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New video series puts discussion ‘On the Table’ and in your pocket

Clemson has launched a new video series that puts experts on your screen when and where you want them. “On the Table,” a public policy series from ClemsonTV, tackles such tough subjects as concussions in sports, the role of technology in our lives and health screening disparities, providing in-depth discussion from leading researchers and scholars who are members of the Clemson faculty.

“We wanted to put topics on the table, figuratively and literally, with something very visual to represent the topic,” says ClemsonTV director Jacob Barker. “The web is flooded with how-to videos, but there is very little to offer in the way of substantive discussion. We wanted to combine expert information with the flexibility of on-demand viewing.”

Each episode is hosted by Peter Kent, a career journalist and former science writer at Clemson. The first three episodes are available now, with several more in production.

In episode one, “Protecting Against Concussions,” Greg Batt, an assistant professor in food, nutrition and packaging, and John DesJardins, an associate professor in bioengineering, explain their work with the national Head Health Initiative on three challenges: finding better tools for doctors to detect brain injury; creating new ways to monitor head impacts as they happen; and developing improved, energy-absorbing and energy-reducing materials.

The second episode, “To Trust or Not To Trust,” features Richard Pak, an associate professor in psychology and his research on the relationship between humans and the technology that makes hundreds of hidden decisions in our lives every day. The outcomes can be beneficial, such as self-driving cars that improve highway safety and driving efficiency. Sometimes, however, they can be detrimental. Are we trusting technology enough or too much?

In episode three, “Witness Breast Cancer Awareness,” Rachel Mayo, a professor in public health sciences, talks about the power of a personal experience that led her to launch the South Carolina Witness Project, part of the National Witness Project. The effort, a network of survivors and community-based organizations, aims to eliminate the disparity of breast and cervical cancer diagnoses and deaths: Black women are more likely to have mammograms, but much more likely to die of breast cancer. Mayo’s research shows that how information is presented makes a difference.

Yet another episode looks at Wade Foster.

Wade Foster was 13 when he helped to build a university he could never attend. His children could never attend. His grandchildren could never attend. Foster was a criminal; a black boy caught stealing six dollars worth of clothes from a white family. Sentenced to six months in prison, South Carolina gave Foster to Clemson University to serve his sentence as convict labor. South Carolina called convict labor “slaves of the state.”

Rhondda Thomas, associate professor of African American Literature at Clemson, sheds light on the slaves who labored to build the institution and why it’s necessary to paint the full picture of a school’s history.

Thomas joined the university in 2007 and teaches African American literature in the English department. She is the author of “Exodus: A Cultural History of Afro-Atlantic Identity, 1774-1903 and the editor of Jane Edna Hunter’s autobiography, “A Nickel and a Prayer.” In 2013, she co-edited “The South Carolina Roots of African American Thought” with Clemson professor of English Susanna Ashton.

Last year she received a grant for her research about African Americans who lived and labored on Clemson land during the pre-1963 integration period. James E. Bostic Jr. and Edith H. Bostic of Atlanta awarded Thomas $50,000. That gift was matched by the university, bringing the total grant to $100,000.

New urine test could reduce need for blood samples

Marissa Pierson, a master's student, closes the lid on a centrifuge while workinh gin a Clemson lab with Professor Ken Marcus.

Marissa Pierson, a master’s student, closes the lid on a centrifuge while workinh gin a Clemson lab with Professor Ken Marcus.

If you’ve been to the doctor, you probably know what to do when you’re handed a plastic cup and shown to the bathroom.

Most patients hand over the sample and give little thought to what happens when it’s shipped to the lab for analysis. Chemistry professor Ken Marcus and his students are the exceptions. They have developed a new testing method that they believe will reduce costs, get faster results and lower the volume of urine needed for a sample.

It’s great news for patients who get the willies when the nurse pulls out the needle to draw blood. The method Marcus and his students have developed could help make it possible to use urine instead of blood to test for more diseases such as early-stage coronary heart disease or sleeping sickness.

The trouble with testing urine is that it’s awash in salt, Marcus said. It can be tricky to isolate the proteins that act as biomarkers, the clues that tell whether the patient is sick or has ingested a drug.

The magic ingredient in the group’s research looks like kite string, but it’s no ordinary twine. It’s made of capillary-channeled polymer fibers.

As part of a study, Marcus and his students packed the fibers into plastic tubes and then passed urine samples through the tubes by spinning them in a centrifuge for 30 seconds. Then the researchers ran de-ionized water through the tubes for a minute to wash off salt and other contaminants.

Proteins are hydrophobic, so they remained stuck to the fibers. Researchers extracted the proteins by running a solvent through the tubes in the centrifuge for 30 seconds. When it was all done, researchers were left with purified proteins that could be stored in a plastic vial and refrigerated until time for testing. The team was able to extract 12 samples in about five minutes, limited only by centrifuge capacity.

