardent “science nerd,” he’s all about design and data: assume nothing, develop a bulletproof experiment, and see what the numbers reveal.

However, the scope of the spill was unlike anything Otter, an environmental toxicologist, had ever seen. It was also unlike anything the United States had ever seen. The slurry blanketed everything in its path, pushing homes off foundations, choking two tributaries of the Tennessee River, and burying a 300-acre ecosystem.

For the people who lost their homes, the event was a life-changing disaster. But for the area’s quieter (and far more numerous) residents—the water and land animals—the prognosis wasn’t so
clear. Despite the ubiquity of fossil fuel plants worldwide, Otter says, there had been very little research on fly ash, a byproduct of coal combustion that contains trace amounts of many potentially dangerous elements, including arsenic, lead, and mercury.

Weeks after the spill, Otter joined a coordinated effort of several agencies to answer a slightly different version of his gut-level question: Is this an environmental catastrophe?

He found the answer in an unexpected place, and that answer surprised everyone.

Complexity and Confluence

More than six years after the Kingston spill, cleanup is ongoing. It’s projected to cost $1.2 billion and is slated for completion in 2015. Environmental monitoring of the site will continue for
years afterward.

Scientific analysis of the spill has involved university researchers, federal and state government agencies, and private consultants.

Otter was initially called to the scene by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which asked him to study the effects of dredging on mussels. Then he was connected with TVA and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which asked him to test fish for toxins to help gauge immediate and future implications of the spill.

He says the project was the most complicated he has ever worked on, and not just because of its massive scale. There were also the complex dynamics of the Emory River, which regularly runs backward when water is released from Melton Hill Dam on the Clinch River, which merges with the Emory. “The water literally goes back and forth, depending on what the dam is doing,” Otter says. “I had divers in the water who were three miles upstream of the spill, and they were sitting in ash.”

And while the Emory was relatively clean before the spill, the Clinch has long been polluted by runoff from ORNL. Researchers had to find out whether the toxins they found came from fly ash or from previous contamination. Then, in 2010, widespread flooding of the Tennessee River system further muddied the waters.

“All this made the hydrology crazy,” Otter says.

Spiders and the Fly

Otter’s test subjects were problematic, too. When analyses of toxin levels in fish proved inconclusive, he knew he needed a different animal—something whose diet was more closely connected with the fly ash. Then he remembered his Ph.D. work with researchers from the Environmental Protection Agency, who used a commonly found spider to measure contamination at polluted sites. The spiders are ideal indicators, he says, because they have high fat levels that store toxins.

The spiders, known as long-jawed orb weavers, are easy to find on any riverbank in the country. Shy and harmless, they hide in trees near the water during the day, and at night they spin webs to catch mosquitoes, black flies, and other bugs that live in and feed on sediment. With the help of two students, Otter spent two days on the river, shaking tree branches and bagging several hundred spiders, which he sent to a lab for chemical analysis.

Otter says he tries to conduct research with no expectations about the outcome. But when the lab results came in, he was as shocked as anyone. The spiders tested negative for every toxin but selenium—levels of which, while concerning, weren’t “off the charts,” he says. Further field and controlled studies supported his initial findings. Apparently, the other toxins had bound with carbon in the fly ash and settled, uneaten, on the river bottom.

While media images of the Kingston site were terrifying, the spiders told a more accurate story. Because they bridge the ecosystems of river and land, says Otter, spiders reveal more than most animals can.

“All fish can tell you is the impact on fish . . . and how contamination moves through water systems in one way,” he says. “But how is that contamination impacting things on the land? Fish can’t really help with that.”

Long-jawed orb weavers aren’t the only creatures that eat aquatic bugs, he says. So do birds and bats, which then become part of the terrestrial food chain. “So these spiders are really cool
indicators,” Otter says. “They can tell a story about what’s going on in the water and how much is leaving the water to come onto the land.”

Thanks in great part to Ryan Otter, there’s no longer a dearth of research on the environmental effects of fly ash. (His phone rang in early 2014, when a pipe ruptured at a Duke Energy fly ash pond in North Carolina.) And while his work on the Kingston spill site is complete, he’s just beginning his research with long-jawed orb weavers, which he considers invaluable but overlooked subjects in the study of food-chain dynamics. “They can tell a huge story that typically has not been told,” he says.


By the Book

Ryan Otter might think of himself as a science nerd, but his students think of him as a guy they can go to for advice.

Since he joined the Department of Biology in 2007, Otter has spent many office hours talking to rudderless students about strategies for college success and guiding them toward fulfilling careers. He’s given so much advice, in fact, that he wrote a book on the subject, How to Win at the Game of College.

Otter sees himself in these students, who have been told they need a degree to get a job but who don’t know how to find their way or even where the path will lead.

“That was me,” he says. “I went to college with no idea what I was doing.” As a zoology major at Michigan State, he plugged away at his classes, driven by the vague promise that a degree equals a good job and good money. “Then I started looking at the data and I thought, ‘I don’t think that this is very accurate. I don’t see a diploma setting me up for what I think it’s going to.’”

As all scientists know, the data doesn’t lie. The trend Otter discovered when he ran the numbers still holds true: there are more college graduates than there are jobs for them. While graduation is critical, it doesn’t guarantee a job, much less a rewarding career. So college student Otter developed a detailed game plan to get where he wanted to go.

“[College is] just like any other game that you want to win,” he says. “You have to know who the other players are; you have to know what the rules are; and you have to have a strategy.” The plan worked for him, and at MTSU he began sharing it with students. He didn’t write it down until 2010, when his wife suggested that a book would save him time in the long run.

The book turned into a website, TheCollegeGameProject.org, with the tagline “Be Weird” (statistically weird, he explains.) The website has led to speaking engagements across the country.

Okay, call him a science nerd. But call his book and website great tools for playing and excelling in the college game.


