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Clemson scientist sending research on cotton genome into outer space

A Clemson University scientist is sending his research on the cotton genome into outer space after being selected as a winner in the Cotton Sustainability Challenge.

Christopher Saski, associate professor in the plant and environmental sciences department, is the principal investigator on a project that seeks to explore the cotton genome and how it reacts in microgravity and normal gravity.

“We are using a systems genomics approach in a very unique environment to fully understand the developmental programs and molecular mechanisms that orchestrate the regeneration of plant cells into whole plants,” Saski said. “This new understanding has the potential to unlock plant genomes to biotechnology and subsequently transform agriculture.”

The Cotton Sustainability Challenge, run by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and sponsored by Target Corp., provided researchers and innovators the opportunity to propose solutions to improve crop production on Earth by sending their concepts to the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory.

CASIS announced Monday the selection of three projects as winners of the challenge, which sought potential solutions to benefit cotton production by improving water sustainability. Through the collaboration, CASIS and NASA will facilitate hardware implementation and in-orbit access to the ISS National Lab, while Target will provide grant funding for selected proposals.

Saski’s project proposes to examine gene expression, DNA methylation patterns and genome sequences of embryogenic callus material that respond differently to regeneration in tissue culture during the process of regeneration under micro- and normal gravity environments.

This innovative approach could have the potential to unlock the phenomenon of genetic recalcitrance (resistance) to regeneration, advancing fundamental biological knowledge and can have translational impacts to other plant species that are critical to global agricultural sustainability.

“Dr. Saski’s proposal is such a novel idea and epitomizes the goal of our department’s research, which is translational, problem-solving science to advance crop agriculture in South Carolina and beyond,” said Paula Agudelo, interim associate dean of research and graduate studies for Clemson’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences.

Saski’s transdisciplinary team of investigators includes Li Wen, a scientist from Changsha University of Science and Technology in China and a visiting scholar at Clemson University; Shuangxia Jin, a renowned cotton scientist at Huazhong Agricultural University, also in China; and Jeremy Schmutz, a faculty investigator at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.

“Space science provides unprecedented opportunities for the study of molecular biology where we can investigate the molecular mechanisms of life development and growth regulation from a unique perspective aboard the ISS,” Jin said.

On the space station, a variety of physical and biological phenomena can be tested in ways not possible on Earth.

“Microgravity is a unique trigger that alters epigenetics and gene expression and will have a profound influence on understanding the genetic programs of plant regeneration,” Wen said.

HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, located in Huntsville, Alabama, is a nonprofit institute dedicated to developing and applying scientific advances to health, agriculture, learning and commercialization.

“We will apply our experience to produce a novel reference genome of cotton and apply genomic tools to compare gene expression changes between space and earth plants, along with epigenetics, which are subtle accumulated changes to the functioning of DNA,” Schmutz said.

The research aims at solving a quandary that affects everyone: No tractable solution is in place to satisfy the growing demand for fuel, food, and fiber as the global population continues to expand. Better understanding gene function and the use of genome engineering technology has the potential to change the lives of everyone and everything on the planet.

“Dr. Saski’s work on plant transformation in zero gravity has significant implications for crop improvement; this is a very exciting opportunity,” said Tim Boosinger, interim dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences.

In 2005, Congress designated the U.S. portion of the International Space Station as the nation’s newest national laboratory to maximize its use for improving life on Earth, promoting collaboration among diverse users and advancing STEM education. The unique laboratory environment is available for use by other U.S. government agencies and by academic and private institutions, providing access to the permanent microgravity setting, vantage point in low Earth orbit and varied environments of space.

The challenge provided researchers a novel way to leverage microgravity to evaluate avenues for more sustainable cotton production. Cotton is a natural plant fiber produced in many countries and one of the most important raw materials required for the production of textiles and clothing.

Cotton cultivation requires sustainable access to natural resources like water that are increasingly threatened. This challenge sought to engage the creative power of the research community to leverage the ISS National Lab to innovate and generate ideas that will improve the utilization of natural resources for sustainable cotton production.

CASIS is the nonprofit organization selected to manage the ISS National Laboratory with a focus on enabling a new era of space research to improve life on Earth. In this innovative role, CASIS promotes and brokers a diverse range of research in life sciences, physical sciences, remote sensing, technology development and education.

