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NSF awards research fellowships to Clemson students

April 12, 2016 - CES students, Allison Jansto, Emily Thompson, Jennifer Wilson, Michelle Greenough, and Catherine McGough. They have won National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.

CES students, Allison Jansto, Emily Thompson, Jennifer Wilson, Michelle Greenough, and Catherine McGough. They have won National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.

Seven Clemson students have received graduate research fellowships from the National Science Foundation, and five others received honorable mention awards in the national competition. The NSF offers three-year graduate research fellowships to students in science, engineering, mathematics, technology and some social sciences. Each year, college seniors and early graduate students are invited to apply. Out of 17,000 applicants nationwide, 2,000 students won the prestigious awards.

These Clemson students received graduate research fellowships:

• Ryan Borem of Easley is a U. S. Army combat veteran and Ph.D. student in bioengineering. His research focuses on the development of a tissue engineering scaffold to assist in the repair and regeneration of intervertebral discs in people suffering from back pain.

• Michelle Greenough of Davis, Calif., is a Ph.D. student in materials science and engineering. She plans to develop a multilayer ceramic membrane to separate and then capture carbon dioxide gas. The aim of her research is to help reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

• Nora Harris of Rock Hill is a senior industrial engineering student. Her research will investigate how to encourage increased sustainability in the design process of buildings and infrastructure. She will begin a master’s program in civil engineering at Virginia Tech in the fall.

• Allison Jansto of Harmony, Pa., is a graduate student in chemical engineering. Her research focuses on investigating the relationship between the nanostructure, mechanical properties and performance of functional materials with a goal of better understanding the transport and mechanical properties of materials used in fuel cells and batteries.

• Catherine McGough of Charleston, W.Va., is a graduate student in engineering and science education. Her research goal is to identify how undergraduate engineering students’ future goals and motivations relate to how they solve problems in class. These findings will allow instructors to improve and personalize problem-solving instruction.

• Emily Thompson of Rochester, N.Y., is a senior physics major. Her research deals with particle physics. She is pursuing graduate work at the University of Bonn in Germany.

• Jennifer Wilson of Charlotte, N.C., is a senior majoring in plant and environmental science. Her research proposal focused on understanding how plants detect and respond to attack by fungal pathogens. Next year, she will begin pursuing a Ph.D. in plant pathology at Cornell University. Her future research will focus on the transmission of plant viruses by aphids.

 

Two professors receive prestigious NSF award

Sophia Wang works with a robotic arm in her lab.

Sophia Wang works with a robotic arm in her lab.

Two faculty members have received a total of $1 million in funding as part of the National Science Foundation’s highest honor for junior faculty members.

Jacob Sorber and Yue “Sophie” Wang were among the honorees in this year’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program. Each has been awarded $500,000 for research.

Sorber’s research enables low-cost, low-power sensors to gather data for long periods of time. The sensors would be powered by energy from environmental sources, such as the sun, with no need for batteries or manual recharging.

He said the sensors have the potential to transform science and society. They could, for example, be used to monitor human health, growing conditions in greenhouses or the behavior patterns of animal populations in the wild.

Wang is focusing on two distinctly human attributes — trust and regret — to develop new “control algorithms” and decision-making strategies that would help humans and robots work together to be more productive. She sees big opportunities for humans and robots to collaborate in manufacturing.

Wang also sees high potential for “human-supervised mobile sensor networks.” Robots could begin doing low-level simple and repetitive tasks while humans could be involved in high-level complex tasks, she said. While research is central to the award, winners also must be excellent teachers and have proven themselves exemplary in integrating research and education. Selection is highly competitive.

Sorber is an assistant professor in the School of Computing, and Wang is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

Rooted: A Botanist in Her World

Botanist, teacher, curator, scholar — Dixie Damrel encourages her students to experience the green world around them.

One step off the asphalt parking lot, Dixie Damrel enters another world.

