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. Professor Wilhelm is 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.

Robbie Martin, Ph.D. (Tennessee)     


Postdoctoral Associate, Microbiology 


Robbie joined the lab in late 2012 and has been a virtual Jack-of-all-trades.  After completing his PhD he accepted our offer to stay on to continue to work on our toxic cyanobacterial projects.  Presently Robbie is setting up chemostat studies of Microcystis gene regulation and physiology that will feed into modeling studies by collaborators at Northeastern and the Technical University of Berlin.

Eric Gann, Ph.D. (Tennessee)

Doctoral Candidate, Microbiology 

After spending the summer of 2014 in Knoxville as a NSF-funded REU student, Eric returned to start working on the Aureococcus anophagefferens virus-host system.  He was 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.  After completing his PhD, Eric is now sticking around for a few months to help us get the genetic engineering of AaV off the ground. 

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 Tennessee, 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 the 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.

Brittany Zepernick,  B.Sc. (Bowling Green)       

Doctoral Candidate, Microbiology

Brittany joined the lab in fall 2018 as part of our harmful algal blooms team.  She will be working on our collaborations with researchers in Ohio, Michigan and NC to examine factors that drive Microcystis success and ecological outcomes in large lakes.

Liz Denison,  M.Sc. (UNC Wilmington)       

Doctoral Candidate, Microbiology

Liz joined the lab in fall 2019 after completing a MSc project looking at cetacean microbiomes.  Currently she is working with our collaborators at ORNL and Duke on a project to examine virus activity in Sphagnum bogs that are part of the DOE Project Spruce initiative. 



Gwendolyn Stark,  B.Sc. (SUNY ESF)       

Doctoral Candidate, Microbiology

Gwen came to the lab in fall 2019 with an interest in toxic cyanobacteria and fresh waters.   Presently she is working with Robbie Martin on the cold temperature phenotype in Microcystis as well as resolving strain variability that we see between different Microcystis isolates.


Shelby Whitehead

Undergraduate Assistant,  Microbiology/Journalism

Shelby is a double major, studying both biology and journalism.  She joined the lab initially in the spring of 2018.  After spending a summer at ORAU, she has returned to the lab to continue her efforts in both science journalism and the resolution of how giant viruses shape the world.

Brennan Hughes    

Undergraduate Assistant, Microbiology

Brennan joined the lab in the fall semester of 2018 and is working closely with Eric on all things Aureococcus.  Along with the characterization of our new Aa viruses, Brennan will be working with Eric to understand how nutrient availability alters virus-host interactions and viral effects.

Kelly Fox    

Undergraduate Assistant, Wildlife Fisheries Science

Kelly joined us in spring 2020 to work with Lena on the discovery of new viruses for Microcystis populations in Lake Erie.



Graduate student alumni


Eric Gann

Physiological and ecological characterization of the Aureococcus anophagefferens virus host system (Ph.D. 2020)

Samantha Coy

Tool development for model studies on the interactions between a eukaryotic algae and a giant virus (Ph.D. 2019)

Robbie M. Martin

Ecological constraints of toxic cyanobacterial blooms (Ph.D. 2018)

Lauren E. Krausfeldt

Molecular characterization of factors constraining the success and toxicity of Microcystis blooms (Ph.D. 2018)

P. Jackson Gainer

Microbial interactions in the North Pacific Ocean (Ph. D. 2018)

Joshua M. A. Stough

Prediction of host-microbe interactions from community high-throughput sequencing data (Ph.D. 2017)

Mohammad Moniruzzaman

Molecular and ecological aspects of interactions between Aureococcus anophagefferens and its giant virus (Ph.D. 2016)

Morgan Steffen 

Systems biology of Microcystis blooms (Ph.D. 2014)

Shafer Belisle 

Urea as a nutrient source for Lake Erie blooms (M.Sc. 2014)

Tiana Pimentel 

Environmental constraints on cyanomyophage in the Pacific Ocean (M.Sc. 2013)

Claire Campbell

The effects of nutrient limitation and cyanophage on heterotrophic microbial diversity (M.Sc. 2012)

Audrey Matteson

Quantification and ecological perspectives on cyanophage and aquatic viruses (Ph.D. 2011)

Matthew Saxton   

Constraints on primary production in Lake Erie (Ph.D. 2011)

Star Loar  

Seasonal Variation in Lake Erie picoplankton (M.Sc. 2009)

Janet Rowe 

Ecological aspects of viruses in marine systems (Ph.D. 2008)

Johanna Rinta-Kanto

Biogeography and genetic diversity of toxin producing cyanobacteria in a Laurentian Great Lake (PhD. 2006)

Leo Poorvin

The role of viruses in Fe cycling in the World's oceans (Ph.D. 2005)

Julie L. Higgins

Virus dynamics in high nutrient - low chlorophyll marine surface waters (M.Sc. 2005)

Cecile E. Mioni

Using a bioluminescent bacterial bioreporter to assess iron bioavailability in the ocean (Ph.D. 2004)

Melanie Eldridge

The effects of Fe on plankton in HNLC regions of the world's oceans (Ph.D. 2004)

Amanda L. Dean

The dynamics, distribution, and activity of viruses in Lake Erie (M.Sc. 2004)

Shannon Pedigo-Eftland

The effects of iron on growth and physiology of the cyanobacterium Microcystis aeruginosa (M.Sc. 2004)

Johanna Rinta-Kanto


The effects of viral size class enrichments on microbial communities in marine systems   (M.Sc. 2001)



updated 05/25/2020