Scientific research is a collaborative endeavor, but physical distance between research groups can hamper collaborations. To overcome this barrier and to promote the exchange of ideas, BCMB faculty have taken the initiative to help form the Tennessee Plant Research Center (PRC) and the Biomembranes Community of Scholars (BCoS). Both bring together scientists from across UT and ORNL with similar research interests.
The Tennessee PRC brings together “green” scientists from across the UT and ORNL. UT, as the land-grant institution of Tennessee, is home to more than 60 research groups that investigate all aspects of plant life (and other photosynthetic organisms) from fundamental questions of how plants grow and develop in basic biology labs to highly applied research on farm fields. These researchers are scattered over many departments in several colleges that span two separate campuses, hampering the free flow of information and the opportunity to form fruitful collaborations.
In 2009, our own Andreas Nebenführ (professor in BCMB) together with Neal Stewart of the plant sciences department at the UT Institute of Agriculture set out to overcome this balkanization by bringing all plant researchers together under the umbrella of the Tennessee PRC. With start-up funding from the Office of Research, the Tennessee PRC holds monthly colloquia that introduce our students to the latest plant research on campus. These colloquia also regularly host high-caliber outside speakers that give our students the opportunity to rub shoulders and network with leaders in the field.
The focus on students is also evident in other activities of the center such as travel grants to support participation in national and international meetings as far away as South Africa and New Zealand. In addition, graduate students and postdocs are able to compete for research grants that provides them with funds to pursue their own ideas, independent of their advisor. In the past, these highly coveted grants led to complete reversals in the direction of dissertation projects as well as in the generation of crucial preliminary data for large external grants. The PRC has also led to fruitful collaborations between researcher groups leading to the publishing of research articles and submission of grants to federal funding agencies. The PRC is currently jointly funded by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Herbert College of Agriculture and proudly serves as a successful role model for the ongoing merger of UT Knoxville and UT Institute of Agriculture.
UT is also home to a large group of scientists who work in the broad topic of cellular membranes. This interest is not surprising, since cellular membranes are fascinating structures of the utmost importance. Barry Bruce (professor in BCMB) recognized UT’s strengths in biomembrane research, and started networking to create a structure that could create synergies between researchers across the UT and at ORNL and be a forum for scientific collaboration. In 2018, Todd Reynolds (professor of microbiology) formalized this group by filing an application with the UT Office of Research and Engagement to form the Biomembranes Community of Scholars (BCoS).
The BCoS is comprised of approximately 30 researchers spanning seven departments in four colleges, plus several ORNL researchers. BCoS meets three times per semester for graduate student presentations. This is an excellent forum for receiving feedback from an interdisciplinary audience of membrane experts and there is probably no better way of getting scientific suggestions about research that is in progress. The first BCoS annual symposium in November of 2020 was organized by Todd Reynolds and Fran Barrera (professor in BCMB) and included plenary talks by Miriam Greenberg (Wayne State University) and Scott Hansen (Scripps Research Institute), and a popular poster competition.
In the short time since BCoS was formed, it has had a big impact. In particular, it served as the kernel that resulted in the recent award from the NIH Integrated Membrane Program (IMP) of a T32 graduate training grant. The NIH study section valued highly the strength of an active BCoS in awarding this important grant. T32 training grants have been conspicuously lacking from UT for nearly two decades, so this award is certainly a happy and overdue development that will contribute to interdisciplinary graduate education at UT. First year students from different departments will be competitively evaluated for acceptance in the IMP cohort by a steering committee of seven members. IMP trainees will receive funding, training and support typically for a two-year period. You can learn more about the BCoS activities at cos.utk.edu/biomembranes.