Where’s the Buzz?

Honors students undertake timely research on the disappearance of honeybees



According to a recent National Geographic article, honeybees pollinate a third of the American diet “from nuts to produce—not to mention coffee and cotton.” Sadly, though, the humble honeybee is dying off in staggering numbers. More than half of managed U.S. honeybee colonies have disappeared in the past ten years, the article states—victims of pesticides, fungicides, and viruses, among other factors.

A White House report published this past June produced similar findings, stating that honeybees enable the production of at least 90 commercially grown crops in North America, and that globally, 87 of the leading 115 food crops are dependent on animal pollinators. Overall, honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the economy through their crucial role as pollinators, the White House announcement concluded, also stressing that pollination is integral to U.S. food security. President Barack Obama’s response to these findings was to create a task force to address the issue of rapidly diminishing honeybees and other pollinators.

It might be said that Honors student Anna Neal was a step ahead of the White House. Neal and her family have raised bees for several years, but in recent times their beehives have collapsed due to pesticide spraying on properties adjacent to her farm. It led Neal to wonder what other factors could contribute to colony collapse and also to ponder the implications of reduced bee populations in middle Tennessee. Neal began her thesis research this spring analyzing possible cross-transmissions of disease between honeybees and bumblebees.

2014-07-13D Science Building Move InWhile bumblebees have not received the same international attention as their smaller cousins, they also pollinate lots of plants. Since bumblebees and honeybees often forage for nectar in the same places, competitive interactions during pollination may increase the likelihood that colony collapse disorder (CCD) agents could spread among species. Noting that very few studies had been conducted on these cross-transmissions of disease in Tennessee, Neal identified it as a worthwhile area in which she could complete her Honors thesis.

Neal conducted an extensive literature review to determine possible causes of the collapse of honeybee hives and found that many factors can contribute to CCD, ranging from microbial pathogens to parasites to invasive pests and to an increasing reliance on insecticides and pesticides by farmers. Importantly, she also found evidence that suggested these agents could spread to native bumblebees as well.

The possibility that honeybees could be spreading pathogens and parasites also piqued Neal’s interest. Partnered with Dr. R. Drew Sieg of the Honors College and two other MTSU biology undergraduates (Chelsey Pennycuff and Gabrielle Armour), she and the team received an Undergraduate Research Experience and Creative Activity (URECA) grant to conduct research to explore whether parasites could take advantage of the competitive foraging behavior of honeybees and bumblebees to infect new hosts and to assess the threat that colony collapse agents pose for bees in middle Tennessee.

URECA funding allowed the research team to become more invested in the project than if they had been merely volunteering or conducting research as part of a lab course. On a typical day, the team deployed insect traps near honeybee hives at several local farms. They also noted environmental characteristics of each site, such as the species of plants the bees were likely to visit and the density of flowers nearby.

The traps were collected after three days and brought back to the Honors College, where the bees and any parasites were identified and quantified. Researchers also removed the digestive tract from each bee and screened them for internal microparasites. The team visited farms weekly over the course of the summer, allowing them to track changes in parasite loads at different stages in the bees’ life cycle.

Neal says the research project “actually turned out to be quite the adventure.” Though she admits the writing and background research required to create a project was a bit tedious, the excitement she felt when she set the first trap more than made up for the paperwork.

“Each new bumblebee species found, each time Nosema spores appeared in a slide, and each examined mite was like stumbling upon stashed treasure or receiving an unexpected gift,” she says.

Her favorite moment so far? Hands down, Neal says, it was seeing her completed poster for the URECA Summer Celebration.

“Not only does this poster represent seven months of labor but also reveals my favorite finding: middle Tennessee has nine species of bumblebees, not just the previously documented four. One species in particular, Bombus auricomus, was caught most often though experts declared it rare after 1997.”

Even with such successes already under her belt, Neal’s adventure continues. She’ll be defending her research as an Honors thesis this October.

Sieg says that not just Neal and her family but also other local beekeepers are eager to learn what threats exist for their hives so they can employ new strategies to prevent colony collapse disorder.

“The farmers that we’ve interacted with are genuinely excited to see young people interested in the process of beekeeping and are keen to simultaneously teach the students about their trade,” he says. “The easy access to local wildflower honey isn’t a bad perk, either.”

Beyond White House studies, student research, and agricultural analyses, the disappearance of bees has become an impetus for deeper discourse. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Mark Winston, a biologist and author of the forthcoming book Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive, wrote:

“We can best meet our own needs if we maintain a balance with nature—a balance that is as important to our health and prosperity as it is to the bees . . . Honeybee collapse has much to teach us about how humans can avoid a similar fate, brought on by the increasingly severe environmental perturbations that challenge modern society.”


A Bee for Effort

2014-07-13D Science Building Move In

Anna Neal’s research project was also a learning experience for Dr. R. Drew Sieg, who began teaching at MTSU last fall and is the first dedicated faculty member in the University Honors College. Sieg’s area of expertise lies more in chemical interactions among marine organisms. However, he is eager to provide new research opportunities for undergraduates and show them the interdisciplinary nature of science, and Neal’s honeybee project more than fit the bill.

“The project allows students to receive hands-on experience in field ecology, microbiology, taxonomy, and statistics, while simultaneously improving their critical thinking skills,” Sieg says. “The open-ended nature of the project also illustrates to them that research rarely has a predefined outcome.”

Sieg sees the honeybee project as an example of how Honors students can consider their career plans while getting involved in science that can be found in their own backyards. “Anna, Chelsey Pennycuff, and Gabrielle Armour have all expressed a desire to pursue graduate degrees, and an immersive experience like this can really help them assess whether graduate school is the right direction for them,” he says.