In urine tests commonly used now, polymer beads extract the proteins. “The difference is that ours is smaller, faster and cheaper,” Marcus said.

The team’s work was recently published by the journal Proteomics — Clinical Applications.

The research has been about a decade in the making with various students working on it over the years. Marcus said that he has graduated 33 Ph.D. students with more than half going on to work for national labs. Others work in industry and for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still others in his lab are focused on the development of analytical methods for post-detonation nuclear forensics.

For Marcus, the most important thing is to create a research environment that produces well-prepared graduates. “My pride is putting those people out and seeing them get really good jobs,” Marcus said.

Bradleys invest in imagination and inquiry

Forever-BradleyEach year, more than 4,000 Clemson undergraduate students enjoy exercising their imaginations through a unique, faculty-led research program because of Phil and Mary Bradley’s generosity.

Phil’s father, William F. Bradley, was a veteran student at Clemson College in the late 1930s and finished his degree in 1952 after a long leave of absence. Throughout his childhood, Phil had his heart set on Clemson and much to his satisfaction, enrolled here after high school. After his sophomore year, Phil married his high school sweetheart, Mary, and before he graduated in 1965, they had begun their own family with daughter, Renee.

Clemson’s hills are full of memories for the Charleston natives, and today they enjoy giving back to the place that gave so much to them.

It began in 2005 when Phil and Mary met with former provost Dori Helms to learn more about her vision for a new undergraduate research program called Creative Inquiry. The Bradleys also were introduced to a few of Helms’ students and took note of what they were accomplishing in their studies. To say they were impressed would be an understatement.

“Some students were starting businesses and even had patents and copyrights. It was a real eye-opener for me,” Phil said.

The Bradleys stepped up and assisted with funding the program through annual support for five years. “I really wanted to help a program that needed financial support, and there’s been unbelievable growth,” he said. The program’s growth as well as the Bradley’s continued appreciation for the students led them to provide the first major gift for the Creative Inquiry Enhancement Fund.

However, it wasn’t just the students who made an impact on the Bradleys. They also took note of how passionate the faculty members were about the students’ success and felt these mentors deserved recognition. This inspired the Bradleys to establish the Phil and Mary Bradley Award for Mentoring in Creative Inquiry — a generous award presented to a faculty member in recognition of outstanding work with undergraduate students.

Clemson traditions were engrained in the Bradley’s children, Philip and Renee, at a very young age. They are now proud alumni and have passed on their love for Clemson to their very own families. The family’s shared love for Clemson encouraged Phil and Mary to become more involved on campus. Phil was elected to the Board of Visitors in 2006 and is also a proud member of the Clemson Foundation. “This gave me the opportunity to see the needs of Clemson University and how we go about meeting those needs. It’s gotten me more involved in not just the support of athletics but what’s happening on campus and how we can further those goals,” he said.

The Bradleys are a “One Clemson” family, supporting both athletics and academics, and believe that seeing the outcomes has made a big difference in their lives. Phil and Mary often talk to one another about their relationship with Clemson and always agree that it is money well spent. “There is nothing like the satisfaction of knowing that you have made a difference in the life of a Clemson student,” Phil said.

When Phil is presented with the opportunity to talk to someone about investing in Clemson, he always says, “Do not hesitate. Do not wait. It doesn’t matter how small. I use the philosophy that if you’re a Clemson alum, you learned, you earned and now you need to return. You need to return and give something back to Clemson. I think Creative Inquiry is a great program you can start with.”

“There is nothing like the satisfaction of knowing that you have made a difference in the life of a Clemson student.”

Q&A: Catherine Mobley

CW: What do you enjoy most about your job? Or what’s the most satisfying thing about your job?

Mobley: There’s so much that I enjoy about my career, but perhaps my favorite part is that I am constantly learning something new. No day is ever the same as I am continually challenged to apply sociology in new ways in a diversity of contexts – in the classroom, in my research, both within the field and across other fields in my interdisciplinary research. I especially enjoy engaging in interdisciplinary research and teaching. While I have engaged in independent research, I have had the opportunity to engage in empirical research with colleagues from other discipline across campuss. According to Ernest Boyer’s definition of the “scholarship of integration,” interdisciplinary research consists of making connections across disciplines in order to advance understanding of complex scientific questions and social issues. Indeed, the “lone ranger” concept is rarely effective for investigating the issues that are central to my research efforts. Funding agencies are increasingly recognizing the value of interdisciplinary research and teaching. These efforts also support the recent call on the part of my college and university to increase interdisciplinary research. These research collaborations are beneficial and interesting to me both personally and professionally. I enjoy working with my colleagues to develop and implement creative approaches to challenges that would not otherwise emerge if I was working in isolation. Indeed, I am finding that the most innovative research often emerges at the interface of disciplines. Across campus, I think I am known to be a reliable collaborator who makes substantial contributions to projects and adds value to research teams through my expertise in sociological theory and methods. Together, we have applied for multiple research grants and co-authored research presentations and manuscripts. I have truly enjoyed these experiences!

