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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 to offer program for autism spectrum support

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 59 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, with the diagnosis being four times more common among boys. Currently there are no known post-secondary programs for degree-seeking students in South Carolina, North Carolina or Georgia to provide services for students with autism.

Clemson is hoping to fill this gap and will be offering a program of customized support services for students who identify on the autism spectrum beginning in the 2019-20 academic year. The program will provide support across four areas: academic skills and resilience; personal and interpersonal skills; independent living and social skills; and career and professional skills.

The program has been in development for the past two years, with pilot groups of Clemson students participating in a needs assessment and services involving the development of social skills, self-advocacy skills and career readiness, along with peer mentoring, academic coaching and individual sessions with a behavior therapist.

Students who are admitted to Clemson via the typical admissions process may apply to the program; the initial cohort will serve 10 incoming freshmen who will arrive for a summer transition program in summer 2019. The students will complete an academic class for credit while learning to navigate the campus and becoming familiar with the resources in place to support their integration and success. There will be a freshman-year emphasis on easing the transition from high school to college and enhancing independent living skills. Starting with sophomore year, participants will begin working on professional skills and developing career readiness, including participating in on-campus internships.

Jane Thierfeld Brown of the Yale Child Study Center and College Autism Spectrum co-founder has been an external consultant in the program’s development. She has helped established more than 20 similar postsecondary programs across the country in the past 15 years.

Operating Room Redesign Recognized at Healthcare Design Expo

Clemson project integrating research and design to develop a safer, more ergonomic operating room received two awards at the Healthcare Design Expo + Conference in Orlando. The Realizing Improved Patient Care Through Human-Centered Design in the Operating Room prototype was the sole winner for conceptual design and a gold-level award recipient for using an evidence-based design process.

Anjali Joseph, Spartanburg Regional Health System Endowed Chair in Architecture + Health Design and director of the Center for Health Facilities Design and Testing at Clemson, spearheaded the project. She worked with a multidisciplinary team of researchers and clinical specialists from the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) and Health Sciences South Carolina, as well as Clemson colleagues, including David Allison, professor and director of the University’s Architecture + Health graduate program. Allison led the design development of the prototype and incorporated it into a semester-long project for Architecture + Health students. The plans will eventually be implemented in MUSC’s new Ambulatory Surgery Center in Charleston.

The new operating room will:

  • improve staff safety by reducing clutter and trip hazards.
  • reduce surface contamination through material selection and improving ergonomics.
  • support team communication by refining sightlines and visibility within the O.R.
  • adapt as care delivery and technology change.

Architecture Students’ Design for Ghanaian School Comes to Fruition

They say it takes a village ­— and for one town in Ghana that couldn’t be truer. Over the past decade, the people of Okurase have been working together to transform their community for a more prosperous future by constructing the Nkabom Centre, the area’s first-ever educational facility.

The 18,000-square-foot structure has electricity and running water and is the first of a 17-building complex completely designed by Clemson architecture students studying at the Clemson Design Center in Charleston (CDC.C). 

Cynthia Swenson, a professor with the Medical University of South Carolina, approached the CDCC for help in 2008. As the co-founder of Project Okurase, a nonprofit that develops sustainable, replicable solutions for disadvantaged villages, Swenson had been working in the Okurase community for several years and following the vision of the community, wanted to help construct a complex that would house educational and medical facilities with water and energy. But money was limited.

“Someone suggested Clemson because the students do hands-on service projects as part of their work,” Swenson said. “I knew after speaking with Ray Huff and Rob Miller that I’d found true partners in the CDC.C for this effort.”

“Everything we designed was built around local craftsmanship and skills we saw on our trip to Ghana.”

It was paramount that the buildings convey the local culture, so before undergraduate and graduate students began to tackle designs, students Kyle Keaffaber and Lindsey Willke traveled to the region to research. “They saw firsthand how the land, water and sun played into the structure’s dynamics. It was fascinating,” Swenson said. “We originally envisioned the medical center at the front of the complex with a school behind it, but our research indicated that would be a huge mistake because air flow would carry communicable diseases through the medical complex and toward the school.”

The trip provided another valuable lesson: The buildings needed to be constructed with compressed earth bricks. “To allow the community to play an active role and become invested in building their own community, everything we designed was built around local craftsmanship and skills we saw on our trip to Ghana,” Keaffaber said. However, the on-loan brick-making machine had to be returned before work was completed. Clemson faculty and staff stepped in and built four manual brick-making machines.

Today, the first structure in the complex stands tall, awaiting students of all ages to take their seats in the coming weeks, and now the community eagerly anticipates construction of the next building.   

