Feeding the World


Postdoctoral award winner focuses on increasing yield of food crops


Rohit Kumar wants to help feed the world.

“My interest is to serve society by contributing to sustainable food security for the growing world population,” said College of Science postdoctoral fellow Rohit Kumar, who works in the laboratory of Rajandeep Sekhon, an associate professor of genetics and biochemistry.

Kumar’s overall research focuses on understanding complex traits that underlie nutritional value and stress tolerance to develop climate-resistant crop plants.

At Clemson, his research has focused on regulatory systems that govern senescence — the process of biological aging — and stalk lodging in corn, which refers to stalk breakage below the corn ear. Lodging reduces the U.S. corn crop by as much as 25 percent annually.

Sekhon said Kumar’s work could help improve yields for a wide range of annual crops, including corn, soybeans, rice and wheat. “These crops only survive for one season, and even then, their lifespan is limited,” Sekhon said. “During that lifespan, the most important thing the plants do for us is convert solar energy into chemical energy through photosynthesis, which is what basically sustains us. Our big idea is that if we can delay senescence, that can lead to the production of more chemical energy for human consumption.”

Since he came to Clemson in 2018, Kumar has authored or co-authored five peer-reviewed publications in various scholarly journals, including The Plant Cell and Plant, Cell & Environment. The Clemson University Postdoctoral Association named Kumar its 2021 Distinguished Postdoctoral Award for his efforts to understand how to extend the productive life of food crops.

In addition to his research, Kumar frequently serves as a reviewer of international journals and a judge in student-oriented competitions, including the Three-Minute Thesis program and the University’s Undergraduate Science Symposium.

“Dr. Kumar is an outstanding young scientist with a steady upward trajectory,” Sekhon said.


Providing a Place to Call Home


Habitat Homecoming build provides experience and changes lives


Matthew Grant walked on to the Habitat for Humanity build site as a management major his freshman year to fulfill service hours for a course. He had no idea he was stepping into a life change.

“I came out to a workday and loved it,” he recalled. “All we were doing was putting in vinyl flooring, but it was really cool to me to actually be doing work on an actual house that a family was going to be living in.”

As his involvement progressed, his passion for the work inspired a new career path. “I realized I could just wake up every day and do this the rest of my life,” he said. When he returned to Clemson as a sophomore, he switched his major to construction science and management. Now a senior and advocacy chair for Clemson’s 29th Habitat for Humanity Homecoming build, Grant’s enthusiasm is just as strong as it was three years ago.

Grant’s story highlights the special relationship between the project and the Nieri Family Department of Construction Science and Management. On September 30, 2021, Michael ’86 and Robyn Nieri — namesakes of the department and owners of Great Southern Homes—strengthened the relationship further with a gift of $50,000 to Pickens County Habitat for Humanity. State Farm also donated $20,000 to the Clemson chapter. These gifts made the Homecoming build possible as well as another new Habitat Home to be built in 2022.


“I love to share what we all love about construction, and beyond that, getting to use construction to serve people.”


Approximately 60 CSM majors have contributed to this year’s build, according to Addison Dicks, a senior CSM major serving as project coordinator. Five CSM majors are part of the chapter’s leadership team.

Dicks stays on top of a myriad of tasks as diverse as recruiting volunteers, acquiring in-kind donations for materials, applying for permits, arranging security and even driving 200 miles to Summerville to pick up lumber. “Balancing it all between classes and trying to manage it has been a challenge, but it’s a good challenge,” he said.

According to Endowed Professor Dennis Bausman, the hands-on work experience creates an ideal learning opportunity. “We’re preparing young men and women not necessarily to hammer nails, but also to manage the process,” Bausman said. “But you’re a better manager if you have some feeling or experience of actually having gone through it. The lessons they are learning while they are out there working and managing the effort, I think, are invaluable.”

For some students, the building process and interacting with the families for whom the homes are built have shaped their lives and future plans.