CW: How do you balance teaching and research?

Mobley: I view both as inevitably intertwined with one another. For example, as I work on my research I am always seeking opportunities to enrich my teaching. And, students often raise questions in the classroom that inspire my research.

CW: Give me a brief description of your research. What piqued your interest in that area (s)?

Mobley: At the current time, my two main areas of research are in the area of environmental sustainability and engineering education. The two topics often overlap with one another, depending on the particular research effort. I have long been personally interested in environmental issues and feel lucky to be able to pursue my personal interests through the lens of the sociological perspective. I’ve been able to explore a vast variety of topics related to environmental sustainability, including human behavior as it pertains to water quality and water quantity, college student perceptions of environmental issues, the influence of formative experiences on the development of environmental concern, and public perception of a variety of sustainability related topics. For the past decade or so, I have been involved with an extensive research project related to engineering education, the MIDFIELD project. This project, headed up by Matt Ohland (formerly at Clemson University and now at Purdue University) involves a study of the academic experiences and pathways of engineering majors from 12 institutions. One part of the research team analyzes a longitudinal database of over a million student records from the 12 MIDFIELD institutions. I have been involved in the qualitative portion of the project, investigating a variety of research questions through focus groups and interviews with engineering transfer students. The most recent qualitative project focused on engineering transfer students and in Fall 2014, my colleagues and I received a NSF grant to investigate the experiences of student veterans at four institutions (University of San Diego, Clemson University, Purdue University, North Carolina State University). I also collaborate with colleagues from other disciplines, such as hydrogeology, to learn more about engineering education.

CW: What does this award mean to you…being chosen by your peers?

Mobley: I am so honored to be receiving this award, especially knowing it is coming from my peers. I’ve been walking by the Carillon Bell monument for nearly 20 years now, in awe of the people whose names are inscribed there. It means so much to me, especially knowing there were so many qualified candidates for the award. Recently, I was talking to a recipient of the Class of ’39 award and learned that one of the purposes of the award is to inspire faculty to do their bes,t and to go above and beyond expectations. This recognition has definitely inspired me! Little did I know when I was attending Clemson University in the early 1980’s that I’d be here 30 years later, pursuing the career of my dreams!

Soccer Dad by Day, Star-Gazer by Night

Astrophysicist Sean Brittain straddles two worlds

Sean Brittain has used some of the world’s most powerful telescopes to study the chaos swirling around a young star about 335 light years from Earth. Huge chunks of rock are slamming together to form what could be the first planets of a budding solar system.

Back home in Clemson, Brittain deals with a different kind of chaos each Tuesday and Thursday night during soccer season. He coaches a team of youths, ages 7-9.

“We’re working on passing the ball,” the father of three said with an easygoing smile.

Brittain’s feet are on Earth, but his eyes are often on the night sky. He led an international team of scientists that discovered evidence strongly suggesting a planet is orbiting a star known as HD100546. The team reported its findings in The Astrophysical Journal. News outlets around the globe covered the discovery in at least four different languages.

The planet would be at least three times the size of Jupiter, so there would be plenty of real estate. But if you’re looking to relocate, don’t book your ticket on the USS Enterprise just yet. The planet would be an uninhabitable gas giant. And even if you traveled at the speed of light, it would take more than four lifetimes to get there.

Astronomers are interested in the solar system for a different reason.

This graphic is an artist’s conception of the young massive star HD100546 and its surrounding disk. Brittain’s team believes that this is a new planet that is at least three times the size of Jupiter. Credit: P. Marenfeld & NOAO/AURA/NSF

This graphic is an artist’s conception of the young massive star HD100546 and its surrounding disk. Brittain’s team believes that this is a new planet that is at least three times the size of Jupiter. Credit: P. Marenfeld & NOAO/AURA/NSF

The work that Brittain’s team did built on previous research by a team that found a collapsing blob of gas and dust could condense into a planet in about one million years. That means astronomers believe they have found not one but two “candidate planets” orbiting HD100546.

Taken together, the findings could mark the first time astronomers have been able to directly observe multiple planets forming in sequence. It’s something astronomers have long believed happens but have never been able to see.

Other solar systems that astronomers have observed are either fully developed or too far away to see in the kind of detail that HD100546 offers.

