Creative Inquiry

The Pulse of Perception: The relationship between blood pressure and emotional recognition

Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub. The heart of a participant beats as Dr. Jim McCubbin’s students listen through a stethoscope for the faint whoosh that indicates systolic blood pressure, with an eye on the blood pressure gauge and a cuff on the subject’s arm. The undergraduates on this Creative Inquiry team are manually assessing blood pressure to study the effects of cardiovascular activity on emotional perception.

Dr. McCubbin, a professor in Clemson’s Department of Psychology, has been studying for years how the cardiovascular system relates to a person’s response to stressful or emotional stimuli. He and his colleagues have found that blood pressure is not only involved in physical health, but may also be related to a phenomenon known as “emotional dampening.” The higher your resting blood pressure, the more difficulty you may have identifying others’ emotions – from the angry squint of a coworker to the joyful smile of a loved one. His most recent publication in Psychosomatic Medicine has gone viral with the news media, and was even used as a joke in Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.”

Recently, Dr. McCubbin’s team of eight undergraduates has extended emotional dampening research to the realm of risk perception. The rationale is this: if you cannot detect the degree of others’ emotions, you also might not detect your own degree of risk in a given situation. For example, you might be more likely to take chances, blowing your entire paycheck betting at the racetrack or spending the weekend binge drinking. So far, the students have found that blood pressure is indeed significantly related to perceived benefits of taking risks. In another study, the team is investigating whether or not emotional dampening extends to self-expression in individuals with elevated blood pressure. Participants are asked to write about an emotional topic, and their personal stories will be analyzed with linguistic software to detect any emotional differences in expression.

The Creative Inquiry team is now starting to take a clinical approach to this phenomenon, extending their work to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Even though autistic children do not necessarily have high blood pressure, they generally have a problem recognizing emotions in faces, a major impediment to their social development. The team is in the process of developing a game to help improve emotional recognition. Eventually, the team hopes to test it with autistic students at a school in South Carolina for children with social and developmental disabilities.

The team members are truly excited about the groundbreaking research. In the past, previous students have presented research all across the country, from Portland, Oregon, to San Antonio, Texas. One recent study has been submitted for presentation at the Society for Behavioral Medicine’s 2012 annual conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. Students from the team travelled there in April to present the research, alongside graduate students and medical professionals. According to Jack Graham, a junior psychology major on the team, “the future is only brighter as we continue exploring emotional dampening and piloting new projects concerning [therapies] for those with deficits in emotional recognition.”

Analyzing data and developing projects may be a challenge, but the students have avidly taken it on – without any rise in their blood pressure!

Designing Medical Technology for the Developing World

Getting your temperature and pulse taken in the doctor’s office seem like routine tasks. Many parents even complete these tests at home. In a country with so much medical technology, it is hard to imagine life without our luxuries. However, developing countries lack some of the basic medical instruments that keep us healthy. Bioengineering students are working on a project to create affordable medical instruments for developing countries, specifically focusing on Tanzania. While healthcare is improving in these countries, they still lack much of the medical technology found in the United States, and generally use outdated models donated from other countries. This Creative Inquiry team, led by Clemson engineering professors Dr. Delphine Dean and Dr. John DesJardins, aims to create inexpensive, easy-to-use medical technology for the countries that need it the most.

This team is crafting a number of medical products, ranging from a neonatal heating device for hospitals to an affordable glucose monitor for poor villages. Senior team member Suzanna Langworthy says, “We take concepts from our everyday line of medical care and design a device or tool that can accomplish the same goal, but that is cheaper, easier to use, can be easily implemented, and can be made locally to enhance self-sufficiency.” The education for healthcare workers in developing countries is often limited, so it is vital that they have devices that they understand how to use, but at the same time are comparable to higher-end equipment.

The students have the freedom to design and work on any project that interests them, and as a team they are developing a number of problem-solving technologies. For example, Tanzania has an infant mortality rate ten times that of the United States, mostly caused by failing incubators. This team designed a low-cost temperature monitor that detects the temperature of infants and a heating device to regulate their body temperature. Another project constructs blood glucose monitors, which are an important preventative technology. These machines provide diabetes patients with a way to control their disease to prevent further health complications. Other projects include a blood volume indicator and a bacterial sensor for detecting gastrointestinal diseases, such as typhoid and cholera.

