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Five Austin Peay State University Graduate Students receive Research Grants from APSU College of STEM

Austin Peay State University (APSU)

Austin Peay State University - APSUClarksville, TN – The Austin Peay State University College (APSU) of STEM recently awarded $500.00-$1,000 research grants to five graduate biology students. The research projects span from studying coal mining’s effects on a local fish to examining the history of the prairies of Middle Tennessee.

Meet the five students who won the grants and learn more about their research: 

Pictured sitting from left are Erin Schwarzbach, Claire Ciafre and John Kauphusman; and standing are Cooper Breeden, left, and Austin Hannah.
Pictured sitting from left are Erin Schwarzbach, Claire Ciafre and John Kauphusman; and standing are Cooper Breeden, left, and Austin Hannah.

Claire Ciafre

  • Hometown: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
  • Research: Ciafre is comparing and describing new wetland plant communities, specifically in the eastern Highland Rim, a mostly flat strip of land running from Kentucky through Tennessee east of Murfreesboro and into Alabama. “This area used to be covered in prairie, and remnants of that can still be found in open wetlands because they were too wet to plow or build on. The wetlands I’m looking at have a lot of plants that are usually found along the coast, so it has really interesting implications for what the historic prairies of Tennessee may have looked like and how they’ll respond to climate change.” Ciafre will collect samples from 14 sites this summer and fall; she collected from 16 sites last year. The grant will pay for campground stays, which she paid herself last year.
  • Mentors: Dr. Dwayne Estes, biology professor, APSU Biology Department’s faculty and peers.
  • Quotable: “If I didn’t get this money, I probably wouldn’t have collected data this year. While I could probably finish my thesis and graduate as-is, it wouldn’t be publishable without more data. I see no point in doing research if it won’t be made available to other scientists to use and learn from, so being able to publish my work is important to me. This award is giving my research a fighting chance at having broad impacts on conservation and ecology.”

Cooper Breeden

  • Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee
  • Research: Breeden is investigating the cedar glades of the Nashville Basin, which harbors about 20 plant species that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. “Recent evidence suggests that the cedar glade system was historically more open. Instead of dense forests surrounding the glade openings, there would have been oak-hickory savannas, ecosystems with trees spaced widely enough that the canopy was not closed.” Breeden is examining tree ring growth to determine the historical structure of the forests. This is a first-of-its-kind study in the Nashville Basin. The grant will help Breeden pay for equipment to take samples from trees and trips to the study sites: Flat Rock Cedar Glades and Barrens State Natural Area.
  • Mentors: Estes, geography professor Dr. Chris Gentry, the staff of the Tennessee Division of Natural Areas.
  • Quotable: “The cedar glades are a very interesting ecosystem to visit, especially in the spring! I’d encourage any nature lovers to check them out once spring hits. There are a number of state parks and natural areas in Davidson, Wilson and Rutherford counties that have cedar glades full of unique wildflowers.” 


Austin Hannah

  • Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee
  • Research: Hannah is investigating how water conductivity (the ability of water to conduct electricity) affects the blackside dace, a threatened minnow that exists in only 125 streams in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Hannah is studying blackside dace in streams near coal mines because mining raises the conductivity of water. “We are noticing that blackside dace are absent in areas with high water conductivity, and despite mining damaging water quality in a ton of ways it has been demonstrated that they are absent because of conductivity. We don’t know why.” Most of Hannah’s work will happen this summer at Sundquist Science Center. The grant will help him buy salts for mixing water and equipment to test the water. He also needs money to keep the fish healthy and happy and to travel to collection sites. Note: Because blackside dace are federally listed as threatened, Hannah is conducting his research with a close cousin of the species.
  • Mentor: Dr. Mollie Cashner, biology professor.
  • Quotable: “My overall goal is to develop and ultimately have an influential voice in the fight for the conservation of blackside dace and similarly threatened fish in the region. I appreciate the fact that Austin Peay recognizes and appreciates the importance of protecting seemingly invisible species that tend to be overshadowed by more charismatic species.”

John Kauphusman

  • Hometown: Winona, Minnesota
  • Research: Kauphusman is investigating the community structure of semi-aquatic snakes, specifically cottonmouths, northern water snakes and plain-bellied water snakes, that live in swamps. He will collect field data this summer along the Cumberland River Bicentennial Trail in Cheatham County. “The goal of my research is to further understand these snakes’ habitat preferences to help wetland management make decisions to better maintain these important semi-aquatic snake predators’ populations within these crucial habitats.” The grant will pay for travel expenses, special clothing and equipment for evaluating the snakes.
  • Mentors: Dr. Chris Gienger, biology professor.
  • Quotable: “Austin Peay State University is an exceptional college with a strong biology department, especially regarding the Center of Excellence for Field Biology, and I am proud to be a student here. 


Erin Schwarzbach

  • Hometown: Lake Forest, Illinois.
  • Research: Schwarzbach will investigate the fright response of the southern redbelly dace, a common minnow in Tennessee. She’ll conduct both lab and field research, and in the field, she’ll expose wild fish to chondroitin to determine if the laboratory study is relevant in nature. Schwarzbach will use the grant money to buy research materials and pay travel expenses. She’ll also attend academic conferences.
  • Mentors: Cashner.
  • Quotable: “As a first-year graduate student at Austin Peay, it was an amazing surprise to receive the (College of) STEM award. I am very much looking forward to obtaining my master’s degree from this University.”

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