“It definitely opens your eyes to a new perspective,” Dicks said. “I’m not going to speak for everybody, but a majority of the people who are blessed enough to come to college have probably come from a good life. When we grew up, we had a great roof over our head, and it’s very easy to take that for granted.”

In Grant’s case, the Habitat builds have had a direct impact on his career choice. He plans to work in construction for a nonprofit such as Habitat for Humanity after graduation. Until then, he will continue spreading the gospel of construction science to his classmates.

“I love to share what we all love about construction, and beyond that, getting to use construction to serve people,” he said.


Clemson Rolls Out Executive Leadership Ph.D. Program

The Department of Management in the Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business is launching a three-year, AACSB-accredited Executive Leadership Ph.D. program that will allow candidates to earn their Ph.D. while working in full-time careers. Inaugural applicants participated in a research boot camp in October and will begin the program in July of 2022.


“This new offering will take a deep dive into leadership that will allow participants to pursue a research agenda in academia or significantly expand their skill set for growth in the business world.”


“This new offering will take a deep dive into leadership that will allow participants to pursue a research agenda in academia or significantly expand their skill set for growth in the business world,” said Kristin Scott, professor of management and director of the program. “Graduates will be qualified for faculty positions or be armed with advanced research techniques they can utilize in transforming organizations.”

The Executive Leadership Ph.D. program is offered in a hybrid format with virtual class meetings and three-day residencies three times per semester (nine per year) and is designed to be completed in three years over nine semesters while attending Fall, Spring and Summer terms. “Candidates will experience a small and selective cohort that will create a high-touch program,” Scott said. “In addition to lasered-in focus on leadership, the program will provide them with deep analytical skills. Clemson’s world-class management faculty will be joined by global scholars who will be guest faculty throughout the three-year program.”

Applications for the program are now being accepted. Applicants will need to have a master’s degree and successful leadership experience of preferably a decade or more.


Teaming Up to Disinfect Airplanes

Two land-grant universities in states where Boeing has a large footprint, South Carolina and Washington, have launched a partnership designed to help prepare students for aerospace careers.

Clemson and Washington State University Everett formed Cougars and Tigers Together (CATTs) as a joint initiative. Clemson students traveled to Washington in the fall and toured Boeing and other advanced manufacturing companies. The two groups, which include engineering, business, marketing and communications students, are working together to design autonomous cabin disinfection systems for airplanes. WSU Everett students will travel to Clemson this spring, and the team will present a final report to Boeing.


[Clemson and Washington State University Everett], which include engineering, business, marketing and communications students, are working together to design autonomous cabin disinfection systems for airplanes.


Boeing, which is providing financial support to each school to fund student travel and project expenses, is a large employer of Clemson and WSU Everett graduates.

“Providing students with opportunities to address real-world challenges through experiential learning is at the core of a Clemson education,” said Clemson provost Bob Jones. “The knowledge and experience these students will gain from the ability to directly interface with Boeing highlight the benefits of industry partnerships in higher education.”


180 mph, Zero Driver


Clemson students engineer first-ever high-speed autonomous Indy race car


Engineering a driverless vehicle is hard enough. Designing it to exceed 180 mph and race alongside nine identical cars safely is nearly impossible. That’s exactly what 40 Clemson students, 38 partners and an army of visionary innovators did to put on the world’s first high-speed autonomous vehicle race. Clemson’s project represents one of the most advanced self-driving challenges ever attempted and one of the first university-designed vehicles to go into commercial production.

Self-driving technology is transforming the mobility industry. Companies pour millions into R&D efforts, hire specialized engineers and log millions of road miles in the race for advanced capabilities and untapped business opportunities. Driverless motorsports push the limits, achieving unprecedented speed, synchronicity, reliability and redundancy. These “edge cases” can save lives through safer and smarter cars.

This daunting challenge demanded world-class automotive expertise, facilities and resources to pull it off in just 18 months. Now in its 14th year, Clemson’s Deep Orange program pairs automotive engineering graduate students with equipment manufacturers to develop targeted prototypes. The process starts with a carefully crafted grand challenge, followed by curating an appropriately skilled student team, defining project scope and design parameters, assembling an ecosystem of industry partners, and hitting milestones for engineering, fabrication and validation.