While this project allows students to learn the fine points of producing medical technology, it also emphasizes bettering healthcare around the world. Some team members have had the chance to travel to Tanzania and tour the hospitals. This helped them determine which devices are most essential to create. As Britton McCaskill remarks, “In the long-term, we hope to provide developing countries the capacity to be self-sufficient in the healthcare industry and reduce their dependence on external donations.”

Many students on this team express how rewarding it is to apply their engineering skills in a real world setting to address serious health problems. Kevin Keith’s favorite aspect of this project is how “this Creative Inquiry puts us in a position to impact patients who are often in the most need.” Maglin Halsey also comments, “I quickly learned once I began this Creative Inquiry that there are a lot of things involved with the state of healthcare in the developing world. Obviously, there is no quick-fix to the problems in these areas, but we are hoping to start taking small steps towards improvement. We believe that we have a great foundation to make a difference.” This Creative Inquiry provides Clemson students with knowledge and experience to become skilled professionals in bioengineering through a personally and professionally gratifying program.

It’s a Joint Effort

Medical implant devices (MIDs) have been used widely for more than 40 years, and it is estimated that 8 to 10 percent of Americans (20-25 million people) currently have such a device. Although implant devices produce great benefits, sometimes MIDs must be removed or replaced. They are in a continual state of development to increase their performance and extend their useful lifespan. Long-term data on the behavior of implanted devices and host response are essential inputs to the development process, yet there are few systematic programs for the retrieval and analysis of implants in the USA.

Retrieval and analysis of implants benefits patients, as this method leads to implant design. Implants have a minimum lifespan of three months, penetrate living tissue, have a physiologic interaction and are retrievable. A number of barriers exist to establishing an implant retrieval program. Major impediments are the costs associated with such a program and fear of litigation affecting manufacturers, hospitals, physicians, and investigators. The long-term goal of Professor John DesJardins’ Creative Inquiry project is to discuss, investigate, develop, establish, promote and grow a viable retrieval program.

Rather than throwing these used devices away, members of this team have started a state-wide program, known as Clemson University Retrieval of Explants Program in Orthopedics (CU-REPO) to learn more about why implants fail, how they work, and how we can make them last longer. The aim of such a program is to provide a working repository for retrieved implants, and to develop the tools and techniques for the systematic evaluation of implant designs, materials, surfaces and function.

Every year nearly 1 million patients receive total joint replacements to relieve arthritis pain and restore joint function in the hip or knee. Within 15 years it is predicted that this clinical procedure will increase as much as 675%, as our population ages. These implants are not perfect, and sometimes they are removed, or explanted, because of infection, loosening, damage or wear. This team of undergraduate bioengineers collaborate with hospitals and surgeons from around the state and nation. They collect, clean, catalog and study explanted total joint replacements to make them better for all of us.

From Frying Pan to Gas Tank: The Creation of Biodiesel

What if you learned we only had 30 years left of oil reserves and less than 80 years worth of Uranium? Obviously you would want to find an alternative, especially using resources you already have. Dr. Terry Walker, Robert Clark, Charles Thornton, and their Creative Inquiry team have begun to seek such a product to offset these diminishing fuel sources. The team is developing a system to reuse vegetable oil to create biodiesel, but they’re investigating other methods to produce energy and cut down on waste. With unpredictable gas prices, most would welcome alternative fuels with open arms.

The oil from the grease trap at your local McDonald’s may not seem valuable, but the team is transforming it into ready-to-go fuel. Their Mobile Biodiesel Production Lab (MBPL) converts and purifies vegetable oil into biodiesel and glycerin. Dr. Walker, from the Department of Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences, uses a lab that runs on 100% biodiesel and is completely off the grid. Clemson’s campus produces 5,000 gallons of waste vegetable oil annually, and since the team’s process produces a gallon of biodiesel for every gallon of vegetable oil, that’s 5,000 gallons of gas made every year from waste! This biodiesel is currently being used in campus vehicles like trucks, tractors, garbage vehicles, and perhaps even buses in the near future. The MBPL creates 20% of the fuel campus vehicles use, and the team’s goal is to reach 10,000 gallons, or 50% of Clemson’s diesel needs, by the end of 2012.