It is a world of individuals, families, clans and communities. Damrel knows the names of thousands of the inhabitants, their Latin names and their familiar ones. She knows about their sex lives and their histories. And she is delighted to share what she knows.

Last semesBotanist-Dixie Damrel-02ter, I tagged along on one of the weekly field trips to the world she loves. The Whitewater River access is inside the Duke Power Bad Creek property above Lake Jocassee. The students hardly had time to stretch from the van ride before Damrel got going. “Today, we’re going to visit four communities — early successional, pine-oak heath, rocky stream bed and an original acidic cove forest,” says Damrel. “We’ve got a lot to see.”

Dixie Damrel is a botanist, teacher, curator of the Clemson University Herbarium and newly minted Fulbright Scholar. A walk in the woods with Damrel is no ramble. You have to keep up physically and intellectually.

Botany is too important not to pay attention. No matter how you like your ribeye cooked, it started out as grass. Oxygen and energy, food and fuel, the green world is the primary production engine of the planet.

“Look at this,” Damrel instructs, bending a shrub branch for inspection. “Look at the leaves. What do you see?” The students lean in. Some pull another branch closer to see. “What’s different about these leaves? Look at the top. Now look at the underside. What’s different?”

A student takes a shot: “They’re gray.”

“Yes, they’re silvery gray!” Damrel responds. “This is Elaeagnus umbellata — silverberry — a deciduous shrub with green leaves above and silvery ones below.”

The students know not to move yet. There’s more — there’s always more — and sometimes a story.

“Look at the silver side of the leaves. Feel them. What’s different?”

No one offers, and Damrel doesn’t have time to wait them out. There are about three miles to cover, and dark clouds are gathering off in the distance over the lake.

“The leaves have scales. Now look at the berries. What do you see? Feel them.”

Some of the students see where this is going. “The skin is rough, like the leaves.”

“Yes! The berries have scales, too,” says Damrel, picking one of the ripe, red, pea-size berries. “You can taste them if you want.”

Damrel doesn’t allow eating unless she has tried the fruit on the preview trip she takes to scope out an area. Later, we will come to bear huckleberry, which has edible fruit, but she had not tried it. “It scared me,” she said.

But the silverberry is ok. Damrel pops one into her mouth. “How does it taste?” Sweetly tart is the verdict.

“Birds like the fruit and so do bears, and that helps the silverberry reproduce. The birds eat the berry, and the seed is eliminated along with bird poop, which acts as a coating of fertilizer when there’s the right place to grow.”

And grow it does, says Damrel. “It’s an invasive species brought to the U.S. to use as a wind break and erosion control.”

BEYOND SEEING FORESTS AS WALLS OF GREEN

Botanist2I hear “look, look, look” over and over again, as Damrel imprints her legacy of “see for yourself and learn by looking” on her students. We stop at a sawtooth oak. It’s another invasive species, where good intentions to provide wildlife food were undone by unintentional consequences. Deer and other browsers will only eat the bitter acorns if no other food is available. No one checked with the animals.

There are quick stops at the sourwood — “it makes the best honey in the world,” Dixie declares. We admire the goldenrod flowers. “What kind of flowers are they?” Composite. Goldenrod gets a bad rap, says Damrel. It doesn’t cause hay fever because its pollen is too heavy and sticky to be windborne. Ragweed is the culprit.

Then, dog fennel sets off a story.

“Dog fennel is from the genus Eupatorium, part of the aster family. There was a king with a similar name. The king decided to eat small amounts of poison to build up tolerance to poison. He was an enemy of the Romans, and when they advanced on him, he attempted to poison himself, but it wouldn’t work. So finally he had to ask his friends to stab him, and they did.”

The king’s name was Eupator Dionysias, another name for Mithridates VI of Pontius, for whom the plant was named.

Damrel’s students listen, and I wonder what they think of all this. Is it simply a case of politely listening to a slightly eccentric elder?

