Dr. Brian Alford|Principle Investigator

Dr.  Alford is an Assistant Professor of Fishery Conservation and Management in the Department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries at the University of Tennessee.  He grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi and earned his B.S. in Biological Sciences (1997) and M.S. in Environmental Biology (2005) from the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.  His Masters thesis was on the predation ecology of four sympatric darter species (Etheostoma  lynceum, E. stigmaeum, E. swaini, and Percina nigrofasciata) on benthic macroinvertebrates in south Mississippi.  In 2008, he completed his Ph.D. in Forest Resources from the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Aquaculture at Mississippi State University, emphasizing in Fisheries Management.  His dissertation addressed hierarchical relationships among ecoregion, watershed, riparian and instream habitat for sport fishes in Mississippi wadeable streams.

Brian has also spent time during his career monitoring water quality as an environmental scientist for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, and as a field technician surveying freshwater mussels in the Upper Cape Fear River Basin at North Carolina State University.  He also served as research coordinator at Mississippi State University for assessing post-Hurricane Katrina restoration of catfish (Ictaluridae) and Florida largemouth bass (Micropterus floridanus) fisheries in the Pascagoula River Basin.


From 2008-2013, Brian worked as a fisheries research biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in Baton Rouge.  His research included the study of land use and instream habitat influences on wadeable stream fish assemblages in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin (LPB), population dynamics of Spotted Bass (M. punctulatus) from LPB streams, and population and habitat characteristics of rare, stream-dwelling crayfishes in the Calcasieu River Basin (Orconectes blacki and Procambarus pentastylus).  He also generated predictive models of flood duration and magnitude in the Atchafalaya River Basin for the management of its recreational and commercial fisheries, developed optimization models to assess impacts of salinity changes on nekton assemblages in the Barataria estuary, and created environmental models that predict commercial harvest of panaeid shrimp in the Barataria and Terrebone estuaries. Brian was also responsible for developing fishery-independent monitoring programs for the agency following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as Louisiana’s new creel survey program for estimating recreational angler harvest of the state’s offshore and inshore marine fisheries. 


Since arriving at the University of Tennessee in October 2013, the UT Fisheries Lab under Dr. Alford’s direction has focused on the following research topics:

  • Mapping suitable spawning and refuge habitat with side-scan sonar and echosounding technology, describing diet preference, and estimating population dynamics for reintroduced  Lake Sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) in the Upper Tennessee River system.

  • Modeling impacts of land use and riparian forest structure on fish and benthic macroinvertebrate community structure and IBI metrics in the Nolichucky River watershed.

  • Describing abundance, habitat utilization, occupancy, and diet of the imperiled Sickle Darter (Percina williamsi).

  • Describing the distribution and habitat of mussel fauna in the Duck and Harpeth River drainages, with emphasis on federally listed species.

  • Quantifying the effect of stream habitat restoration techniques on functional lift of benthic macroinvertebrate and fish IBI metrics in the Ridge and Valley physiographic province of Tennessee.

  • Assessment of aquatic insect communities in the Southern Plains Ecoregion  of Louisiana, with emphasis on imperiled, endemic fauna of Schoolhouse Springs and Bushley Creek systems (Ouachita River system).

  • Assessing antimicrobial advantages of spawning male Mountain Madtoms (Noturus eleutherus) on egg survival.

  • Competitive effects of invasive crayfishes (Faxonius rusticus and F. juvenilis) on habitat utilization of Mountain Madtoms.

  • Development of a predictive habitat-based model for native Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) in Cherokee National Forest streams of Tennessee.

  • Assessing land use impacts on the prevalence and severity of intersex in fishes of the Upper Tennessee River drainage.

  • Surveys of mussel fauna in the Little Tennessee River and tributaries during the drawdown of Chilhowie Reservoir in 2017.