“Bringing awareness to cotton sustainability is a powerful opportunity to showcase the unique research facets of the International Space Station,” CASIS director of commercial innovation and strategic partnerships Cynthia Bouthot said in a news release announcing the winners Monday. “We look forward to working alongside Target and our selected researchers as they prepare to send innovative research to our orbiting laboratory.”

Clemson students explore mitigating impact of baby boomer leaving the workforce

Six Clemson University marketing students  presented the findings of their undergraduate research project on passing institutional knowledge from baby boomers to younger workers at Siemens’ headquarters in Atlanta.

What happens to a company if it abruptly loses a significant percentage of its most experienced employees? This is the conundrum companies across the U.S. are facing as baby boomers — the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 — approach the end of their working lives. Siemens, one of the world’s largest manufacturing and electronics companies, and its energy management division has turned to a group of Clemson students to mitigate the impact by researching ways to pass invaluable institutional knowledge from outgoing baby boomers to incoming Millennials.

Kevin Yates, leader of the energy management division for Siemens in the U.S. and Canada and a 1994 Clemson graduate, identified the problem when he took a step back and realized a good portion of his most seasoned employees will soon retire, and there was no plan in place to address their absence.

He knew just the place to go for help.

“At Siemens we value our strategic university partners, and Clemson is certainly one of those. Once I became aware of the Watt Family Innovation Center and the creative inquiry program, I felt it was a natural fit to engage their students and  faculty to help us solve a real-world challenge,” said Yates. “A year ago, our business and human resources partners knew that we had a problem to address and, though we were working on it internally, we recognized the value of getting outside expertise to most effectively transition this knowledge. I knew it was a perfect opportunity to get a cross-functional team in academics to work with us.”

Siemens made a donation to the university to fund the project, and assistant marketing professor Anastasia Thyroff and associate marketing professor Jennifer Siemens (no relation to the company) were tapped to create a creative inquiry undergraduate research project to find solutions.

“This is a huge problem, and Siemens is incredibly invested in figuring it out,” said Thyroff. “Kevin is innovative — he’s on top of this, which shows great foresight because the whole country is going to go through this.”

According to a study by Pew Research Center, which broke down population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau in April 2016, there are now 74.9 million living Baby Boomers, who were defined as anyone age 51 to 69 years in 2015. That balances almost exactly with the 75.4 million living Millennials — the generation including anyone who was age 18 to 34 years in 2015 – who will step into the open positions left behind as Baby Boomers begin to retire en masse.

Thyroff and Siemens engaged six marketing students for the project and spent the first half of the semester teaching them methods for marketing research. The group practiced interviewing, running focus groups, ethnography (the study of living experiences) and coding.

At the end of the first semester, Siemens offered  summer internships to seniors Tanner Parsons and Helen McDowell, students in the project.

“They treated their internships as ethnography, so through the process of learning about what it takes to be an intern at Siemens, they were helping us with our study,” said Thyroff.

The two internships offered a valuable glimpse at two very different company locations, said Thyroff. McDowell was in Siemens’ marketing department headquarters in Atlanta, which provided a prime opportunity to collect broad data about the company. Parsons spent the summer at a Siemens’ branch office in Tampa, Fla., working with a tight-knit group of seasoned sales engineers. He was able to observe the organic relationships that develop in the smaller pockets of a large corporation that are often the glue that holds a company together.

Meanwhile, the team interviewed 41 Siemens employees, each with either less than five years or more than 10 years of experience with the company, individually and in focus groups. They combined the transcripts with the data collected by Parsons and McDowell during their internships.

“One unique aspect of this project is that it forces students to be accountable to another entity, not just their professor,” said Siemens. “Knowing that they are coming up with strategies that a company might actually implement is immensely rewarding to students, and also to us as teachers and mentors.”

The students’ research revolved around three questions:

  • What is the most effective way to transfer knowledge between a seasoned employee to someone with little industry knowledge?
  • How do you implement this transfer of knowledge across all aspects of a business?
  • What is the role of technology in this knowledge transition?

The result was a 600-page interview transcript that they then meticulously sifted through, focusing on key words and themes, to find actionable items to present to Yates and his colleagues.

They took their findings to Siemens’ energy management headquarters in Atlanta to present them to a group of about 20 high-level managers.

Despite some nervous jitters, the students thought the presentation went smoothly, thanks to many late nights and grueling rehearsals leading up to the big day. Afterward, the managers kept the students for another hour for a question-and-answer session, peppering them with inquiries and follow-up suggestions as they would for any of their business peers. The students conducted themselves as professionals and had no trouble fielding every question.

The result of the students’ work was a list of actionable items, some of which could be implemented immediately, to help the company keep its momentum as it loses its most tenured employees.

One recommendation was for Siemens management to encourage new hires and seasoned employees to socialize. On-the-clock social gatherings ensure higher attendance than after-hour gatherings and encourage more meaningful relationships – a point that might seem obvious on the surface but has much deeper meaning in the context of knowledge transfer.

Other recommendations included treating interns as full-time employees, which encourages investment in the company, and getting rid of the many work-space cubicles  for a more open office environment.

All of these changes, the research suggested, would facilitate more organic mentorships, leading to mentors passing on the kind of knowledge to their younger counterparts that can’t always be typed up and handed over.

“There are a number of aspects to this,” said Cris Higgins, head of human resources  for Siemens energy management, mobility, and building technology divisions. “It’s not as much about practical knowledge, but more of the tribal knowledge that these senior employees have from being here from 10 to even 40-plus years. I myself have over 20 years’ experience and trying to pass that knowledge on to another HR person is not accomplished with a one-time meeting. Not only do you have to transfer knowledge, you have to transfer your networking, your relationships, and your ‘know-how’ of getting things done.”

The caliber of research was so good that it was easy to forget it was done by undergraduate students and not a marketing research firm, said Thyroff.

“We have to keep reminding ourselves that this is a student project,” she said. “The students took incredible ownership. They worked hard and did such a good job that it’s hard to believe they aren’t marketing research experts. They’re learning as they go, and they are doing a phenomenal job.”

Yates agreed with Thyroff’s assessment.

“They absolutely delivered and hit the mark,” he said. “The value they created, given their limited experience, was outstanding. The research they have provided has been very insightful. There were several ‘a-ha’ moments from our staff during the presentation.”

The findings of the study thus far have been very valuable, yet it’s a three-year project. In 2018 Thyroff and Siemens will assemble the next team of students to build upon the findings of the first group and turn up further revelations that will aid companies across the U.S. and the world.

“How this program works and what we get out of can be a model to closely look at across the rest of Siemens throughout the U.S.,” said Yates. “I look forward to continuing to work with Clemson for the next two years to learn even more.”

Research helps identify fake news

Marten Risius, Clemson University

Marten Risius is an assistant management professor who has done interesting research on how to tell the difference between fake news from real news on social media channels.

If you’re having difficulty discerning real from fake news on social media, you aren’t alone. Surveys suggest it’s a struggle for 75 percent of American adults.

Research by Christian Janze, a Ph.D. student from Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, and Marten Risius, an associate professor of management at Clemson, may be of help. “A lot has been written and said about fake news since the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign,” Risius said. “Our explorative study investigates how to automatically identify fake news using information immediately apparent on social media platforms.”

The study examined more than 2,000 news article posts on Facebook from left, right and mainstream media outlets during the 2016 election campaign, as well as responses from the user community. Articles were fact-checked to determine fake from real. Researchers then used 230 samples of fake news and 230 of real news and applied variables to predict those that were fake, with an 80 percent success rate. They then trained the algorithm so it could correctly detect 90 percent of the 230 fake stories.

Risius said the word count, or using all caps, exclamation marks or question marks in a post, are strong predictors of a story being fake. A person being quoted is a pretty good indicator the story is real, while if a story is shared more often with strong emotional responses, the likelihood of it being fake increases.

According to Risius, the process they used to determine authenticity is fairly simple, and he wonders why a social media outlet with a multitude of data capabilities wouldn’t flag stories they know to be fake for their users.

“Though they have many resources to determine what is real and isn’t, they may be more inclined to prefer the community engagement and public attention rather than solve an issue over what is real or fake news on their platforms,” he said.

Travelers Rest

By Keith Lee Morris

A chilling fable about a family marooned in a snowbound town whose grievous history intrudes on the dreamlike present.

The Addisons-Julia and Tonio, ten-year-old Dewey, and derelict Uncle Robbie-are driving home, cross-country, after collecting Robbie from yet another trip to rehab. When a terrifying blizzard strikes outside the town of Good Night, Idaho, they seek refuge in the town at the Travelers Rest, a formerly opulent but now crumbling and eerie hotel where the physical laws of the universe are bent.