It’s A Small World After All

The increase in antibiotic-resistant pathogens is causing researchers to look for natural sources to isolate new medicines and drugs. This fall, students in Dr. R. Drew Sieg’s majors and nonmajors Honors biology courses will join the search through the Small World Initiative, a research experience designed in conjunction with Yale University. Collaborators from over 60 universities are crowdsourcing the search for new antibiotics and making it a unifying theme for introductory biology lab experiments. In Dr. Sieg’s class, students will isolate bacteria from local soils, identify them through gene amplification and sequencing, and screen the bacteria and their chemical extracts for inhibitory activity against bacterial strains closely related to common pathogens. Students may or may not isolate the next wonder drug, but either way they will get first-hand experience in the pursuit of scientific discovery.


Working Behind Bars

Meredith Dye studies on oft-ignored female population

by Katie Porterfield


As a little girl, Assistant Professor Meredith Dye (Sociology and Anthropology) watched a lot of Scooby-Doo.

“At the end of each show, when they unmask the bad guy or the ghost, they see that it’s a real person, and it’s usually someone they know,” says the 37-year-old Dye, who mentions her affection for the cartoon to help make sense of what’s perhaps an unlikely calling: prison research.

“I have a tendency to see people in prison as people, not for what they’ve done,” she says.

It’s this tendency that fuels Dye’s most recent research on women serving life sentences in prison, a small population (5,000 in the United States) that receives little research attention.

In fact, in 2010, she and her colleague Professor Ron Aday (Sociology and Anthropology) visited three Georgia prisons and surveyed 214 of the 300 women serving life sentences in the state. As far as the pair knows, their data represents the largest sample of its kind. In addition to the fact that female lifers are an overlooked prison population, it’s difficult to get permission to work with them.

        “If it weren’t for Ron, I don’t think I would have been able to get access to prisons to collect data,” Dye says, explaining that Aday, who wrote a book on women aging in prison, has a contact in the Georgia Department of Corrections who paved the way for them. “When I was at Georgia [in graduate school], I was discouraged to hear that it took someone 13 years to establish a relationship that enabled him to gain access.”

Teaming up with Aday after joining MTSU is just one of the many experiences that shaped Dye’s interest in prison research. In other words, Scooby-Doo isn’t solely responsible for her “pathway to prison,” as she calls it. As she got older, her concern and compassion for people portrayed as “bad guys” spilled over to her academic career. At Erskine College, where she majored in behavioral science, she helped a Ph.D. student conduct research on deviant behavior in controlled and isolated environments. Between undergraduate and graduate school, she worked as a counselor at a residential treatment center for juvenile sex offenders and found herself asking questions about the environment and its approach to helping patients. While working toward her master’s in sociology with a concentration in criminology at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro, she developed a fascination with those who must live in and adapt to institutions in which their lives are completely controlled. She began to focus mostly on prisons and wrote her thesis and dissertation on factors associated with prison suicides (using secondary data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics). In 2008, after getting her Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, she ventured to MTSU, where she met Aday just as she was beginning to look at gender differences related to suicide in prison.

After working with Aday to gather data, she published “I Just Wanted to Die” in Criminal Justice and Behavior Journal. The article compared suicidal ideation among women before receiving life sentences and then while in prison. Her latest study, “The Rock I Cling To: Religion in the Lives of Life-Sentenced Women,” was cowritten for the Prison Journal.

Dye is far from finished. She’s yet to write a general paper on the characteristics of women serving life sentences, and because her survey contained closed and open-ended questions, she has a wealth of material that should eventually lead to a book. Her findings so far, she explains, are myth breaking in that they don’t fit most preexisting perceptions of who women serving life sentences really are.

“One thing that stands out right away when you meet these women is that they’re like your mom and your grandmom,” Dye says. “They are aging. They have wheelchairs, walkers, white hair, and health problems associated with aging. Or they are middle-aged women who never saw themselves ending up in prison, much less serving a life sentence.”

Unless they are serving life without parole, most women serving life sentences will not be in prison for life. Yet, as Dye explains, they are almost invisible because they comprise such a small population. (Less than one percent of all Georgia inmates are female lifers.)

“What I heard from them over and over again was ‘We are overlooked,’” says Dye. “The prison administration and staff are more concerned about people serving shorter sentences and getting them back into society so they don’t come back to prison.”

Though Dye readily cites useful and interesting percentages about the women she surveyed (see page 37), she’s quick to point out that her research isn’t just about crunching numbers. It’s also about telling the stories of incarcerated women “nobody seems to care about.”

“I’m not saying these women don’t need to be in prison, but who are they, how did they get there, how are they serving their time? Do I think this particular research will lead to a change in policy or their daily lives? Probably not, but I think we always need to ask ourselves what we’re doing.”

Meanwhile, she thinks she’s exactly where she needs to be. “A professor who does research on gangs told me one time that he always tells the people he interviews that for just a series of different life circumstances, choices, or opportunities, he could be where they are,” Dye says. “I feel the same way. I feel privileged and fortunate. I’ve had a lot of opportunities, and I think this is what I’m supposed to do.”


From Literary Canon to Vampire Slaying

Dr. David Lavery is crafting a new pop canon, one Buffy at a time

by Candie Moonshower


MTSU Literature faculty and Buffy, Sopranos, and Avengers pop culture expert David Levery in studio.

I’ve been asked a hundred times why I’m interested in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,” says Dr. David Lavery, director of Graduate Studies in English at MTSU. “I say it’s because it makes me feel like my education wasn’t for nothing.”

Connecting the respected canon of literature to a TV show about vampires and a heroine slayer isn’t the typical self-reflection one might expect from a professor of English literature with curriculum vitae long enough to warrant an ISBN number. But Lavery isn’t typical.

Since 1978, when he earned his Ph.D. in English at the University of Florida, Lavery’s career trajectory, which began with a desire to focus on American literature and specialize in Native American literature, has taken a surprising detour out of the realm of the canon and into the uncharted waters of popular culture, particu­larly television studies. The first leg of that journey was his dissertation, which came out of a push to see a Federico Fellini film. Then, during an early stint at the University of Memphis as a professor of communica­tion and film studies, Lavery was asked to teach a class called TV and Culture.