Since the summer of 2011, the Creative Inquiry team has approached local businesses and restaurants, including favorites like Brioso and Croc’s, as sources for used vegetable oil.

This green energy and biodiesel project has several associated Creative Inquiry projects seeking to increase sustainability and reduce waste. The “Biosystems Engineering: Creating Value Added Co-products from Biofuel Waste Products” looks for uses of glycerin, a byproduct of biodiesel purification. This semester the team is focusing on cleaning products like soap or detergent. About 20 gallons of glycerin is generated every week from Clemson’s biodiesel production. This past fall the research team has experimented with different mixtures for bars of soap. Initial attempts included adding pumice or seed hulls as an abrasive. The latest iteration uses a mixture of the glycerin and white clay, resembling a hardened piece of cornbread. Research associate and biodiesel guru David Thornton says their goal is to make it less crumbly and add an appealing fragrance – for the moment, the soap smells like cooking oil. To deal with the large quantities of glycerol generated, though, the team is trying to figure out how to make a liquid detergent that can be used in Clemson’s dining halls for everyday mopping. This creates a useful product made from their own cooking oil, and could save on cleaning material costs.

This Creative Inquiry team still has more ideas cooking up in their frying pan. Dr. Walker and students are also looking into algae to produce fuel. The growing algae feed off the CO2 generated by the engine that purifies the oil, making the biodiesel purification process even more environmentally friendly. The team will then process the algae into oil, which will go on to become even more biodiesel. Algae are also a high quality source of protein that can be used for animal feed. Another idea that the team would like to explore is feeding biodiesel waste products to black soldier fly larvae. “They harvest themselves,” Thornton explains, as the larvae will eventually become pupae that can be rendered back into biodiesel production or as protein pellets for livestock feed. A square foot of fly larvae will consume three pounds of food waste. When it’s time to pupate, the larvae are trained to move through channels and fall into a bucket. The pupae can be processed to produce both oil and a protein meal that can be used in composting and as feed.

This Creative Inquiry team is the driving force behind Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. They bring biodiesel to Clemson University’s utility vehicles with little to no harm to the environment. Thomas Green Clemson would be proud.

Saving Clemson’s Mascot

There are only 3,200 wild tigers left in the world. The enormity of this problem has not gone unnoticed by Clemson students. In 1997, Clemson students founded Tigers for Tigers, a student initiative to support tiger conservation around the world. As Tigers for Tigers president Sean Carnell explains, “There are over fifty schools out there with tiger mascots. Here at Clemson, we know how much pride these mascots make us feel for our school. So we decided to work with other schools to extend the pride from the football field to help real tigers in the wild.”

Initially, Tigers for Tigers aimed to create a national coalition and host the first national summit to promote collegiate awareness about the situation. The student group was able to gain the support of President Barker, who sent letters to other tiger mascot schools to enlist support for the cause. Collaborating with the 57 other tiger mascot universities was not an easy task. Tigers for Tigers advisor, Dr. David Tonkyn, and a group of dedicated students formed a Creative Inquiry team. After two years of hard work, the team made the dream of a national coalition become a reality, as the National Tigers for Tigers Coalition was formed. This united effort allows students across the country to work together through social media, advocacy programs and involvement abroad to help protect tigers. In April 2013, the team hosted a National Tigers for Tigers Summit. The purpose of the Summit was to establish a foundation for the national organization, develop a strategic plan for students helping tigers and promote student awareness of the issues associated with tiger conservation.

The 2013 conference was an enormous success. Featured speakers included Dr. Ron Tilson, a world premiere tiger biologist, Dr. John Fitzgerald, the senior policy director for the Society for Conservation Biology, representatives from the International Fund for Animal Welfare and many others. While sparking awareness and admiration in students interested in tiger conservation, visiting tiger experts also helped the Creative Inquiry team establish Tigers for Tigers as a national organization. Carnell explains, “we built wonderful connections with our partners. Especially at the conference, we worked with wonderful people who knew exactly what needed to happen to make a change. They showed us how national policies are developed. It was way more exciting than reading a textbook.”

Beyond the conference, Tigers for Tigers is working to improve its social media outreach program through developing a Facebook page and filming viral videos to spread awareness. And the Creative Inquiry group aims to promote the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, a federal bill banning the private ownership of big cats in the United States. Also, for the past nine years, Tonkyn and former Director of International Student Services Louis Bregger have offered an opportunity for students to visit India to see tigers in the wild and learn about their conservation. Such opportunities are important for the success of the coalition, Carnell notes, because “that’s where all the motivation started for us. We went to India, saw tigers in the wild, and came back excited to help.” The incredibly diverse number of projects Tigers for Tigers encompasses makes this Creative Inquiry project applicable to students with all sorts of interests including finance, marketing and biological sciences.

As Tigers for Tigers continues to grow and develop, the group hopes to expand on a national level. But as 11 schools are now united across the country, working tirelessly to help real tigers around the world, Tigers for Tigers has successfully made solid steps to saving Clemson’s beloved mascot: the Bengal tiger.

Don’t be Crabby: Creative Inquiry Students are Making a Splash

Imagine going to a local seafood restaurant and not being able to order your favorite dish-ever again. Research being conducted by Clemson students is showing that blue crabs may disappear from the menu due to human impacts on the environment. This active group led by Dr. Michael Childress, a professor in biological sciences, introduces students to the many challenges of conserving our ocean resources. This includes studying the effects of climate change, consequences of fishing, and problems caused by human development. Students first read and discuss articles based on these topics, then conduct lab and field experiments, and eventually progress to develop and carry out their own research. The long-term goal of this team is to use the data that they collect to predict future effects of environmental change.

This Creative Inquiry team was created in 2008, and they have been actively working ever since. One of the greatest accomplishments was the creation of the Living Laboratory program at the Keys Marine Lab (KML) in Florida, a near-shore research project observing marine communities. The team played a direct role in developing the protocols for this science outreach program, designed for school groups ranging from high school to college students. Visitors collect data by snorkeling in five locations at the KML in order to build a large dataset for examining the health of marine communities in the Florida Keys. In addition, this team has been responsible for three scientific publications and has developed an online blog.

The team studies two main topics: the effects of water salinity and drought on blue crabs in the ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve in Bennett’s Point, SC, and the effects of habitat loss on juvenile Caribbean spiny lobster behavior at the KML. Not only do they travel to both of these locations, but they also attend the Benthic Ecology meeting every year where their group posters won two outstanding student presentation awards in 2010. Recent meetings have been in Wilmington, NC, and Mobile, AL.

When there are large changes in water quality, important components of lobsters’ habitat, like sea grass and sponges, die out. Lobsters use these habitats for protection while they are young, and the Creative Inquiry team studies the behavioral changes in these lobsters as the environmental conditions change. There is a trade-off between being aggressive and owning a piece of habitat individually and being cooperative and sharing it with other lobsters. Perhaps juvenile lobsters are smarter than we think-they may be able to work together to adjust to their habitat no matter what conditions we throw at them.

The group also studies many aspects of life in juvenile blue crabs in their lab at Clemson. They’re able to look at things such as settlement, survival, and growth patterns in the lab, but they also collect data on predation and disease out in the field. They use computer models to predict future population dynamics based on the data they have collected.

Lobsters and blue crabs are among some of the most important marine animals that we harvest, and while lobster populations are stable, blue crab populations are declining. Not only is overfishing draining the blue crab population, but water quality also plays a major role in their reproduction. Changes in estuary salinity due to human irrigation have detrimental impacts on juvenile blue crabs. Dr. Childress believes that without both regulated fishing and water quality control, it would be very difficult to have sustainable populations of blue crabs in the future.

Kelsey McClellan, a second year student on the Creative Inquiry team, has been able to work with both the blue crabs and lobsters in Clemson. She enjoys getting involved with all aspects of lab work, from animal care to data analysis. Her experiences on this team have influenced her decision to pursue marine research as a career because she realized that research can be interactive and multi-faceted.

This Creative Inquiry shows that you don’t need to live at the beach to make huge impacts in marine conservation. Not only do the team members conduct a lot of research in their own lab and in the field, but their development of the KML Living Laboratory allows students from everywhere to gain hands-on experience while contributing to an ongoing study. It’s necessary to reduce man’s effects on the environment as much as possible in order to sustain our planet, and studies like this Creative Inquiry bring hope that conservation can be successful.