University of Tennessee honors algal blooms expert with Cox Professorship

[USA] Steven Wilhelm, a microbiologist who is developing methods that could help scientists understand and mitigate the effects of bacteria and algal blooms in oceans and large lakes, has been named a James R. Cox Professor.

The three-year award provides Wilhelm with a stipend of $25,500 to support his research. He is the Kenneth and Blaire Mossman Professor in the Department of Microbiology.

Wilhelm’s research focuses on the molecular ecology of viruses, bacteria, and algae in bodies of water as well as within other systems. One element of his research involves understanding the environmental factors that regulate toxins from waterborne algal blooms that are contaminating water supplies globally—including blooms that are destroying marine habitat along the US Eastern Seaboard. He is also part of a team that is developing insight, based on mouse microbiome models, into ways to lessen the severity of malaria.

“Our effort has always been to try and understand how things work,” Wilhelm said. “In the case of the environment, I want to know why algal blooms occur. In the case of our viral research, I want to understand how viruses shape microbial communities. I really hope we can work to educate those who make decisions that shape policy that pertains to the environment. We never try to make those decisions for people. But we want them to be fully informed when the decisions are made.”

Wilhelm’s curiosity about aquatic biogeochemical cycles—the flow of chemical elements and compounds between living organisms and their marine environment—led to his interest in microbiology during graduate school.

“I realized that microbes control the movement of carbon and nutrients around the planet, so to understand how ecosystems work I needed to understand the microorganisms,” he said.

The native of Shakespeare (population 800) in Ontario, Canada, came to UT in 1998 because he thought UT had stellar faculty.

“It seemed to me that UT Knoxville was the best testing ground for me as an academic,” Wilhelm said.

Wilhelm has received numerous awards in recognition of his research, including induction into the American Academy of Microbiology. He also received a Research and Creative Achievement Award at this year’s Chancellor’s Honors Banquet.

Previous recipients of the Cox Professorship include Henri Grissino-Mayer, professor of geography; Suzanne Lenhart, professor of mathematics; Tricia Stuth, professor of architecture; and Paul Armsworth, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

The award is named for Knoxville native James. R. Cox, whose gifts to the university through his sister and nephew, Charlotte and Jim Musgraves, helped establish the professorships in 2002 for faculty in the arts, theater, biological and physical sciences, architecture, and forestry and wildlife studies. Recipients are chosen by a committee for their excellence in teaching, scholarship, and service.


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