“At first, I thought it was ridiculous, but I enjoyed it,” he said. Little did he know, but he was in the first group of scholars engaged in groundbreaking studies about TV and its impact on our culture.

Since arriving at MTSU in 1993, he has continued to break new ground, bridging the gap between pop culture and the canon.

“It’s exciting to teach at a school with such a comfort level,” Lavery says. “Here at MTSU, I can teach Wallace Stevens and then Joss Whedon,” the latter being the creator of Buffy, the director of recent box-office smash The Avengers, and other iconic shows and movies. (Lavery recently published a book titled Joss Whedon: A Creative Portrait.)

According to Lavery, the division between low and high culture is not as strong as it once was—or as people thought.

“As a graduate student, I used to hate TV,” he admits. “I thought it was Orwellian and would ruin our souls. I never pictured myself here, in this career. And I’m having fun.”

Lavery adds, “No one has ever invited me to Australia to talk about Wallace Stevens, but they have invited me there to talk about Buffy.” (His eyes twinkle as he tries not to smile too broadly.)

One promising aspect of this burgeoning area of study? The need for scholarly articles and books. Lavery created the first scholarly book devoted to an individual TV series, Twin Peaks.

“No one had thought of taking on a book about TV—and I certainly never anticipated being that person,” he says. Since that seminal work, Lavery has authored, coauthored, edited or coedited over 20 books and over 150 published essays, chapters, and reviews, including the aforementioned book-length biography of Whedon.

Lavery believes MTSU is a leader in the integration of pop culture and traditional English studies. He acknowledges that while English depart­ments have accepted film studies, many have not yet taken on TV, which he calls misguided.

“TV shows are like novels,” he says. “They cover a long narrative time, and they should be part of the canon. The canon will grow.”

It’s not the first time MTSU has done pioneering scholarly work related to pop culture. Lavery points to former professors Michael and Sara Dunne (also noted pop culture scholars) and the much-celebrated Charles Wolfe, who became, arguably, the most important music scholar in the world writing about country music.

For Lavery, it all starts with Buffy.

“I hated the movie, so I didn’t watch the show on TV,” Lavery admits. “Four years in, students wanted me to watch. They said, ‘It’s your kind of show!’ I finally watched it, and it changed my life. Those students changed my life.”

And what about Joss Whedon, around and about whom a good deal of Lavery’s work has been centered?

“Whedon is the champion out there for all of us out here who once thought we were losers,” he says.

Lavery boldly places Whedon studies as a natural complement to those of a better-known literary icon.

“Shakespeare . . . has kept English teachers busy for 400 years,” Lavery says. “Whedon . . . has tapped into how our imaginations work and changed TV. He has reached whole families and spoken in a language we understand. Like Shakespeare in his day, Whedon is one of us.”

Lavery is one of us, too. Tori Warenik, a former student of Lavery’s who received her master’s in English from MTSU in 2013, says she enrolled specifically to study under Lavery.

“I first met Dr. Lavery in 2010 at Slayage, a popular culture conference on Joss Whedon, which convenes every other year. When applying for graduate programs, I contacted Dr. Lavery, who volunteered some advice: ‘Go where you feel like you belong.’” (Lavery was a cofounder of the Slayage conference, and the Slayage Journal—each outgrowths of the Whedon Studies Association Lavery also cofounded.)

Warenik chose MTSU.

“Many people don’t get the opportunity I did to make a connection with someone so plugged in to his area of interest as well as to his legacy: his students,” Warenik says. “Though he has written and edited a veritable shelf of books and academic papers, Dr. Lavery wants his students to succeed in their chosen paths as he has, which in academia, is actually extraordinary.”

Warenik, now a high school English teacher in Florida, says she is excited to try to make those same types of connections with her own students.

What is next for David Lavery? His ambitions are many and varied. He certainly doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. He admits that he has always chafed at the “turf ” of academia.

“In my perfect world, the English Department and the Chemistry Department would teach together,” he says.

Lavery says he has enjoyed teaching in the Honors College and would like to teach an interdisciplinary course on the topic of creativity.

“Our Honors [program] does an incredible job of giving good students a chance to think outside the box,” he says, acknowledging that MTSU is the number-one target for the state’s best and brightest students.

In summer 2014, Lavery is teaching Special Topics in Popular Culture: James Tiptree, Jr. and Science Fiction—a graduate class. He is also finishing a book called Finale about the great television finales of all time.

And the canon?

“I’d like to write a book on Wallace Stevens,” Lavery says with a smile.



Find out more about MTSU’s English Department below:

Welcome to the Future

James E. Walker Library and its staff deftly ride the digital humanities wave

By Gina K. Logue and Drew Ruble

Dating back to the third century BC and the library of Alexandria, the most famous example of an early library in the ancient world, the mission of libraries has been simple: to connect people to information.


In modern times, in a world filled with Web-based media, social networking, and cloud computing, that fact remains true. But today, libraries serve a world extending far beyond bricks and mortar, including anyone with an interest in a particular topic and access to an Internet connection.


MTSU’s Walker Library is a sterling example of a modern library that already offers electronic versions of many or most of its periodicals, books, and collections. As library dean Bonnie Allen points out, “We have rows and rows of books on shelves, but that is only about half of our entire collection—the other half is accessed through a keyboard or your smart phone.”


Significantly, though, that pathway to information isn’t limited exclusively to the library’s standard collections. Libraries now acquire collections in electronic formats but are also transforming unique collections into digital collections. Beyond digitizing its own materials, Walker Library has also partnered with other academic units to make some of the University’s priceless intellectual holdings available electronically. In doing so, Walker Library has evolved into a true hub for humanities research in a digital age, becoming less a warehouse for books and more of what Allen describes as a “portal to a world of information.”