Students not only developed complicated autonomous systems but also engineered novel hardware and advanced propulsion packages, integrated first-ever race control procedures, and fit everything into a tightly constrained aerodynamic package.

At 180 mph, Clemson’s race car covers the length of a football field in 1.2 seconds. The sensor suite — including six cameras, four radars, three long-distance LiDARs and two high-precision GPSes — can fill a 1TB hard drive in 20 minutes. For scale, the Hubble Space Telescope generates 10TB of data per year.

In March 2021, students tested their designs during a visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In May, they unveiled their finished self-driving race car at the Indy 500. And in October, the team celebrated as 10 identical copies of their design sped around the 2.5-mile oval track.

“We say it all the time, but the ideal outcome of Deep Orange is highly capable students,” said Chris Paredis, BMW Endowed Chair in Automotive Systems Integration and Deep Orange program director. “This was an incredibly challenging project, but if our experience tells us anything, it’s that these learning experiences have a tremendous impact on their success after they leave Clemson.”


Students Win for Inexpensive Eco-friendly Tampon Applicator

Product is touted as cheaper, more comfortable and less wasteful

Inspired by their work with a nonprofit that provides menstrual products for homeless women, a Clemson student and recent graduate took home first place in this year’s Spark Challenge, sponsored by the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences. Their product, a reusable tampon applicator, is touted as cheaper and more comfortable to use than its competitors and results in less waste going to landfills.

Claudia Sisk, a senior bioengineering major, and Marissa Jansen, who graduated in May with a health science degree, won $2,500 for their product, Nature’s Gift, which is designed to include an insertion sheath and rod made of hygienic material. It would cost $25 and come in two sizes to accommodate cotton inserts with various levels of absorbency, ranging from light to ultra.

About 7 billion tampons and their applicators are thrown out every year in the United States, and Nature’s Gift would aim to help reduce waste, Sisk and Jansen said. Each device would last about two years, bringing its average monthly cost to about $1.04. The cotton inserts, sold separately, would run another $3.50 a month.

Nature’s Gift customers could expect to spend a grand total of $4.54 a month on menstrual health products, compared to the average monthly cost of $13.25, Sisk and Jansen said. The team is targeting anyone who menstruates, especially young women who are concerned about their ecological footprint.

In the annual Spark Challenge, student teams work with mentors to develop a product and then build a business plan to bring it to market. Each team selected for the competition gets $500 in seed money. Teams pitch their ideas to a panel of judges.

The idea for Nature’s Gift came out of the Homeless Period Project, a national nonprofit that provides menstrual products. Jansen was a co-founder, and Sisk was a member. Their adviser on Nature’s Gift was professor of bioengineering Sarah Harcum.

Next steps include developing a prototype and applying for a provisional patent, Jansen said. “If we can get it through that hurdle, I think we’ll have a really good shot at taking it further.”


Natural Killers: Using the Body’s Cells to Target Breast Cancer

Study lays groundwork for possible new immunotherapy for the world’s most commonly diagnosed cancer

It sounds like a plot from a Quentin Tarantino movie — something sets off natural killers and sends them on a killing spree.

But instead of characters in a movie, these natural killers are part of the human immune system, and their targets are breast cancer tumor cells. The triggers are fusion proteins developed by Clemson University researchers that link the two together.

“The idea is to use this bifunctional protein to bridge the natural killer cells and breast cancer tumor cells,” said Yanzhang (Charlie) Wei, a professor in the College of Science’s Department of Biological Sciences. “If the two cells are brought close enough together through this receptor ligand connection, the natural killer cells can release what I call killing machinery to have the tumor cells killed.”

It’s a novel approach to developing breast cancer-specific immunotherapy and could lead to new treatment options for the world’s most common cancer. About 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will develop invasive breast cancer during their lives. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in women in the U.S.

Immunotherapy harnesses the power of the body’s immune system to kill cancer cells.