“I love this class,” says Dan Blanchard, horticulture major. Every student I asked used the words “passionate” and “smart” to describe this spare, spry woman in worn jeans who wears her honey-brown hair in long braids that tangle in the cord holding her “nerd eye” — a magnifying loupe. She is the kind of teacher you remember for life and hope your kids find.

Botanist-Dixie Damrel-03Thunder cuts the field trip short. We don’t make it to the old trees, survivors of European pioneers, colonials, settlers and capitalists. We quick-step back to the parking lot. Plant identification and plant lore have filled the afternoon. Rattlesnake orchids have astonishing sex lives involving moths. Buffalo nut is a member of the sandalwood family — “You’ve smelled sandalwood incense if you’ve ever been in a head shop” (students snicker). Yellowroot lives by streams, but it keeps from being washed away and stabilizes the banks because it is anchored in place by rhizomes, and its flexible stems bend but don’t break during flooding.

Over the course of the semester, students will learn and be quizzed about the names and key characteristics of 130 plants. “If I can get them to look more closely, beyond seeing forests as walls of green and groundcovers as carpets of green, they will see the world differently and ask questions,” says Damrel.

MARKERS OF ENVIRONMENTAL AND EVOLUTIONARY CHANGE

Damrel reckons she can identify and name 2,000 plants. “But I can’t remember my phone number,” she laughs. A couple of thousand seem like a lot of plants. How many plants are there in the world?

It should be a Google-able answer. Botanists have been collecting, naming and studying plants for centuries, but all they have is a best guess.

Botanist7Their estimates range from 200,000 to 400,000, maybe more. Oddly, there are a lot more plant names than plant species. The problem is synonomy. Botanists think they have found a new species and name it, but many of these are synonyms — same plant named by someone else.

One international project has compiled the Plant List that contains 298,900 documented species, 477,601 synonyms and 263,925 still-to-be vetted names.

How do botanists figure out what they have collected? Often, it’s not enough to see a photo and read the description. Seeing the plant in person makes a difference between “looks a lot like” and certainty. But botanists cannot always travel to the corners of the world to see similar species; nor can they travel back in time if a species is extinct. Yet, there is a way for them to see beyond their range in space and time. There are herbaria.

An herbarium is a research archive of expertly dried and mounted plant specimens that identify and document a particular plant collected by botanists, students — anyone with an interest in plants — in a particular place and time. The specimens are arranged in special cabinets so that they can be removed and consulted by researchers. The largest herbaria have more-than-million-specimen collections started in the 1700s.

There are about 100,000 specimens in the Clemson herbarium housed in the Bob and Betsy Campbell Museum of Natural History. The oldest specimen dates to the 1860s and was collected by Henry William Ravenel, a South Carolina planter and botanist, who lived from 1814 to 1887.

Looking and comparing, researchers look for changes in biodiversity and plants coping with stresses. Drought and heat linked to climate change can trigger plants to adapt, giving rise to new species. Other times, plants disappear because of land-use change or from invasive plant populations crowding out the natives.

FROM DRAWERS AND SHELVES TO AN ONLINE DATABASE

Research demands are leading to new ways of looking at plants. High-definition digital images and the Internet provide extraordinary detail and accessibility for research. Clemson is part of the digitization initiative.

The herbaBotanist8rium is set to launch a four-year project to make digital images of its collection. The herbarium is included in a National Science Foundation grant that aims to build a digital inventory highlighting the Southeastern United States. Clemson’s specimen records will be part of a three-million plant dataset from 107 herbaria in 13 Southeastern states that will enable large-scale research in a region that has been a biodiversity hot spot for 100 million years, say botanists. The digital database will help researchers examine the effects of climate change, identify vulnerable species and help conserve regional biodiversity.