Brave New World


Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Maryland (andassociate director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities), has written that while science disciplines have always evolved with new technology, and, in fact, depend on technological advancements, the humanities have remained “largely the same in approach and creation, staying rooted in the so-called ‘analog humanities,’ which consist of printed, physical media.”


That’s changing. Engulfed by the digital age, the humanities are, in Kirschenbaum’s words, rebooting. The defining phrase in the library profession today is “digital humanities.” In a recent interview with the Journal of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, Johanna Drucker, a UCLA professor of bibliography, described digital humanities as “work done at the intersection of computational technology and the humanities.”


“That means that we use a whole suite of methods, tools, and techniques that make humanities materials available to digital processing,” Drucker added, specifically citing text analysis, data mining, databases, metadata, geospatial encoding, virtual world building, network analysis, information visualization, interface design, and imaging, among other approaches. “Most of these techniques come from the empirical sciences, statistics, or business applications and have been adopted for use in the humanities. They require structured or formalized presentations of materials—documents, images, sound—in digital formats, which means migrating analog artifacts into a digital format.”


In other words, the digital humanities encompass the use of new technology to study what have been historically nontechnological disciplines. And Walker Library is in step with that transformation.


From Stacks to Cyberspace

Crucial to this new landscape for libraries is collaboration between campus entities—the humanities, computing, and libraries—to take full advantage of digital scholarship. At MTSU, Walker Library serves not only as a catalyst for the creation, management, and delivery of digital content but also as the new focal point for the storage and dissemination of content through a strong and growing web presence of digital text, images, audio, and video.


One major initiative in particular illustrates Walker Library’s role as a leader in the digital spectrum— namely, the execution of digitization projects that will preserve the one-of-a-kind, vintage analog materials already in MTSU’s possession for future generations of scholars. To coordinate the work, Walker Library is partnering with three highly regarded MTSU research centers—the Center for Popular Music, the Center for Historic Preservation, and the Albert Gore Research Center—to make what are some of Tennessee’s most precious collections more accessible worldwide.


“This started with a meeting more than a year ago where we looked at synergies among our campus collections, our expertise, and our space, and realized we had a common mission,” Allen says. “I had just joined MTSU as dean of Walker Library and was accustomed to collaboration with a wide range of scholars, as well as libraries. I knew that MTSU archives and Walker Library had this great opportunity to work together. We all seemed to have the same idea at the same time—it was an easy partnership to form!”


Named the Digital Partners, the partnership is now publishing in digital form what Allen describes as the “hidden collections of MTSU.” Digital Partners marries the technology, expertise, central campus space, and unique collections at MTSU for the electronic benefit of all who are drawn to the collections housed physically on campus. “Each of the partners has been working to establish processes, gather equipment, and initiate training to digitize their most valued collections,” Allen says. “So, for instance, CPM and Gore are visited by researchers who travel to use their special collections. Walker has the foundational collection of published reference materials that provide the historical context and factual verification on nearly every discipline.”

“Each of the partners had also spent time in the trenches learning the standards and the technical tools of digital publications,” she adds. “All had staffers who had experience in the creation of specific digital collections and had collaborated in the production of Web-accessible portions of our collections, were ready to expand, and eager to do this together.”


To support Walker Library’s strategic push further into the digital realm, the library has in the past year alone hired various professionals with specializations in metadata or descriptive data for digital publications. It has also expanded its technological staff expertise. Two librarians, Ken Middleton and Mayo Taylor, who had already developed digital collections in recent years, have continued to keep pace with new developments in digital publishing.


Behind glass walls on the second floor of the library are the technical tools Middleton and Taylor use to transform images and documents into a rich digital collection used by local schoolchildren, world scholars, and top researchers alike. The Digital Scholarship Lab, which opened in August 2013, includes scanning equipment, computers, and staff and meeting space that encourages and enables more publishing. All copies of the student newspaper Sidelines through 2011 have been scanned. The digitization of Midlander yearbooks was outsourced. These were obvious targets for preservation to chronicle the University’s history and growth. But there’s more to it than that. For example, one project now underway chronicles the effect of Jim Crow laws on the formation of statewide communities in Tennessee. This yearlong project is funded with a diversity grant from the Tennessee Board of Regents and will conclude with both a collection and a website.


The digital collections created by Walker Library, including those achieved through collaboration with the Digital Partners, can be seen on the library’s digital collection website .

Allen says the influence of the collections to date is “strongly toward southern history and MTSU’s history.”


Student Success


According to Allen, the implications of the Digital Scholarship Lab include positives for graduate students and departments on campus “to apply a variety of technologies in the course of their research and then publishing a digital format or collection.” Allen adds that Walker is evaluating software for the creation of an institutional repository that will virtually house such items as electronic theses and dissertations, articles, reports, photographs, and research data from undergraduates through faculty.


“This repository will be the searchable electronic archive of works as they are created on campus,” Allen says.


Looking to the future, Allen promises that the Digital Scholarship Lab “will be a place for training our students and faculty in the use of technology to better visualize research and publish in an electronic media.” Preparing students and faculty in this way, Allen says, is the truest definition of digital humanities in academic circles. UCLA, the recognized leader in the digital humanities in higher education, states on its website that at its core, digital humanities teaches students “to create and critique media content, to develop the necessary skills and abilities to evaluate this content, to manipulate and transform digital technologies, and to develop the requisite literacy across information environments and media forms, including textual, aural, visual, and digital domains.”


One example Allen cites of the future of digital humanities at MTSU is the potential use of geographic information system (GIS) software to better visualize the influence of music across the South and how that is associated with community change or historical events.