“Very simply, cancer is uncontrolled cell growth. Some cells will become abnormal and have the potential to become cancer,” Wei said. “The immune system can recognize these abnormal cells and destroy them before they become cancer cells. Unfortunately for those who develop cancer, the immune system is not working very well because of gene mutations and environmental factors.”

Most breast cancer targeting therapies target one of three receptors: estrogen, progesterone or epidermal growth factor. However, up to 20 percent of breast cancers do not express these receptors. Wei and his researchers targeted prolactin receptors. Prolactin is a natural hormone in the body and plays a role in breast growth and milk production. More than 90 percent of breast cancer cells express prolactin receptors, including triple-negative breast cancer cells.

One part of the bifunctional protein is a mutated form of prolactin that still binds to the prolactin receptor but blocks signal transduction that would promote tumor growth. The other part is a protein that binds to the prolactin receptor and activates the natural killer cells.

Wei is now seeking funding for an animal model study to confirm the results. If successful, it could move to human clinical trials.

One big question is whether the bifunctional protein will bring natural killer cells to healthy cells in the body that also express prolactin receptors and kill them, too, causing severe side effects.

“It is my dream that someday we can create a group of these bifunctional proteins that could be used for other cancers by shifting the target molecule,” Wei said.


Shifting Perspectives

Work in Charleston seeks to honor cultural heritage through conservation

Conservators at Clemson’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston have been working on preserving the Civil War-era Hunley submarine for a number of years. Now, there’s another vessel to be preserved. And this one is far older.

With a new project involving a Native American dugout canoe that has been carbon dated as more than 4,000 years old, the center is hoping to shift the conversation and process of conservation by incorporating cultural groups on the front end of the project to help guide the conservation of cultural heritage items, providing those groups with direct access and authority over their cultural heritage.

When the team was asked to take on the canoe’s conservation, the first thing they did was to begin working on a way to recognize the rights of the Native American communities of South Carolina “to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions,” as defined in Article 31 of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In late May, the conservation team hosted a consultative event with eight Native American tribes in South Carolina where tribal representatives viewed the canoe and heard about options for conservation. The team then opened the floor for discussion on next steps for the 

canoe — giving the tribes full control over how this item from their cultural heritage would be cared for moving forward.

The tribal representatives agreed that conservation was of the utmost importance and approved a plan for the canoe’s conservation. Now the hands-on work with the canoe begins — the Clemson team will begin conservation treatment of the canoe, which is expected to take several years to complete.


Building Tomorrow’s Road Map, Today

The MTSA team

The Master of Transportation Safety Administration team includes Bruce Rafert, Philip Pidgeon, Kim Alexander, Ralph Elliott and Terecia Wilson

Clemson launches first-of-its-kind Master of Transportation Safety Administration

Age 18 marks a turning point in many people’s lives. Kim Alexander was no different. A stand-out athlete and point guard on the girls’ basketball team, she had recently earned a scholarship to attend a local college.

That all changed in one moment. In May of 1979, Alexander was involved in a single-vehicle, run-off-of-the-road crash in Oconee County, South Carolina. Doctors told her family she had sustained a spinal cord injury, leaving her as a C5/6 quadriplegic.

Today, Alexander serves as the founder and chair of Clemson’s Institute for Global Road Safety and Security and directs the first-of-its-kind Master of Transportation Safety Administration. The work of Alexander and her colleagues not only impacts the lives of their students, but it also makes a difference for motorists everywhere, delivering safer roads and more secure transportation systems nationwide.

Alexander’s journey to this point was not a straight one — hospitals and rehabilitation centers helped her learn to navigate the world in a wheelchair and consider her future. She began sharing her story with teenagers in high schools and at conferences, focusing on making wise decisions, living safe lives and overcoming obstacles. Questioning how she could make a lasting difference, she followed her brother, Steve Alexander ’79, to Clemson, where she earned a B.S. in marketing, M.Ed. in guidance and counseling, and Ed.D. in curriculum development, risk perception and educational leadership. In 1990, she was hired as a program information coordinator in the Department of 4-H and Youth Development. This six-month grant led to others and a position as an Extension associate and director in 1993.