“I’ve seen an absolute change. People who grew up in that village are coming back, and things are picking up economically,” Swenson said. “And the people have a level of pride in this building ­— they built it themselves — and they want to leave a legacy for their children.”

The 2018 Distinguished Service Award Winners

The Distinguished Service Award is the highest honor bestowed upon a former Clemson student. It recognizes those whose devotion to Clemson has increased the value of the University for future generations and whose lives have expressed, through service to community, profession and the public, the finest Clemson traditions.

A Walk Down the Red Carpet in Cannes

Madison Williams, a graphic communications major, poses for a photo with her camera.

When Madison Williams graduated in May with a graphic communications degree, she walked the red carpet while her classmates crossed the stage at Littlejohn Coliseum.

The Newbury, Massachusetts, native represented Clemson at the Cannes Film Festival in France, where her 5-minute documentary on a passionate Tiger football fan was screened alongside the work of the world’s most renowned filmmakers.

“It’s a dream come true, and I have the opportunities presented to me at Clemson and many of the talented people here to thank for it,” the College of Business graduate said.

Williams’ documentary, “136,” is a story about Bryson Carter of Anderson, who lost his sight as a student here but whose love for Clemson football has led him to attend 136 consecutive (now 150) games. She originally produced the documentary to compete in Campus Movie Fest at Clemson last February. Her work advanced to a national competition and eventually was selected to be screened as part of Cannes’ Short Film Corner.

“I have been blessed to have so many people who nurtured me on my journey to becoming a professional videographer,” Williams said. “There are too many to mention, but some of the most influential were people like Nik Conklin, Jeff Kallin and Jonathan Gantt in the athletic department; Craig Mahaffey and Jesse Godfrey in University Relations and Erica Walker, one of my graphic communications instructors.”

Inspiration for the documentary on Carter came from their chance meeting at the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. “Bryson and I shared a ride to the train station in Arizona, and he started talking about his passion for football,” Williams said. “He visualizes the game through the announcers’ commentary and the energy the fans paint in his mind. His story nearly brought me to tears.”

Telling stories comes naturally to Williams, but she had to work to develop her visual communication skills. “At a very early age, I wanted to be behind the lens,” she said. “I made music videos and filmed plays with my very patient sister. Then, in high school, I filmed the football team’s highlight reels and knew this was something I wanted as a lifelong pursuit.”

A year later, she was at Clemson studying graphic communications. Internships at Clemson and in Massachusetts primed her for a role on the Clemson Athletics social media team, where she cut her teeth as a visual communicator for the volleyball team. With the French Riviera experience a memory, Williams is looking forward.

“Right now, I’m looking for visual storytelling roles similar to what I do at Clemson,” she said. “Wherever I land, I know my education here, inside and outside the classroom, has put me in a great position to succeed. I’m very excited to see where my Clemson experience will take me next.”

Clemson Study Finds Minimum Wage Can Affect Criminal Recidivism

higher minimum wage and earned income tax credits can mean the difference between a return to prison or making a living outside of crime for recently released convicts, according to research by a Clemson economics professor.

Michael Makowsky found that for every dollar increase in the minimum wage, one percentage point could be shaved off the number of those returning to prison. In states where earned income tax credit wage subsidies are available, there was an even bigger effect on recidivism, though only for women.

“The bulk of prior research on minimum wages has focused on the demand side and the potential effects it might have on fewer people being hired,” Makowsky said. “We wanted to look at the supply side and, in particular, how the minimum wage affects crime and the recidivism rate.”

The research by Makowsky and Amanda Agan, an assistant professor of economics at Rutgers University, examined records from nearly 6 million criminal offenders released from prison between 2000 and 2014. Also taken into account were more than 200 state and federal minimum wage increases and earned income tax credit programs in 21 states.

“People who were released where the minimum wage was raised had a lower recidivism rate,” Makowsky said. “And in those states that chose to subsidize wages of adults with custody of dependents, women experienced an 11.4 percent drop in recidivism. These aren’t trivial numbers when you’re talking about whether or not a person returned to prison.”

The researchers’ observation of decreases in recidivism were solely for property or drug-related crimes. Violent crime remained largely unchanged.

Trustees approve child care facility

In February, Clemson trustees approved a $5 million budget to construct a 12,700-square-foot child care facility, which will be operated by a private, third-party provider for infant, toddler and preschool children of faculty, staff and students. The construction will be funded through an established endowment for faculty and staff benefits, with expected completion in 2020.

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.”