  • Developing a low-cost, sustainable pelleted fish food from local kitchen and agricultural wastes for the purpose of culturing tilapia (Oreochromis spp.) in tank aquaculture systems.

  • Reintroduction of native mussel fauna (Epioblasma auriola, Medionidus conradicus, and Pleurobema oviforme) in Citico Creek, Tennessee.


He teaches Fisheries Techniques (WFS 442) during fall semesters and Ecology and Management of Fishes (WFS 452/552) during spring semesters. In addition, Dr. Alford regularly advises undergraduate seniors for an Independent Study course (WFS 493), where students develop their own research project in conjunction with active research being conducted in his lab. He also serves as co-advisor to the UT Student Chapter of the Wildlife and Fisheries Society, and is a member of the Watershed Faculty Consortium . Dr. Alford is an active member of the American Fisheries Society and the Southeastern Fishes Council, and collaborates with several professional groups devoted to conservation of aquatic fauna, including the Pigeon River Recovery Project, Southeast Lake Sturgeon Working Group, Little Tennessee River Native Fish Conservation Area, Tennessee Rare Fishes Working Group, Tennessee Endangered Mollusk Committee, and the USDA Southern Region Aquaculture Center.


Currently, he resides in Seymour with his wife Amy. They enjoy spending time outdoors and getting lost in new places. 



Justin Wolbert | Research Associate I

Justin Wolbert is a Fisheries Research Associate with the Dept. of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries at the University of Tennessee. He serves as the Pigeon River Recovery Coordinator and is a leader in the effort to recover the river from historical pollution that devastated the native fauna. Recovery efforts include reestablishing native fishes and invertebrates to the river and monitoring their recovery. His research responsibilities also include assisting with the Lake Sturgeon Recovery Project, community outreach programs, aquaculture, various research conducted by lab members, guest lecturing undergraduate classes, utilizing aquatic insects as bioindicators of water quality, and recovering native aquatic ecosystems.


Justin is originally from Rimersburg, PA. He served in the US Air Force for 6.5 years and completed three tours in the Middle East and one in Turkey. Justin earned his A.A.S. in Criminal Justice from the Community College of the Air Force and a B.S. and M.S. in Wildlife and Fisheries Science from the University of Tennessee. His Master’s research, under Dr. Larry Wilson, focused on growth and condition of smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu) and rock bass (Ambloplites rupestris) in the Little River, TN.

As a student at UT, Justin had internships with TWRA monitoring coldwater fisheries and also worked as a taxonomic subcontractor for Aquaeter Inc. investigating aquatic insect assemblages from impacted areas in mined watersheds. He was elected twice as the Fisheries President of the Student Chapter of the American Fisheries Society and won the “Outstanding Student” award three times as an undergraduate.

He enjoys spending time with his wife and two kids, fishing, bowfishing, hunting, gardening, and driving his tractor.

Keith Garner | Research Specialist II

Originally from North Carolina (and a shameless Duke fan), Keith graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in Wildlife & Fisheries Science in December of 2010. He regularly volunteered throughout his undergrad years and was offered a full time research assistant position upon graduation. His duties are varied and include keeping boats and vehicles running, utilizing various fisheries techniques to assist graduate students, and liaising with  state and federal agencies to assist with fisheries research, especially during the annual Lake Sturgeon Round-Up.

Joyce Coombs | Research Associate III (retired)

Joyce A. Coombs is a Research Associate at the University of Tennessee's Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries. She is the coordinator for the Pigeon River Recovery Project (PRRP) where she assists Faculty and students with research projects. The PRRP re-introduces missing native aquatic species back into the Pigeon River. As coordinator, she plans and executes project field work in Tennessee and North Carolina with federal, state and local partners. She documents and analyzes data, develops presentations and authors reports and articles for publication. She's also passionate about aquatic educational programs.


Prior to the University position, Joyce was employed by Washington State Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. She also served in the U.S. Coast Guard for ten years. Joyce received a B.S. degree in Biology from James Madison University and was awarded a M.S. degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Science from the University of Tennessee.

Current Graduate Students

Kyler Hecke | Ph.D. Student

Kyler is originally from Hot Springs, AR, in the Ouachita Mtns. Region of the state. Kyler earned his B.S in Biology with a concentration in Ecology and Organismal Biology from the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. As an undergraduate he interned with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission at Andrew Hulsey Warmwater Hatchery one summer. He also worked as a research technician at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff Aquaculture and Fisheries Center during another summer, working on a project assessing the propagation of the endangered Yellowcheek Darter (Etheostoma moorei). He earned his M.S. in Aquaculture and Fisheries with a concentration in Fisheries Management and Ecology from the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff under the direction of Dr. Steve Lochmann. His thesis research was on assessing the historical and current occupancy of the imperiled Strawberry Darter (Etheostoma fragi). While finishing up his master’s, Kyler worked as a fisheries technician for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in Jonesboro, AR and helped with a project on the impacts of land-use on fish communities in the Strawberry River drainage.  

Kyler is currently a Ph.D. student with Dr. Brian Alford. His dissertation will be on modeling historical occupancy of species of conservation concern in the Clinch River watershed of Tennessee and Virginia and developing an ecological niche model for the imperiled Sickle Darter (Percina williamsi).

Grant Fisher | M.S. Student

Grant resides in Sevierville, TN, and enjoys exploring the mountains he calls home. Prior to attending the University of Tennessee, Grant earned a B.S. in Environmental Sciences from Carson-Newman University. He has also worked as a Biological Science Technician for the National Park Service in Great Smoky Mountains National Park since 2014. There, Grant conducted park wide vital signs surveys of fish and aquatic insect species, along with restoring populations of native Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). He is currently a masters student at UTK. His thesis is on determining the effect of stream restoration designs in urban environments  on functional lift of aquatic insect and fish communities.

Shawna Mitchell | M.S. Student

Shawna is from New York where she complerted her B.S. in Environmental Science at SUNY-Cobleskilll.  She is currently a full-time fish restoration biologist at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI) in Chattanooga. She began her M.S. at UT in Dr. Alford's lab in SPring 2019. Her thesis research will be an investigation of the life hostory, diet, and habitat use of the federally endagered Laurel Dace (Chrosomis saylori). Known from only six streams (now thought to be only 2 currently), the Laurel Dace is in dire straits. Shawna's research will hopefully help bring the species back from the brink of extinction.

Jessica Venable | M.S. Student

Jessica is a graduate  of UTK with a B.S. in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. She currently works for TVA in Knoxville as a science outreach coordinator. She is working towards her M.S. degree in Wildlife & Fisheries Science in the Alford lab , where hre thesis research will focus on long-term impacts of hydroeletrics dam flows on benthic macroinvertebrates and water quality dynamics in the Pigeon River.

Recent Graduate Students

Kristin Irwin | M.S. | Spring 2018 graduate

Kristin Irwin graduated from the University of Tennessee in May 2016 with a BS in Environmental Studies. She worked as a research assistant under Dr. Michael McKinney studying growth rates of freshwater mussels as well as invasive land snails. She began working as the Malacology Collections Manager at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture in 2014 under the direction of Gerry Dinkins, Curator of the Parmalee Malacology Collection.  Kristin was a Master’s student in Dr. Alford’s lab. Her research focused on freshwater mussel distributions in the tributaries to the Harpeth River main stem and tributaries, as well as Duck River tributaries, which have been understudied,

Dan Walker | Ph.D.| Fall 2017 graduate

Dan Walker is originally from Atlanta, Georgia. He received a B.S. degree in Biology with a concentration in Ecology and Environmental Biology from Appalachian State University in May 2012. As an undergraduate, he began working as a field technician and then as an Honors undergraduate research assistant in the Aquatic Conservation Research Laboratory. He conducted research as an undergraduate, describing population and feeding characteristics of an understudied population of invasive Flathead Catfish (Pylodictis olivaris) in the lower Tar River, N.C. He then received an M.S. in Wildlife and Fisheries Science with Dr. Larry Wilson at the University of Tennessee in May 2014. His thesis research investigated habitat selection and partitioning among darters in the Clinch River system. He also assisted with the Pigeon River Recovery Project as well as led the first aquaculture project at UTK to raise Lake Sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) for restoration to the Tennessee River system.