“It is so exciting to think of the potential for graduate students in the Historic Preservation program working with the Center for Popular Music and specialists in mapping technologies to work together in creating new scholarship,” Allen says. “We have models among the leading research institutions like UCLA to guide us, but most importantly, the library and archival partnership bring the necessary talent and the collections to provide a rich and innovative learning environment for our students and faculty.”


Back to the Future


Walker Library’s collaboration with the three MTSU centers is symbolic of the interdisciplinary nature of the digital humanities. The Jim Crow laws project is an example of how libraries can facilitate such research using new technologies and working with multiple databases. The total effort, which emphasizes real world education in a digital age, ties in seamlessly to MTSU’s focus on student success.



Clearly the role of the university library in the 21st century is not simply to serve as a repository for books. Libraries have been reinterpreted and redesigned to serve as a vibrant resource for a diverse audience looking for multimedia solutions. But whether content is being delivered off the shelf or online, the modern library’s mission remains the same as it was in the third century—to make reading accessible and learning possible, even as it remains a true community resource. Walker Library has deftly changed with the times to maintain that seminal role at MTSU and beyond.




For a video tour and more information about James E. Walker Library, check out the video below:




MTSU strives to be a green campus, here is a video of a project by Erin Anfinson’s drawing class to encourage recycling and reducing waste on campus:


Your Move

MTSU’s underwater treadmills provide the next step for many suffering severe mobility impairment

by Gina K. Logue


They come from home and from work, from Murfreesboro, Nashville, and points beyond to MTSU’s Alumni Memorial Gym (AMG) to spend a few minutes walking in water. As ordinary a task as it seems, it’s really quite extraordinary since most of them can’t walk at all.


People who the insurance industry asserts are incapable of making any physical progress for the rest of their lives are making progress on MTSU’s underwater treadmills.


The two machines themselves, located in separate rooms, are not so unusual. Many universities and athletic facilities have underwater treadmills. However, they are used most commonly for the rehabilitation of able-bodied athletes who have sustained injuries, mere temporary setbacks on the way to their next gold medals or touchdowns.

Richard Locke was a fullback for Memphis State University, now the University of Memphis, from 1977 to 1980. He amassed a total of 1,630 all-purpose (rushing and receiving combined) yards and scored eight touchdowns in his collegiate career. Today he is trying to raise his left leg high enough not to drag it against the treadmill as he walks at a steady pace through the 90-degree water, holding to the steel-enclosed glass sides for balance.

The lead custodian at Murfreesboro’s Blackman High School is determined to recover from a stroke that affected the left side of his body last year.

“I can bend my knees a lot better with the water resistance,” Locke says. “It feels like it gives me some stability, and it feels safer than a regular treadmill.”

 Any time Locke’s left leg starts to shuffle, his wife, Debbie, positioned behind the treadmill, says, “Pick up that left leg!”


Dr. Sandy Stevens, who fills the tank and guides clients through their workouts, says people have been coming to the unpretentious cinder-block environs of the AMG basement for the past two years to regain lost mobility.


“Insurance doesn’t cover this type of exercise because the companies say these people can’t make functional improvements,” Stevens says.

Whether full recovery is possible or not, there is value in improving one’s physical, mental, and emotional quality of life. That’s what Stevens wants to emphasize.


“If you put these underwater treadmills in YMCAs, in senior citizen centers, in community centers, people would use them on their own with minimal supervision,” Stevens says.


Stevens is a postdoctoral research fellow with a tenure track teaching position in the Department of Health and Human Performance’s exercise science program. She knows from her past research with children with cerebral palsy that using the underwater treadmill to stimulate the pathways from the nerves to the brain produces results.


She also knows from interactions with academic colleagues at conferences that no major university in the United States is conducting this type of research.


That’s why Trent Swarthout and his parents traveled from Wisconsin to Murfreesboro. Swarthout, a handsome 23-year-old, was paralyzed from the neck down in a February 2012 skiing accident. Following his accident, the Swarthouts found the lack of therapy opportunities and research frustrating. Then they learned of MTSU’s underwater treadmill therapy from a cousin who lives in the Nashville area.


“Initially, I was really tight,” Swarthout says. “I would have spasms and involuntary movements. But, eventually, I loosened up and got a fluid walking movement going.”


With an assistant behind him to move his feet, Swarthout graduated from three five-minute sessions a day to three 20-minute sessions a day over three months. He took a total of more than 50 steps, 20 favoring his nondominant left side.


“I really didn’t know what to expect,” Swarthout says. “By the end, I was very much surprised at how much I had done.”


Swarthout is back home in Wisconsin, where he does regular treadmill work wearing a harness to prevent him from falling. His father, David, says his son has improved mentally and physically and that Trent has increased his bone density and muscle mass.


“It’s just amazing,” David says. “You would think they would do this everywhere.”


 Carmen Thompson of Nashville had been married only two years when her honeymoon-like bliss ended abruptly on a summer day in 2007. She was mowing the lawn on her husband’s family farm in New Orleans when the mower struck a chain hidden in the grass. The chain was wrapped around a two-ton A-frame structure, which crashed down on her, pinning her to the ground for 20 minutes before her husband arrived home and rescued her.

Two back surgeries later, Thompson remained confined to a wheelchair. Meanwhile, a friend sent her a newspaper article about MTSU’s treadmill program.

“The article sat on my desk for several months as I was a complete paraplegic and did not see how it applied to me,” Thompson says. “But one day, I just decided to call Sandy and see what it was all about.”


On Aug. 1, 2011, Thompson became the first fully paralyzed person to try the underwater treadmill as a study subject.

“Before I started the study, I was swimming laps in the Olympic-sized pool at the YMCA twice a week, but it was not the same,” Thompson says. “The water was really cold, and it was like drudgery.”


By contrast, Thompson describes swishing through the warm water of the treadmill as “exhilarating.”


“I walk for 10 minutes at a time with a three-minute break in between,” Thompson says. “It is relaxing to me.”