“I wanted to do something very creative in education and something that, regardless of my physical condition, I could sit around the table with others, and we could do it together,” said Alexander.

Professional development in transportation safety has long been an issue, and this program is unique in addressing that need.

More than 40 years after her crash, Alexander is clinical associate professor, founder and chair of Clemson’s Institute for Global Road Safety and Security. She has resumed her point-guard role as director of the first-of-its-kind MTSA degree program, which launched in 2019 and graduated its first cohort in August.

Developed in coordination with a technical advisory committee of prominent national leaders in the field of road safety, and offered exclusively online, MTSA is a two-year, 30-credit hour, non-thesis interdisciplinary program that addresses the need for a road safety workforce capable of deploying evidence-based strategies and best practices supported by ongoing research. With the rise of autonomous vehicles and connected infrastructure, the world of road safety is even more crucial. The goal is to build safer communities, which will reduce vehicle crashes and ultimately save lives.

“The significance of the MTSA program cannot be understated,” said Elizabeth Baker, regional administrator emeritus of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Professional development in transportation safety has long been an issue, and this program is unique in addressing that need.”

With specific expertise in a variety of disciplines and professional backgrounds, MTSA students include members of law enforcement, emergency management, education, planning and design, public health, injury prevention, communications, marketing, public policy, driver and vehicle services, transportation finance, and grants administration. Jennifer Homendy, recently confirmed as chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, is in the MTSA program.

“Sitting in this wheelchair has given me a different vision than I probably would have had if I had been on my feet,” said Alexander. “It’s given me a clear perspective that life is fragile and that bringing together people who have the same passion and commitment to saving lives can create something that will leave a lasting impact. I truly believe this program will result in a much safer world.”


A New Generation of Army Vehicles

Automotive autonomy technology is changing economies and global industries — and is also a driving force behind military modernization. Bringing these self-driving vehicles to life on- and off-road requires new concepts to be tested quickly, efficiently and cost effectively — all of which happen through virtual prototyping. This key enabler for autonomy is the focus behind a new $18 million center housed at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research and a research partnership with the U.S. Army Ground Vehicle Systems Center.
As founding director of the Virtual Prototyping of Ground Systems Center, Zoran Filipi will lead more than 65 Clemson faculty across seven engineering departments on the multiyear research partnership to develop virtual prototyping tools supporting the rapid transformation of U.S. Army fleets. The research will be focused on autonomy-enabled ground vehicles, including digital engineering, next-generation propulsion and energy systems, and manned and unmanned teaming in unknown off-road environments. Research activities will also take place on Clemson’s main campus and will include learning opportunities for students at all levels.
As the research develops, the team will build a physical mock-up of an optionally manned, noncombat, off-road ground vehicle. In the project’s final phase, discoveries and breakthrough innovations from the center will be fabricated and tested via Deep Orange, the University’s long-running educational prototyping program. The Deep Orange program takes automotive engineering students through a two-year product development process that culminates in a fully functional concept. The program encourages learning by doing, transdisciplinary teamwork, leadership and project management skills to best prepare students for the workforce. Deep Orange has been sponsored by industry leaders such as AVX, BMW, ExxonMobil, EY, Ford, GM, Honda R&D Americas, Mazda, MINI and Toyota.
The Virtual Prototyping of Ground Systems Center is designed to accelerate the development and validation of high impact technologies, acting as a catalyst for economic growth. Driven by fundamental research, the center supports South Carolina’s economic development efforts, industry innovation priorities and the development of a highly skilled workforce.
“This type of work is the driving force behind why South Carolina invested in our idea for the CU-ICAR campus,” said Clemson President Jim Clements, “and we are grateful for the legislature’s continued support and the hard work of Rep. Clyburn and Sen. Graham to bring this project to life. It will pave the way for opportunities for our faculty, our students and our state.”