Clemson University is committed to leading the way in addressing the grand challenges identified by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) to improve the quality of life. That’s why our students are being equipped with the knowledge and resources necessary to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing humanity in the 21st century.
Here we profile five of the best and brightest young Tigers and their efforts to advance each of the components of the NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program: entrepreneurship, interdisciplinary collaboration, global dimension, research and service learning.
By Paul Alongi
Clemson faculty conduct research with vital goals such as improving medicines, securing cyberspace, making solar energy cost-competitive, advancing technology, providing access to clean water and ending extreme poverty and hunger. The high-profile awards recently brought home by seven junior faculty members underscore the excellence in research that is the standard for the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences.
Feng Ding, Rachel Getman, Brandon Ross and Andy Tennyson won prestigious awards from the National Science Foundation, while Joseph Scott and Yue “Sophie” Wang won top awards from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Mark Blenner also won an award through NASA.
Seven of the nation’s top awards in less than a year is a milestone for a University that recently stepped up efforts to bolster its reputation for high-quality research. The awards brought more than $3.3 million in new research funding into the University.
Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, called the awards a testament to the researchers’ creativity, dedication and hard work. “South Carolina deserves a world-class research university, and the awards confirm that these seven Clemson University faculty members are the top young engineers and scientists in their disciplines,” Gramopadhye said. “Having top award winners speaks highly of Clemson’s research environment, which bodes well for the entire state. Through research, we help create the jobs of the future, inspire a new generation of grand thinkers and conceive the innovations that overcome some of humankind’s most complex challenges.”
Ding, Getman, Ross and Tennyson won awards through the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program, often called the NSF CAREER award. Scott and Wang received awards through the Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Program. Blenner’s award comes through the Early Career Faculty component of the NASA Space Technology Research Grants Program.
The awards were announced shortly after the University reached another key marker in research prominence.
The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education included Clemson in its R1 category for doctoral universities. This category is reserved for universities with the highest research activity.
National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program Award (NSF CAREER Award):
Feng Ding, assistant professor of physics. He will use the $506,569 his team was awarded to better understand nanoparticles. They are tens to thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair and have helped improve everyday products ranging from baseball bats to eyeglasses. Nanoparticles show promise for engineering better medicines but have also raised concerns about environmental and biological safety.
Rachel Getman, assistant professor of chemical engineering. She will use the $503,922 her team received to explore new ways of making ammonia, a key ingredient in commercial fertilizers. The current method for making ammonia is expensive and energy-intensive, keeping it out of reach for about half the world. Getman and her team have a long-term goal of using water instead of hydrogen gas to create ammonia, which could lower the cost and amount of energy required.
Brandon Ross, assistant professor of civil engineering. His team has received $500,000 to help make buildings more adaptable to change so that fewer become obsolete and face the wrecking ball before their time. His team is developing a set of tools that helps measure building adaptability, similar to the LEED certification that recognizes best strategies and practices for making buildings environmentally friendly.
Andy Tennyson, assistant professor of inorganic chemistry. His $500,000 award will cover five years of research into modifying the artificial materials that go into the body as implants. His long-term goal is to help create medical implants that resist failure by preventing chemical degradation. He and his team hope that through their work, patients will be less likely to reject implants, preventing potentially life-threatening surgeries.
With these four new awards, Clemson had 21 active NSF CAREER grants, representing more than $8.1 million in funding, as of spring 2016.
Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Program Award
Joseph Scott, assistant professor of chemical engineering. His team has received $330,000 and will use the money to develop mathematical techniques that account for uncertainties in the results of computer simulations. This could help autonomous aircraft calculate trajectories that avoid danger without having to play it too safe. The Scott team believes these techniques could also be used for other applications, such as safety verification for chemical processes.
Yue “Sophie” Wang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. Her team has received $360,000 to help the Air Force overcome some of the challenges it faces in using teams of unmanned vehicles and other robots to carry out missions under human supervision. The primary focus of Wang’s research will be on helping the Air Force with high-priority missions that include intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance. Wang also won a NSF CAREER award in 2015.
Only 12 other institutions had multiple awards through the Air Force program this year, putting Clemson in the company of Princeton University, the California Institute of Technology and North Carolina State University.
NASA Early Career Faculty Award
Mark Blenner, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. He received $600,000 for three years of research. Blenner and his team will study microbial synthesis of nutraceuticals and materials to enable long-term space exploration. The proposal focuses on engineering yeast to convert respiration carbon dioxide, algae biomass and human urine into nutritional omega-3 fats and 3D printable plastics. Blenner also won an award in 2015 through the Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Program.
Blenner was among eight researchers from seven institutions in 2015 to win an award through NASA’s Early Career Faculty Program, putting Clemson in the company of Stanford University and Washington University in St. Louis.
The grants were awarded before the colleges reorganized, and all faculty members were in the former College of Engineering and Science. Ding and Tennyson are now in the new College of Science while Getman, Ross, Scott, Wang and Blenner are in the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences. ✲