Thompson is further bolstered by her therapy companion, Tink, a Pomeranian who looks like an oversized powder puff. A present from Thompson’s husband, Tink is a constant companion, either sitting in Thompson’s lap as she self-propels her wheelchair or trotting beneath the chair, her four tiny legs a collective blur as she keeps pace.


Today, Thompson can walk on solid ground with braces attached to her legs, but she says she gives all the glory to God.


“I have been able to take my leg braces with me to wear to church and on vacation,” Thompson says. “I can stand up and sing praises to God with the congregation whenever I want. Amazing after sitting for four years without the option to stand!”


Even Thompson doesn’t use the word “miracle,” but she and other MTSU treadmill clients are quick to
acknowledge the personal revolution in their lives.


“I am still paralyzed,” Thompson says. “That has not changed. But the opportunity to stand, walk, move, and see the wonderful people at the lab three times a week has been life-changing!”


Here is a video of the Underwater Treadmill in action:

As Good As Gold

Dr. Charles Chusuei’s technology could transform patient care in emergency rooms and health centers worldwide.

by Michael Burgin

Photos by J. Intintoli

 On the bottom floor of Wiser-Patten Science Hall, past a lecture hall and a few smaller classrooms and teachers’ offices,  one can find the home base of Dr. Charles C. Chusuei and his team of student researchers. At first glance, the lab is pretty much what one would expect. A number of small work stations, some whiteboards, and a desk or two populate the periphery of the room. (Stacked in one corner, there are a number of large, unopened boxes.) A bulky piece of equipment dominates the center. Most scientists (and many students in the field) would recognize the instrument as an X-ray photoelectron spectrometer, a machine that allows for nondestructive elemental analysis. It’s a vital tool in the associate professor of chemistry’s current line of research. Of course, give a layperson, someone who doesn’t know a spectrometer from a chromatograph, a few moments to look around, and you’ll probably hear the following question: “Is that a hand drill?”


It is (a Black and Decker, in fact). It’s also a makeshift stepper motor for a homemade ultra-high vacuum sample transfer system. With the assistance of Rick Taylor, lab director in the Department of Engineering Technology, and the machine shop in the Voorhees Engineering Technology Building, Chusuei used the drill, a gearbox, a threaded rod, and machined pieces of aluminum to build a device the components of which would normally cost about $1,000 to buy new.


There are plenty of other examples of Chusuei’s combination of thrift and inventiveness—a fish tank pump substitutes for the Wiser-Patten building’s lack of dedicated pipes for chilled water. It’s one of many drawbacks to the 83-year-old building—those boxes in the corner are actually equipment with technical and safety specs that bar them from being installed in Wiser-Patten. In a field where research ambitions often far outstrip existing facility technology and available funding, it’s not uncommon to find professors who are equal part bargain hunters and MacGyver. Chusuei, who arrived at MTSU in 2010, can count on one of those variables changing soon—a $147 million, state-of-the-art science building is scheduled to open for instruction in 2015—but that doesn’t mean he’s just waiting around. Quite the opposite, Chusuei and his student researchers have been busy developing a technology that could transform patient care in emergency rooms and health centers throughout the world.

As a result, this cluttered room, with its combination of brand-new, unpacked equipment in waiting and cobbled-together scientific apparatuses in use—not to mention the man standing in the middle of it all—represents the exciting present and potential-filled future of science research at MTSU as surely as the new building being built a few hundred yards away.



Not So Common Sense 

As with most scientific research, discoveries with big applications often boil down to thinking small. Really small. Yet it also involves the detection of something one can find a bottle of in almost every home—hydrogen peroxide. It turns out that bubbling stalwart of home-based health care is also a natural byproduct of the biochemistry of all living organisms. The ability to monitor hydrogen peroxide on a molecular level has a host of practical applications in fields as diverse as health care (early cancer detection) and food service (spoilage detection). As a result, researchers have developed a variety of nanotech-based sensors. For the most part, those technologies have used sensors dependent on carbon nanotubes (CNT) coated with oxides derived from precious metals—gold, palladium, ruthenium, etc. As the word “precious” suggests, it’s not cheap to use such metals. But just as with his lab’s ultra-high vacuum sample transfer system, Dr. Chusuei found that the expensive way to do things was hardly the only way. In an effort to establish a cheaper biosensing material, Chusuei turned to zinc.

“A common theme of nanotechnology is determining how material size and shape affects chemical reactivity,” Chusuei explains. “Our research team has shown that zinc oxide (ZnO) shape selection in the nanocomposite formulation (involving carbon nanotubes) dramatically improves its biosensing properties.”


The Goldilocks Standard 

An earth-rich element, zinc is much more abundant and, therefore, cheaper, than the precious set. But in order to establish it as a viable substitute, Chusuei and his team first needed to control the shape of the ZnO compound itself. (The more complete the coverage by the ZnO of the CNT, the better the sensor.) “It was a lot like the fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” Chusuei says. In the end, working the ZnO into its ideal shape required many things being “just right.” It required, among other things, finding just the right temperature (90 degrees Celsius) of the solution in which the suspended ZnO nanoparticles were formed and the pH (7.365) for maximum reactivity, as well as establishing just the right amount of time for sonication (the application of  sound energy to agitate the solution).

With the bulk of the research completed—and with the right balance struck—it’s actually a rather simple procedure to replicate, but as Chusuei’s patent application shows, it wasn’t an obvious one. The real-world potential of the research has Chusuei and his students excited. The cheaper the materials, the more widespread the possible application of the technology.

“If we can attach this biosensor in a portable electrochemical cell, then people can easily detect the presence of [certain compounds] in their body whenever and wherever they want,” says grad student Anup Deb, who learned of Dr. Chusuei’s research while an undergraduate at the University of Dhaka, in Bangladesh.

“What I’m doing now contributes to the effort to create a cancer-free community,” says Mulugeta Wayu, a Ph.D. candidate in the University’s Molecular Biosciences program who came to the United States after spending years as a research scientist in Ethiopia.

Cancer is not the only affliction potentially addressed by the research of Chusuei and his students nor is hydrogen peroxide the only substance detectable. Another vein of inquiry includes the detection of lactic acid, a marker for anaerobic respiration (the presence of which can indicate that a patient is not breathing well or getting enough oxygen). Such sensors could detect signs of physical distress that show up well “before changes in heart rate or blood pressure would be registered,” Chusuei points out.

Even with so much established, there remain plenty of practical questions and intriguing pathways for follow-up research. “Now it becomes a question of how low you can go,” Chusuei says. As with most things nanotech, the smaller one gets, the wider the applications. (There’s also the question of testing and gauging the toxicity of the resulting sensors.) The lab’s success with ZnO has also led to research with other non-precious-metal-based compounds. Anita Saha, a senior biochemistry major, is working with cerium oxide to detect acetaminophen.

In less than a year, Dr. Chusuei’s modest little laboratory will be housed in a shiny new science building. The low-energy electron diffractometer, liquid nitrogen generator, and quadrupole mass analyzer—to name a few of those brand-new pieces of equipment still in boxes—will have been unpacked and put to long-awaited use. It’s exciting to consider, and no doubt the state-of-the-art facility will make a host of scientific processes easier and new discoveries possible. Nonetheless, the most crucial ingredients to the University’s future success as a research institution are already in place in the form of Dr. Chusuei, his colleagues, and all the student researchers under their direction. Oh, and that hand drill masquerading as a stepper motor.


To see interviews with Dr. Chusuei and his research team:



Putting Gas in the Past

MTSU’s “Davy Crockett of science” travels from ocean to ocean on only sun and water

by Mike Browning

The result was a level of exposure for Ricketts’s research—and for MTSU—that the University couldn’t have achieved through traditional marketing methods.

Though the sun is 93 million miles away, its light—solar energy—travels to earth in a mere eight minutes. Most of the earth’s surface is another continuously renewed cycle of energy—H2O.

Sun and water. Both are essential to life. And both are relatively free and abundant.

Dr. Cliff Ricketts, a longtime School of Agribusiness and Agriscience faculty member and an alternative fuels researcher, has a dream that one day people will drive their vehicles using only the natural energies of sun and water. He’s worked for 25 years to figure out how to make that dream a reality.

“My whole passion is sun and water,” says Ricketts, a farmer who fashions himself a modern-day Davy Crockett of science, or “frontiersman with energy.”

In March 2013, Ricketts and a team of current and former students made news nationwide when they successfully drove a modified Toyota Prius from the Atlantic at Tybee Island, Georgia, to a Pacific beach near Los Angeles—a five-day, 2,600-mile driving expedition—powered exclusively by hydrogen made from sun and water.

Members of MTSU’s News and Media Relations team, traveling with Ricketts, worked tirelessly to generate media attention for the professor and for MTSU. Months before the trip even began, the team studied Ricketts’s route from Georgia to California, targeting larger cities and their media outlets with story pitches. Interviews were then arranged with journalists nationwide as the trip unfolded. Among the media outlets that covered the trip were USA Today /Gannett, The Tennessean , the Associated Press, Discovery Channel Canada, and RFD-TV. The result was a level of exposure for Ricketts’s research—and for MTSU—that the University couldn’t have achieved through traditional marketing methods.

It was a cumbersome but necessary task if Ricketts was to make his point—that natural and renewable resources provide a viable energy option. And make his point he did. Over and over along the 2,600-mile journey, Ricketts stopped for media interviews, telling reporter after reporter about his work at MTSU—about his expedition and about the technology—utilizing hydrogen separated from water through solar energy. Told at a time when gas prices nationally ranged between $3.20 and $5.19, Ricketts’s story was equal parts the culmination of his life’s research and a chance to talk about alternative fuels. Ricketts wants Americans to understand that there is a clear alternative to high-dollar gas and dependency on foreign oil. “I think it has a lot of implications,” Ricketts says. “Time will tell.”

One Small Step

The 64-year-old Ricketts traveled the length of Tennessee using only hydrogen in 2010. Then, in 2012, he and his team made it from the Georgia coast to Conway, Ark., a 700-mile trip, on hydrogen alone. Only the lack of a hydrogen fueling system infrastructure kept him from going coast-to-coast that year.

In the Prius used this spring, two hydrogen storage tanks built and attached underneath the car (alongside tanks added to the backseat and also hauled by a separate trailer) equipped Ricketts and team with the fuel necessary to complete the coast-to-coast trip. Ricketts compared his trip with no fueling stations to the plight of two brothers who revolutionized human travel more than a century ago.

Ricketts wants Americans to understand that there is a clear alternative to high-dollar gas and dependency on foreign oil.

“There were no airports when the Wright brothers flew the first airplane,” Ricketts says. “And, of course, there weren’t any hydrogen fueling stations along the way, so we brought our fueling station with us.”

“I believe the government somehow will have to get involved,” Ricketts adds. “We’re kind of in a chicken-or-egg situation right now. We don’t have hydrogen fueling stations because we don’t have [hydrogen] cars, and we don’t have cars because we don’t have hydrogen fueling stations.”

Home at Last

The end of the expedition at Long Beach, Calif., was captured on film by MTSU’s media team and produced as a documentary. The professor’s joy in successfully completing the trip makes for can’t-miss television. The documentary can be viewed at www.MTSUNews.com, or by searching the MTSU YouTube channel.

“I feel like I’ve climbed Mt. Everest,” Ricketts says in the film. “Putting a man on the moon has more ‘wow’ factor . . . but as far as helping people for hundreds or maybe thousands of years to come, I think this is planting seeds that will help [hu]mankind.”