Gregg-Graniteville Endowed Chair and Professor
Materials Science and Engineering
By Paul Alongi
Stephen Foulger is leading a team that has received $6 million to develop a new way of stimulating specific parts of the brain in what could be the first step toward treatments for seizures and illnesses ranging from addiction to depression.
If it works like researchers hope, patients might someday ingest tiny particles that lodge themselves near light-sensitive proteins in the brain. When hit with X-rays, the illuminated particles would activate changes in brain function.
This project puts Clemson University researchers and their teammates at the forefront of optogenetics. It’s a cutting-edge field that often involves using light to open and close synaptic channels in the brain, which can help change behavior.
Foulger said it will be years before optogenetics could be used in treatments, but the potential is tremendous.
“3D printing saw an explosion in terms of its development and applications in the industrial world a few years ago, and optogenetics is now experiencing a similar growth in the academic neuroscience community,” Foulger said. “We anticipate widespread adoption of the technology we develop by the neuroscience community at large, both nationally and internationally.”
Funding for the four-year project comes from the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR.
The project brings together chemists, engineers and neuroscientists from Clemson, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of New Mexico and the University of South Carolina.
Rajendra Bordia, chair of Clemson’s department of materials science and engineering, congratulated the team on the grant.
“Dr. Foulger has brought together a uniquely qualified team of researchers,” Bordia said. “The level of funding reflects the creativity of the ideas and the hard work that Dr. Foulger has put behind them. Through this project, the team is beginning to build a research infrastructure spanning three states and four universities to address one of the major scientific challenges: understanding how the brain works.”
Researchers expect to lay the groundwork for a noninvasive way of targeting specific areas of the brain. The amount of X-ray radiation involved would be at routine medical levels or lower.
Preliminary results have been encouraging. A team of Clemson researchers went to the University of Alabama at Birmingham in January of 2016 to run experiments aimed at learning whether it would be possible to change the synaptic behavior in brain cells harvested from a rat.
“It worked,” Foulger said. With the funding they have received, researchers plan to create nanoparticles that are many times smaller than the width of a human hair.
The nanoparticles will have a scintillating shell, allowing them to emit light when exposed to radiation, and will be engineered to target light-sensitive opsin proteins in the brain.
They will also be coated in a polymeric shell similar to how commonly available pharmaceuticals are made. The shell acts like handles for various chemical components.
Some components will allow the nanoparticles to enter the body without being rejected. Other components would cause the nanoparticles, once circulating in the bloodstream, to sequester themselves near key opsin proteins.
Researchers also plan to coat the nanoparticles with different dyes so that the nanoparticles can be tailored to different opsin proteins.
“Whatever the sensitivity to light, we can develop a nanoparticle that can couple into them,” Foulger said.
The research addresses two major national initiatives. The White House’s BRAIN Initiative focused on revolutionizing understanding of the human brain, while the National Academy of Engineering has identified reverse-engineering the brain as one of its 14 grand challenges in the 21st century.
The grant is part of the EPSCoR Research Infrastructure Improvement Track-2 investment strategy. It seeks to build national research strength by initiating collaborations across multiple institutions. This year’s awards support 27 institutions in 18 eligible jurisdictions.
“These awards represent a tremendous value for the scientific community, as they foster research into some of the most pressing issues facing U.S. society while simultaneously supporting collaborative research programs and workforce development,” said Denise Barnes, head of NSF EPSCoR.
“Whether by expanding our knowledge of the brain, or by improving how our water, food and energy systems work efficiently together, these projects hold the promise of transforming our daily lives.”
Foulger, a faculty member in the departments of materials science and engineering and bioengineering, is the primary investigator on the project involving Clemson. He is the Gregg-Graniteville Endowed Professor and the director of Clemson’s Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies, or COMSET.
The co-primary investigators are Lori McMahon, the associate director of the McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Jason Weick, an assistant professor in the department of neurosciences at the University of New Mexico.
Two other Clemson faculty members are expected to play key roles in the research. Jeffrey Anker, an associate professor of analytical chemistry at Clemson, is lending his X-ray expertise to the project. Joe Kolis, a professor of inorganic chemistry, will make some of the nanoparticles.
Tanju Karanfil, Clemson’s vice president for research, said EPSCoR grants have the power to be transformational.
“The team that Dr. Foulger has assembled is designed to build a national research infrastructure,” Karanfil said. “Their efforts to better understand the brain are of the utmost importance to the nation and every human being on the planet. I’d like to thank the National Science Foundation for its support.”
Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said the award is richly deserved.
“Dr. Foulger has assembled an interdisciplinary team that embodies the comprehensive, integrated vision that drives discovery and builds capacity in science, technology, engineering and math,” Gramopadhye said. “The team’s research could shed new light on how the brain works, one of the nation’s top priorities. I’d like to congratulate Dr. Foulger and his team on a job well done.” ✲
Associate Professor; Distinguished Professor of Intelligent Infrastructure
By Paul Alongi
A new graduate degree program that could help save lives and keep basic services running when disaster strikes is in development at Clemson University with $3 million in backing from the National Science Foundation.
Sez Atamturktur, the principal investigator and the director of the project, said that students enrolled in the program will learn how to predict vulnerabilities in the interconnected infrastructure systems that few realize depend on each other until one fails.
For example, some Manhattan residents couldn’t evacuate after Superstorm Sandy because ATM machines and credit cards didn’t work, underscoring how failures in the financial system can cascade to the transportation system.
It can take weeks to rebuild after disaster, and infrastructure failures tend to disproportionately affect the poor. Students in the program will focus their research along the state’s Interstate 95 corridor, including an underserved area designated as a Promise Zone by the White House.
Anticipating trouble before it happens is expected to heighten in importance as weather becomes more extreme, a growing number of people pack into cities and commerce increasingly depends on globally networked technology and supply chains.
“This is a new type of threat for the 21st century,” Atamturktur said. “Local infrastructure disruptions now have far-reaching consequences. Our project is about foresight and understanding what the vulnerabilities are before they happen and putting in place mitigation processes — eliminating vulnerabilities up front before they become problematic.”
The $3 million provides five years of funding and is South Carolina’s first grant through the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program. The types of infrastructure covered in the new program will be broad, including built, cyber, natural, physical, social and financial systems.
Atamturktur is the Distinguished Professor of Intelligent Infrastructure in the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering.
James R. Martin, chair of the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering, congratulated her on landing the grant.
“Dr. Atamturktur and her colleagues are creating a unique academic program that will prepare students for the emerging global challenges faced by society in the 21st century,” he said. “This has strong potential to catalyze a shift in graduate education in an area the U.S. government has identified as a critical challenge. Without question, this program will have global impact.”
Students in the new graduate program will learn to bridge the gap between experts who too often work in isolation from each other, Atamturktur said.
The differing jargon and mathematical models that experts use can lead to communication breakdowns that inhibit disaster planning.
“One thing we want to accomplish with this project is to build a community where you create a computer model for not only your own project or research team,” Atamturktur said. “You build a computer model to be shared and used and reused by a community.”
Students will also learn to incorporate human decision making into their simulations.
The infrastructure involved in their research delivers a wide range of services, such as transportation, energy and water distribution.
The new Model and Data Enabled Resilient Infrastructure graduate program will begin in the fall semester of 2017 and will be open to any Clemson University graduate student, regardless of background. Participants will work toward master’s degrees and doctorates.
“It’s a University-level effort,” Atamturktur said. “Everyone with similar research interests is welcome to join.”
Students will collect data about infrastructure resilience in communities along Interstate 95, where the vulnerabilities and number of marginalized communities are disproportionately high.
The area was among the hardest hit when a 1,000-year flood in 2015 caused $12 billion in damage to the state and left thousands with damaged or destroyed homes and businesses.
“Students will not only use the research in their dissertations but will also share their findings with affected communities to boost awareness of infrastructure resilience and support communities in action planning,” Atamturktur said.
The research along I-95 will encompass the state’s Promise Zone, which includes Allendale, Bamberg and Hampton counties and a significant part of Barnwell, Colleton and Jasper counties.
The Promise Zone program calls for investment in communities with a “collaborative federal role that is driven by partnership with local officials, and reliance on data and evidence to guide what works,” according to the White House.
The new Clemson graduate program resulted from a dialogue among 30 faculty members across the campus from several colleges, including 18 who form the core of the group.
Co-principal investigators on the grant are all from Clemson and include: Jim Bottum, a research professor, the director of Clemson’s Center of Excellence for Next Generation Computing and Creativity and former chief information officer and vice provost for computing and information technology; Taufiquar Khan, a professor in the department of mathematical sciences; and Martin.
Students can expect a strong emphasis on collaborating across disciplines with students and faculty members.
“We were fortunate to have Dr. Russell Marion from the College of Education on our team,” Atamturktur said. “His expertise will enable us to not only train competent engineers and scientists but to immerse them in an enriching network of students. We will monitor how students network and how student interactions affect learning outcomes.
“It’s called social learning. Students will learn not only from advisers but also from interacting with other faculty and students. The student-faculty partnership will organically grow throughout their education.”
Tanju Karanfil, vice president for research, said Atamturktur and her team are creating a next-generation, engineering and science workforce that could save lives, especially in underserved parts of the world.
“Their innovative approach to graduate education is helping ensure that Clemson University, South Carolina and the nation stay on the cutting edge,” Karanfil said. “The research that students will do as part of the grant will help prepare them for careers in an area of national and global importance.”
Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said the new program represents a bold and potentially transformative approach to graduate education in science, technology, engineering and math.
“Dr. Atamturktur has developed a graduate program that is innovative, evidence-based and aligned with changing workforce and research needs,” Gramopadhye said. “The award is richly deserved.” ✲
Associate Professor – School of Computing
By Paul Alongi
One of Clemson University’s most highly regarded teachers is Brian Dean, an associate professor in the School of Computing.