Clemson joins the University of South Carolina’s A.C. Moore Herbarium to coordinate digitizing plant collections statewide. Seven other colleges and universities are participating, including: Converse, Francis Marion, Furman, Newberry, Winthrop, USC Salkehatchie and USC Upstate. “I’m very proud that South Carolina has one of the largest numbers of herbaria participating of any state in the Southeast,” says Damrel.

The digitization will make collections at Clemson and at other institutions accessible via the Internet. The digitized data will eventually be publicly available through the iDigBio (Integrated Digitized Biocollections) specimen portal.

“There are specimens that have been around for 100-200 years, but they are in a drawer or on a shelf somewhere, and it’s hard to know where everything is and how to get the data you need,” iDigBio Director Larry Page said. “If it’s online, you can touch a button and find in seconds what might have taken you a lifetime to know was there.”

FIRSTHAND EXPERIENCE

The work will start this summer, after Damrel returns from a field trip halfway around the world.

Damrel is one of 1,100 U.S. faculty and professionals who will travel abroad through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program in 2014-2015. The grant enables her to work and conduct botanical research in tropical Southeast Asia. She will lecture and research at the Sarawak Biodiversity Center and the Forestry Research Institute in Malaysia throughout the spring 2015 academic year.

“Ecologically, Malaysia is a fascinating place and a real treasure house of plant biodiversity,” Damrel says. “It holds some truly ancient ecosystems and has what some say are the oldest undisturbed equatorial tropical rainforests on earth. It is also facing some serious environmental challenges as there are new economic and social pressures connected with how the land should be used.”

Damrel will be working with the Sarawak Center’s Traditional Knowledge Program. It’s a project to gather plants and preserve oral histories and folk wisdom about plants used for cooking and healing. “I will be joining ethnobotanists who visit tribal peoples living in remote parts of the Sarawak highlands. We’ll use powerboats to go upriver and visit communities to gather plants and ask the people about how they use them.”

This is not Damrel’s first trip to the region. She accompanied her husband, David Damrel, an associate professor of comparative religion at USC Upstate, during his Fulbright award to Indonesia in 2008.

“In Java I realized how important it is for Americans — and our Clemson community and campus particularly — to take on a more global perspective,” Damrel says. “Living and working overseas you get to see the dimensions of a problem — environmental degradation, for example — in ways that you cannot fully appreciate from a classroom back home. In the same way, firsthand experiences with different peoples, cultures and world-views will help you grow in unexpected ways both as a person and as a scientist.”

Looking, looking, always looking.

Click to read Damrel's blog.

Click to read Damrel’s blog.

In These Hills

International teachers learn and teach

Richard Balikoowa from Uganda was one of 16 teachers from seven different countries who studied on campus and taught in local schools from January through May. They are part of the International Leaders in Education Program, a professional exchange program funded by a subgrant from the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), which is funded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The teachers completed an on-campus academic program with some of Clemson’s School of Education faculty, and then interned with a partner teacher at Riverside Middle, Liberty Middle and Seneca High.

As part of this program, which is in its sixth year at Clemson, the teachers engage in formal and informal cultural activities in which they learn about American culture and share about their own. Teacher Fellows go through a yearlong selection process; they are nominated by their own country, approved through that country’s American embassy and local Fulbright commission, and screened through the U.S. State Department and IREX. Clemson is one of four universities selected to host the group.

Clemson team selected for Solar Decathlon

Clemson's Solar Decathlon team

Clemson’s Solar Decathlon team

The U.S. Department of Energy selected a Clemson team to compete in the Solar Decathlon 2015. Clemson is one of 20 colleges and universities across the country and around the world that will now begin the nearly two-year process of building solar-powered houses that are affordable, innovative and highly energy efficient.

“We are honored and excited to participate in the Solar Decathlon 2015,” said Akel Kahera, associate dean for Clemson’s College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities. “This competition offers our students a one-of-a-kind learning and training experience that helps students excel once they enter the clean energy industry.”

Over the coming months, the Solar Decathlon teams will design, construct and test their houses before reassembling them at the Solar Decathlon 2015 competition site in Irvine, Calif. As part of the Solar Decathlon, teams compete in 10 different contests, ranging from architecture and engineering to home appliance performance, while gaining valuable hands-on experience.

In fall 2015, the student teams will showcase their solar-powered houses at the competition site, providing free public tours of renewable energy systems and energy-efficient technologies, products and appliances that today are helping homeowners nationwide save money by saving energy. The solar-powered houses will represent a diverse range of design approaches; building technologies; target markets; and geographic locations, climates and regions, including urban, suburban and rural settings.

The Solar Decathlon helps demonstrate how energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies and design save money and energy while protecting local communities and boosting economic growth.

Clemson partners in national hub for genetics research

President Clements presents Self Regional’s Jim Pfeiffer with a bowl crafted from a cedar tree at Fort Hill, the historic home of John C. Calhoun and Thomas G. Clemson.

President Clements presents Self Regional’s Jim Pfeiffer with a bowl crafted from a cedar tree at Fort Hill, the historic home of John C.  Calhoun and Thomas G. Clemson.

In February, Clemson, the Greenwood Genetic Center and Self Regional Healthcare announced a new partnership that will establish formal collaboration among genetic researchers and Clemson faculty. Self Regional Healthcare will support Clemson’s Center for Human Genetics with a gift of $5.6 million over three years. The gift consists of an initial contribution of $2 million for the center’s facilities and a subsequent contribution of $3.6 million to support research in genetics and human diagnostics at the facility located on the Greenwood Genetic Center campus.

“Today’s announcement will create a new pipeline for genetic research,” said John Pillman, chair of the Self Regional board of trustees. “The collaboration of these three partners will ultimately connect genetic therapeutics research to patients.”

Steve Skinner, director of the Greenwood Genetic Center, said such collaborations are crucial in turning research advances into clinically available therapies for patients, not only in Greenwood and across South Carolina, but globally. “This collaboration is a major step forward for patients as we combine the resources and strengths of each institution: Self’s commitment to patient care, Clemson’s expertise in basic scientific research and our experience with genetic disorders and treatment.”
Self Regional and the Genetic Center have had an affiliation agreement since 1975 with the Genetic Center’s clinical faculty serving as the Department of Medical Genetics for Self Regional.

President Clements said the announcement brings us a step closer to moving basic discoveries in human genetics from a research environment to a clinical setting, where they can be used to diagnose and treat real human disorders. “Clemson is proud to be part of this important collaborative effort, and we’re grateful to Self Regional Healthcare for its support of our research efforts at the Greenwood Genetic Center.”

The center will address research and clinical opportunities in human diagnostics and epigenetic therapeutics advancing personalized medicine for intellectual and developmental disabilities, autism, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and disorders of the immune and nervous systems. Specific research will include molecular diagnostics and therapeutics, bioinformatics and computational/systems biology.

Self Regional Healthcare, as a research and lead health care partner, will support hospital-based clinical trials and collaborate in designated research activities. This marks Clemson’s third significant development at the Greenwood Genetic Center. In June 2013, Clemson announced it would expand its genetics programs, create an internationally competitive research and development team, and expand research capabilities at the Greenwood Genetic Center’s J.C. Self Institute through the Center for Human Genetics, a 17,000-square-foot research and education center in human genetics. And in November, Clemson established the Self Family Foundation Endowed Chair in Human Genetics, jointly funded by the Self Family Foundation and the state of South Carolina.

Ballato selected for class of ’39 award

John Ballato 2013 recipient of the Class of ’39 Award.

John Ballato 2013 recipient of the Class of ’39 Award.

With the increasing popularity of Sci-Fi movies, it’s no surprise that lasers conjure up images of futuristic adventures in outer space. But materials science and engineering professor John Ballato’s work in fiber optics isn’t happening in a galaxy far, far away — it’s all happening right here in Clemson.

The 2013 recipient of the Class of ’39 Award, Ballato is director of the Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies (COMSET). His research in glass and specialty fiber has made seemingly fictitious concepts a reality. “It sounds very Star Trek-ish, but the military has lasers deployed around the world to shoot down a variety of threats,” Ballato said, “everything from missiles to RPGs.”

Although Ballato and his team don’t make the lasers that are sent to the battlefield, they do help develop the fiber optics that go inside them. The program’s success in the field of specialty fiber has enabled Ballato to work closely with the U.S. Department of Defense Joint Technology Office, which has invested more than $10 million in COMSET over the past eight years.

Ballato moved to Clemson in 1997 and worked with other researchers to start an optics program, no easy task for junior faculty members. “Doing optical fiber research is extremely expensive,” he said. “The equipment that you need is big, complex and dangerous.”

But a confluence of events fell into the team’s favor. The dot-com boom turned into the dot-com bust in the late 1990s, leaving a glut of fiber optic cable that no one wanted. But Ballato and his team knew there was more research to be done. They quickly found an underserved sector, a “sandbox” where no one else was playing, he said. “The Department of Defense was clamoring for specialty fiber,” he said. “They couldn’t get any because it was all going to communications.”

It was a perfect fit. The research had to be done onshore for security reasons, Ballato said, and the Department of Defense was a client with deep pockets. “There was nobody else talking to them,” he said. “Everybody else had moved on http://creative.clemson.edu/clemsonworld/2014/05/hills/to other things, and we rode that wave in fiber for 10 years, through two wars and a staggering amount of investment.”

Ballato said COMSET partners with companies to pitch programs to the Department of Defense. “Clemson is actually pretty unique nationally in the sense that we go from ‘dirt to shirt,’” he said. “We model it, we design it. We study new materials. We make the glasses. We draw the fiber. We build the lasers for them at a prototypic level. That’s extremely valuable for our partners. It’s a one-stop shop for them.”

Ballato served as the interim vice president for research and associate vice president for research and economic development, where he championed Clemson’s advanced materials related research and economic development. His achievements speak volumes, but this award may be the most meaningful. Ballato was chosen by his peers to represent the highest achievement of service to the University, the student body and the larger community.

As the 2013 winner of the Class of ‘39 Award, Ballato’s name will be engraved in stone next to 24 past winners. The Class of 1939 established the Award for Excellence in 1989 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the class and to recognize and inspire faculty service above and beyond expectations.

In March, President Clements announced that Ballato would take on additional duties as the University’s vice president for economic development.

Honoring Sacrifice

Clemson’s Air Force ROTC detachment gathered in March to send Lieutenant Colonel Tom von Kaenel on a 120-day bicycle journey to Juneau, Alaska, to raise awareness of the sacrifices of service members, veterans and their families since 9-11. Kaenel is the founder of Sea2Sea, a military nonprofit that organizes bicycling events across the country, partnering with other nonprofits and local organizations. During the memorial service held that day, Clemson cadets read the names of South Carolinians who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nanoparticles, Big Ideas

Apparao (Raja) Rao

Apparao (Raja) Rao

Although these images can easily be mistaken for abstract art, they are indeed high resolution transmission electron microscope images of unique nanostructures explored by R.A. Bowen Professor of Physics Apparao (RAJA) Rao and his team at the Clemson Nanomaterials Center.

The honeycomb-like structure (in purple) with rows of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal fashion forms the basis of a graphene layer — the quantum building block for buckyballs, carbon nanotubes and graphite. Supported by a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Rao and his team have begun to chip away at reinventing energy storage by developing a cost-effective and scalable way to produce carbon nanomaterials. While energy is one of the focus areas, Rao’s team is also working on understanding the fundamental implications of nanomaterials on the physiological response.

Shown in the image (orange) is a silver nanoparticle coated with serum albumin, whose modified structure could be used to generate nanoparticles that can deliver useful drugs without being engulfed by the immune system.