The Aquatic Microbial Ecology Research Group at the University of Tennessee



Steven W. Wilhelm, Ph.D. (Western Ontario)

Professor of Microbiology and benevolent dictator

Professor Wilhelm is the laboratory PI and responsible for herding cats, chaos control, wine selection and middle relief.


Steven Wilhelm is the Kenneth and Blaire Mossman Professor & Associate Head of the Department of Microbiology. In 2016 he became a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology as well as a Sustaining Fellow of ASLO. In 2018 he was also named a James R. Cox Professor at the University of Tennessee.

Gary LeCleir, Ph.D. (Georgia)  

Research Assistant Professor, REU Director

Dr LeCleir came to Knoxville in 2006 after completing his PhD at the University of Georgia.  He is our in house statistical guru, field deployment leader and reigning karaoke champion.  Gary is also the in house expert on  all things Boston Red Sox and manages the oUTsiders softball team.




Jackson Gainer, B.Sc. (Tennessee) 

Doctoral Candidate, Microbiology 

Jackson started in our graduate program in January of 2012. Prior to this he worked in the lab of Dr Erik Zinser as a research associate.   For his doctoral work, Jackson has been working between the Wilhelm and Zinser labs and addressing questions on the quantitative distribution of viruses infecting Synechococcus and Prochlorococcus in the North Pacific Ocean, the environmental processes that are linked to virus production and distribution, and the development of screen assays for the rapid discovery of virus-resistant mutants. 

Samantha Rose, B.Sc. (Drury)

Doctoral Candidate, Microbiology

Sam came to UT from Drury University in the fall of 2013.  Her research is currently examining how DNA modifications in viruses shape their resilience in nature.  Her work uses Phycodnaviruses as model systems.





Robbie Martin, B.Sc. (LSU - Baton Rouge)     


Doctoral Candidate, Microbiology 


Robbie joined the lab in late 2012 and has been a virtual Jack-of-all-trades.  He has completed studies looking at the effects of microcystin on heterotrophic bacteria at the level of cell transcription as well as a detailed studied on the synergistic effects of nitrogen concentration and form with temperature in Microcystis.  Most recently he has been sequencing and annotating the genome of a new virus-host system (Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii and its lytic phage, CrV)




Lauren Krausfeldt, B.Sc. (Elmhurst)

Doctoral Candidate, Microbiology 

Lauren joined the lab in late 2012 and has worked on a series of projects examining how heterotrophic microorganisms interact with cyanobacterial blooms to promote or constrain the production of cyanotoxins.  Her early work focused on nitrogen transformations (including the importance of heterotrophic N-fixers). More recently she has been using molecular tools and large environmental metatranscriptomes to address questions concerning the biological degradation of microcystin.



Eric Gann, B.Sc. (U. Mass Amherst)

Doctoral Candidate, Microbiology 

After spending the summer of 2014 in Knoxville as a NSF-funded REU student, Eric has returned to start working on the Aureococcus anophagefferens virus-host system.  He is the team leader in the GBMF project focused on genetically transforming the host, and works in close collaboration with other groups as we are developing information on viral particle structure, protein complement and the role of the large number of auxiliary metabolic genes the virus carries.  


Maddie Denney, M.Sc. (Indiana State)

Doctoral Candidate, Program in Genome Science and Technology

Maddie joined the lab in the summer of 2016 after completing 2 rotations in our group (one on bioinformatics, a second on lipidomics).    She is working on helping to develop an understanding the the physiological plasticiy of Microcystis, trying to understand not only how environmental conditions promote biomass formation, but how conditions allow Microcystis to outcompete out members of the community. To date her work has focused on Microcystis lipidomics as well as the use of large transcriptional data sets. 

Lena Pound, M.Sc. (College of Charleston)

Doctoral Candidate, Microbiology

Lena has returned to Knoxville to begin to work on her PhD.  Lena completed her undergraduate at the University of Tennesse, where she spent nearly 5 years working as a research assistant in the Wilhelm group.   After 2 years working on marine systems and living on the coast, her new research will return her to freshwater systems to look at the virus community associated with Microcystis bloom events and the potential role of lysogeny in allowing for the maintenance of near mono-specific communities during these large blooms.

Naomi Gilbert,  B.Sc. (James Madison)       

Doctoral Candidate, Microbiology

Naomi came to teh lab in the fall of 2017 from James Madison University (and former AMERG member Morgan Steffen's lab).  Naomi's dissertation research will see her collecting samples in the southern ocean as part of a research collaboration with scientists at CSIRO (Hobart) and Bigelow.  Her focus will be to resolve virus-host interactions from transcriptional data sets as well as to characterize the interplay between bacteria and phytoplankton with respect to trace metal cycling in marine surface waters.



Abigail Jarrat

Undergraduate Assistant,  Microbiology

Abigail will be spending the summer of 2018 working between the Wilhelm and Zinser labs.  An alum of several semesters experience with the Zinser group, she will be helping Eric Gann re-encode a mariner transposable element for use in Aureococcus anophagefferens.


Vinila Baljepally

Undergraduate Assistant,  Microbiology

Vinila is a UT undergraduate whom has joined the giant virus cohort of the Wilhelm lab.  She will be working with Samantha on several algal-virus systems, trying to resolve how to introduce new DNA constructs into both the viruses and their hosts.


Ryan Johnson

REU summer undergraduate, Augusta College (Illinois)

Ryan has joined our lab for the summer as part of our NSF-funded REU site (Microbial communities and Functions). He is going to be working with Eric Gann on our Aureococcus / AaV research program, with a focus on the genetic engineering aspects of the project and getting a better quantification of transformation efficiencies.


updated 06/05/2018