His approach has been described as both innovative and challenging, a combination reflected in his reviews on ratemyprofessors.com. Students not only leave glowing comments, they have also given him a quality rating of 4.6 out of 5 and a difficulty score of 4.4 out of 5.
Dean won this year’s Philip Prince Award for Innovation in Teaching. The University award recognizes outstanding faculty members who demonstrate creative and novel teaching methods and is named for former Clemson President Philip Prince.
Aside from the courses he teaches at Clemson, Dean volunteers a tremendous amount of time doing educational outreach. Most notably, he directs the USA Computing Olympiad (usaco.org), which provides online educational materials and programming competitions that thousands of high-school students worldwide have used to improve their computational problem-solving skills.
Dean recently took some time to answer a few questions about what drives, excites and challenges him.
Why do you teach?
Working with bright energetic students helps me maintain enthusiasm for my field of study. It’s also a surprisingly good way to learn, and I feel like it therefore makes me a better scholar.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I received a letter from a parent of one of our Olympiad students once that started with “thank you for changing my son’s life,” describing how the student returned home from our program inspired to pursue advanced computing and is now having amazing success in these studies at one of the top universities in the country. I’m happiest when I hear reports like this about former students’ success.
What’s the most challenging part about teaching?
Articulating advanced concepts clearly can certainly be a challenge. However, telling the students how to answer questions isn’t the real hard part. At the end of the day, learning requires hard work and commitment of substantial time on the part of the student. There aren’t any shortcuts. The challenge is to inspire students to want to make this investment.
What can students expect from your class?
They can expect to work hard and challenge themselves to become better problem solvers, but to do so in a fun, supportive environment.
Do you think you’re a tough grader?
Absolutely. I’ve rarely given a test with an average above 50 percent, and no student has ever earned a perfect score on any test I’ve given in the 10-plus years I’ve been at Clemson.
Why do you think students respond so well to you?
I love what I teach, and I hope this enthusiasm and passion connects with the students. I also try to make sure students feel I am easily approachable and that I am on their side; even though I’m a tough grader, I want to make sure students feel their grades are reasonable and fair.
Could you please tell us about some of the innovative aspects of your teaching, including whiteboard lectures, animated videos, “making mathematical reasoning fun,” and the “recommendation system” for restaurants?
Animated whiteboard lectures: Many concepts in my field, computer science, are hard to explain using just text or a static picture. To remedy this, I use videos a lot in my teaching. For example, every programming assignment solution I post online is actually a video showing the process of me writing the code and explaining my thought process along the way. I’ve also written two generations of a program called LectureScribe, now used by many other educators, for creating online “pencast” videos that record writing on a tablet/whiteboard along with audio. I’m planning to incorporate several hundred videos of this style in a mixed-media textbook I’m currently writing. It explains concepts at a high level in text, while proofs and more complicated concepts are articulated using pencast videos accessible by hyperlinks or QR codes.
Making mathematical reasoning fun: It’s already fun! Of course, the challenge is helping students realize this. It can help if assignments have a playful side. For example, for a recent assignment I gave students programs I wrote and asked them to play the role of “evil supervillain” to look for inputs that would make my programs run badly.
Recommendation systems: I think it’s fun to start class with an enticing question that will be answered by whatever concept is the topic of discussion for the day. For example, “Where should I eat lunch today?” Well, let’s write code that shows how to build a recommendation system that aggregates the dining suggestions of the students in class to issue suggestions. A few weeks ago, we started class with the question “What is the 17th largest state in the U.S. by area?” and wrote a program that systematically traversed a picture of a U.S. map to count up the areas of the different states to get the answer. This week, we used dynamic programming algorithms to compose music. Keeping some level of suspense until the answer is revealed at the end of class helps keep students engaged.
What’s the latest on the Computing Olympiad? Do students still train in Clemson? What do you have planned for the Olympiad this summer?
We continue to hold a training camp at Clemson every summer for the top two dozen high-school computing students in the U.S. — a very talented group. This coming summer the International Olympiad in Informatics will be held in Tehran, Iran, one of its more exotic destinations in recent history. Barring visa or other diplomatic issues, we will be bringing a team of our top four students to compete. It should be an awesome experience! ✲
Alex Bina (left), Gregory Batt (center) and John DesJardins (right) are working with Jay Elmore, owner of Green Gridiron, to create facemask designs that will improve the overall safety of football helmets. Here they place a helmet on an anthropomorphic head model and use a linear drop tower to generate a simulated football head impact. Batt is an assistant professor in the Clemson food, nutrition and packaging sciences department; John DesJardins is an associate professor of bioengineering and director of the Laboratory of Orthopaedic Design and Engineering; and Alex Bina is a doctoral student in bioengineering and a graduate research assistant in food, nutrition and packaging sciences. The team has received a nearly $50,000 grant from the Robert H. Brooks Sports Science Institute to conduct their study.