Dan 's dissertation research was centered on quantifying the availability of habitat and areas of critical importance for Lake Sturgeon in the Upper Tennessee River. He is interested in using new and emerging geospatial and statistical techniques to develop comprehensive assessments of the habitat characteristics and utilization patterns of species of conservation concern in large river systems.


Visit Dan's blog.

Todd Amacker| M.S.| Spring 2016 graduate

Todd is a lifelong student of natural history and spends his free time walking through streams, woods, and grasslands looking for small critters. He is passionate about both citizen science and science communication. As a published professional photographer, writer, and film-maker, he covers issues dealing with science, nature, and conservation. He has given a voice to the 'Meet Your Neighbours' movement that celebrates common species found all over the world. He also partnered with the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute to create iCaughtOne!, the Southeast's Lake Sturgeon Reporting System


After getting his BS in Environmental Science from the University of West Florida, he taught environmental science at a private borading school in rural South Africa for several years. Upon his return Todd worked for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as an Environmental Specialist where he worked as a member of the Ecosystem Restoration Section; there he worked with private, state, and federal entities to restore salt marshes in the central Gulf Coast. He also founded MozCause, a non-profit organization improving school facilities near Banhine National Park in Mozambique. 


Visit www.toddamacker.com to see his multimedia work.


Hayley Gotwald | M.S.| Summer 2016 graduate

Hayley recieved her B.S. in Environmental Biology from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2011.  During her time as an undergraduate she participated in several research projects.  In the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Lacey she helped with experiments examining temperature-sensitive plasticity in English plantain (Plantago lanceolata).  In Dr. Gideon Wasserberg's lab she worked with the Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) to better understand the ecology behind infectious diseases.  In Tortuguero, Costa Rica she collected data on nesting green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas).   Upon graduating she taught science to elementary school children with Mad Science of the Piedmont.


Hayley returned to school in 2013 to get a Graduate Certificate in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) through North Carolina State University.  Her Master's project at the University of Tennessee is using GIS and remote sensing to investigate how polluted runoff from agriculture affects macroinvertebrate and fish diversity in the Nolichucky river watershed. 

Chauntelle Williams | M.S.| Fall 2016 Graduate

Chauntelle grew up in the small town of Maryville, TN, where she was never too far away from the splendors of the Great Smoky Mountains. She graduated from the University of Tennessee in 2014 with a BS in EEB (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology). During her undergraduate years, she worked in Dr. Hulsey's ichthyology lab for a semester and also in Dr. Echternacht's reptile lab for a year. She is pursuing a master's degree in the Alford Lab focusing on the interruptions of the supratemporal canals of Snubnose darters (Etheostoma simoterum).

Caylor Romines | M.S.| Spring 2017 Graduate

Caylor Romines is from Morristown, TN, where he began volunteering with the US Forest Service. This lead to a Pathways Student Intern position in the Cherokee National Forest after high school. Caylor graduated from the University of Tennessee with his B.S. in Wildlife and Fisheries Management where he served three years on the Executive Board of the UT Student Chapter of the Wildlife and Fisheries Society. He is now continuing his career as a Master's Student in the Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries Department at the University of Tennessee. He is working to develop a Restoration Suitability Index for the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) by comparing current populations to the physical features of the creek and surrounding terrestrial area in order to provide guidance for future restoration efforts in the Southern Appalachians. 

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