Hai Yao and Michael Kern were posing for a picture in a lab packed with microscopes, computers and other scientific equipment when the photographer asked, “How close are you?”
Without hesitation, Kern threw an arm around Yao’s shoulders, and they beamed at the camera with the kind of familiarity that comes from working together for 13 years.
Yao is a Clemson University professor, and Kern is a professor at The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). But to the professors, any divisions between the two universities have been completely erased.
Yao and Kern serve as a shining example of how researchers from two institutions can work seamlessly together, sharing ideas, constructive criticism and credit for success.
The partnership has benefited both. Yao and Kern have generated millions in research funding, co-authored several papers and provided dozens of students with opportunities to work on the cutting-edge of bioengineering research.
The collaboration serves as a model others could follow, Yao and Kern said.
Trust and respect for each other has been key, they said, and so has support from the two universities’ leadership.
“Clemson and MUSC can do a joint venture with each other, so this is a good example,” said Yao, the Ernest R. Norville Endowed Chair in Biomedical Engineering. “If another party wants to do these things with Clemson, we can develop another collaborative program like this.”
A big part of what makes it possible is the Clemson-MUSC Bioengineering Program. The program started in 2003 as a way of strengthening health care research in South Carolina.
One of the big advantages of bringing together Clemson’s bioengineers and MUSC’s clinicians and scientists is that they can approach the same research challenges from different perspectives. The approach helps come up with solutions that neither group could discover on its own.
“This concept was instrumented by Dr. Martine LaBerge and supported by all the leadership at both institutions,” Yao said.
Yao and Kern began collaborating in 2005.
Yao was a postdoctoral researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology when he left to join the Clemson-MUSC Bioengineering Program as an assistant professor. Kern, the more senior researcher, served as Yao’s mentor.
They have tapped several spigots of funding and worked on several projects over the years.
One of the latest projects is overseeing a T32 training program in MUSC’s James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine. The program is funded by the National Institutes of Health and “encourages innovative and novel research training opportunities for individuals interested in pursuing independent research careers in dental, oral, and craniofacial research,” Yao and Kern said in a written statement.
Yao, who now serves as associate bioengineering department chair for the program, is among six Clemson faculty members embedded at MUSC and treated as if they were MUSC faculty members.
They have office and lab space on MUSC’s campus in downtown Charleston. Bureaucratic hurdles, such as parking permits, have been cleared away.
“This training program is critical for the dental school at MUSC,” Yao and Kern said in the statement. “Only 16 dental schools in the nation have this program.”