“This system is very close to Earth, relative to other disk systems,” Brittain said. “We’re able to study it at a level of detail that you can’t do with more distant stars. This is the first system where we’ve been able to do this.

“Once we really understand what’s going on, the tools that we are developing can then be applied to a larger number of systems that are more distant and harder to see.”

AROUND THE CLOCK, AROUND THE WORLD

sean brittain_036_final_aAs an astrophysicist, Brittain could be working just about any time of the day or night. It sometimes means staying up all night to observe the stars and then pushing through to teach class.

In one recent all-nighter, Brittain logged on to a video conferencing website to work with two collaborators, one in Tucson and one in Berkeley. The telescope they used was at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

The patchwork of faces on his screen looked like something out of “Star Trek,” Brittain said.

The team worked from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m. Clemson time, and then Brittain headed for the classroom.

“You finish observing, and you still have to teach class,” he said. “Your day job doesn’t get pushed aside.”

Brittain has the opportunity to observe the stars about four times a year. He collaborates with researchers all over the world, so conferences calls can be early in the morning.

“There’s no time of day when it’s 9-to-5 for everybody,” he said.

Brittain made three trips to Chile as far back as 2006 to gather data for the research he did on HD100546. He used telescopes at the Gemini Observatory and the European Southern Observatory.

Northern Chile is one of a few places in the world just right for high-powered telescopes, Brittain said. The weather is predictable, the skies are usually clear and the political climate is stable.

Each time Brittain went to Chile, he flew from Atlanta to Santiago, where he would spend the night. Then he would take another flight to Antofagasta, where he would catch a two-hour ride to the observatory. The city quickly gave way to a desert landscape, he said.

“It’s like being on Tatooine,” Brittain said, referring to the desert planet from “Star Wars.” “There’s no vegetation. It’s sand and rock, a really bleak landscape.”

AN ASTROPHYSICIST BY CHANCE

Brittain grew up watching “Star Wars,” but he isn’t a serious sci-fi fan. And he wasn’t the kind of kid who grew up gazing at the stars through a telescope in his backyard every night.

Brittain fell into astronomy after receiving his bachelor of science in chemical physics from LeTourneau University in Texas. He headed to Notre Dame to study the foundations of quantum mechanics but found that the adviser he wanted was retiring and not accepting new graduate students.

Brittain soon found another professor who was doing research into the organic chemistry of comets.

It seemed to be a fit considering Brittain’s chemistry background. Even better, the professor did some of his research at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

“Here I am in South Bend, Indiana, where it’s cold and gray, and here was an opportunity to go to Hawaii,” Brittain said.

Brittain has spun the opportunity into a successful career. He received his Ph.D. in 2004 and became a NASA-funded Michelson postdoctoral fellow at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.

Brittain came to Clemson two years later with his wife, Beth, and their children, Olivia and Sam. They have since added a third child, Charlotte.

MEASURING SMALL CHANGES TO DETECT GALACTIC EVENTS

Brittain’s chemistry background helped get him an early start on using high-resolution spectroscopy to study the formation of stars and planets. It was a relatively new technique early in his career, he said, and has played a major role in his research on HD100546.

The technique enabled the team to measure small changes in the position of the carbon monoxide emission. A source of excess carbon monoxide emission was detected that appears to vary in position and velocity. The varying position and velocity are consistent with orbital motion around the star.

The favored hypothesis is that emission comes from a circumplanetary disk of gas orbiting a giant planet, Brittain said.

“Another possibility is that we’re seeing the wake from tidal interactions between the object and the circumstellar disk of gas and dust orbiting the star,” he said.

Brittain served as lead author on The Astrophysical Journal article. Co-authors were John S. Carr of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.; Joan R. Najita of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Arizona; and Sascha P. Quanz and Michael R. Meyer, both of ETH Zurich Institute for Astronomy.

Mark Leising, the chair of Clemson’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Department, said Brittain’s work will raise the department’s international profile.

“I congratulate Dr. Brittain and his team on their excellent work,” Leising said. “Astronomers are now very good at finding already formed planets around many nearby stars, but it has been difficult to watch the planets in the process of forming.

“Using very clever techniques and the most advanced telescopes on Earth, they have accomplished that. It’s great to see our faculty working with leading institutions around the world to make discoveries at the forefront of astronomy.”

Brittain said he is looking forward to observing the solar system using more advanced telescopes, including the James Webb Space Telescope scheduled for launch in 2018 and the 30-meter telescopes that could be ready as early as 2022.

If there’s any similarity between Brittain’s research in space and his coaching on Earth, it’s that both take teamwork to be successful, he said. “No one is the boss, but every-one is working toward a common goal,” Brittain said.

You can read more about Brittain’s research at the following links: