Public Release: 

Clemson awarded USDA-NIFA grant in computational genomics to train students from underrepresented groups

Clemson University


IMAGE: Chris Robinson was an undergraduate student at Clemson University who now works in the genetics industry. view more

Credit: Amy Lawton-Rauh / Clemson University

CLEMSON, South Carolina - Clemson University's Institute of Translational Genomics - which continues to gain prominence for stretching the limits of computational research in agriculture and health - will soon be expanding its reach even further with the addition of a three-year fellowship program designed to recruit and develop future leaders in the burgeoning field of agriculturally oriented computational science.

A $238,500 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture - a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture - has been awarded to the university to recruit three promising graduate student scholars. The project places special emphasis on attracting candidates from underrepresented groups and protected classes, including black, Hispanic and female scholars. In addition, the offices of the provost and vice president for research at Clemson have committed funds to cover the cost of a fourth student.

Project leader Stephen Kresovich, Coker Chair of Genetics at Clemson, said that this is the first-ever award for the university in this peer-reviewed national competition. Only about a dozen other universities received this grant in 2016.

"This will lay the foundation for developing interdisciplinary training for our new certificate program in translational genomics," Kresovich said. "It will truly link agricultural, life and computing sciences to serve the land-grant mission of the institution. Our goal is to cross-train and mentor the next generation of leaders who will be promoting and enhancing a safe, sufficient and nutritious food and/or energy supply for the U.S. and the world."

Clemson's NIFA program, which is titled "National Needs Training in Computationally Intensive Genomic Analysis and Application," will scour the nation in search of top scholars using a variety of community resources and recruitment venues and tools. These will include databases of minorities seeking all-encompassing world-class graduate programs; resources from scientific and professional societies and high-profile journals; networks of undergraduate researchers at historically black colleges and tribal colleges; graduate program coordinators; and social media. Applications for Year 1 will begin in late 2016 or early 2017. Each candidate must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

A renowned team of participating faculty from three of the university's seven colleges - Science; Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences; and Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences - will initiate and facilitate an inclusive program that will recruit students from underrepresented groups. In this regard, Clemson University has already been successful in the fields of engineering and science, which provides models that will be used as a springboard for the fellowship program's recruitment and retention efforts.

"Scientifically, we are concentrating on computationally intensive approaches - how we can use computers to analyze DNA data - to tackle problems in agriculture by providing solutions to immediate issues while being mindful of the many grand challenges we face in the long term," said Amy Lawton-Rauh, an associate professor in the department of Genetics and Biochemistry who is co-director of the NIFA project along with Kresovich. "Of equal importance is our laser-sharp focus on training scholars from underrepresented groups - as they are among the rising leaders who will provide the elegant solutions we need in society for a sustainable and healthy future."

The NIFA project will become an integral part of the university's recently released ClemsonForward plan, which calls for Clemson University to be an innovative leader in research excellence and high-quality graduate education.

"This project intentionally bridges strengths, resources and disciplines described in the ClemsonForward plan," said Robert Jones, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost. "It is a great fit for our vision of building a bigger 'pie' for research and graduate education."

Clemson, which consistently ranks among the top 100 programs in their respective scientific fields, possesses the institutional capacity to build a unique curriculum linking agricultural, computational and genomic sciences.

"Agriculture is not only about traditional crops," Lawton-Rauh said. "For example, nutrition as part of personalized medicine extends into human health. The approaches we use in agriculture go hand in hand with approaches used in medicine. Agriculture encompasses all aspects of human and environmental health - locally and across the globe."

The four Ph.D students will each receive $73,500 in stipend-student aid for a three-year period and an additional $6,000 per year for a cost-of-education allowance. The aim is for all four to earn their doctorate degrees in four to six years. After the three-year stipend ends, the students will receive additional funding from a variety of public and private sources to help complete their education.

Learning activities for the NIFA program will be varied and extensive:

  • Experiential learning: group and research meetings, laboratory rotations and workshops on how to communicate effectively with the media.

  • Computational experience: classes, workshops and short courses.

  • Teaching experience: a prepared class lecture in an undergraduate course and interactions with undergraduate research interns.

  • Measuring performance outcomes: one-on-one meetings with Kresovich, Lawton-Rauh, faculty advisors and other key participants to keep track of each fellow's progress.

  • Field, industrial laboratory and networking experience: one week per year at selected CU Research and Education centers and additional visits to agribusiness and research companies throughout the Southeast, such as Titan Farms in Ridge Spring, S.C., and Smithfield Foods in Rose Hill, N.C.

"We want to give them every opportunity to become agricultural leaders in South Carolina and throughout the Southeast, nation and the world. We're not just sponsoring excellent students for our individual research programs," Lawton-Rauh said. "We want this program to become the first step in leveraging more funds, resources and experiences for training graduate students in computational genomics. We're positioning the Clemson program to be a catalyst for placing increasing numbers of minorities and women in scientific leadership positions in agriculture.

"Our desire is to build on this foundational award through a coordinated expansion of the total number of fellowships in subsequent years via support and engagement with industrial sponsors, several of which have already shown interest in helping to finance the program."


This material is based upon work supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) under Grant No. 2016-38420-25299. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NIFA.

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