When Clemson takes on Notre Dame in the 2018 Cotton Bowl, a berth in the national championship game will be at stake. But on the universities’ respective campuses, teams of researchers are working together – Tiger and Fighting Irish – to tackle some heavy-hitting science and societal issues.

Here, we present three collaborations that transcend the gridiron.

Cosmic connection: Clemson’s Sean Brittain and Notre Dame’s Terry Rettig 

In a photo from the 1990s, Sean Brittain shakes Terry Rettig's hand while receiving an award.

Clemson’s Sean Brittain, left, as a graduate student at Notre Dame receives congratulations from his mentor and friend Terry Rettig.
Image Credit: Photo courtesy of Sean Brittain

Clemson’s Sean Brittain and Notre Dame’s Terry Rettig have a friendship and professional collaboration going back 21 years. Brittain was a new graduate student at Notre Dame in 1997 and needed a faculty mentor. It was a typical cold winter in South Bend, and Brittain, who had gone to college in Texas, had a chilling regret for deciding against graduate school in Houston. Then he attended a presentation by Rettig, who was recruiting grad students with pizza and a talk about research done, in part, with the NASA infrared telescope in Hawaii.

Rettig was studying “the organic chemical composition of comets. I didn’t know anything about comets, but I knew a bit about organic chemistry,” Brittain says. And, he liked the slides of Hawaii.

Since then, the two scientists have co-authored 61 papers, conference proceedings and conference abstracts, says Brittain, the chair of Clemson’s department of physics and astronomy. “Our goal is to understand how this gas evolves in order to better understand how planets form.”

Rettig helped Brittain fill the gaps in his astronomy education, sending him to study with colleagues in Hawaii, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and at the University of Arizona. It paid off: while Brittain was still a student, the team co-authored papers in Science, Nature and many other journals, and Brittain’s doctoral thesis won the top graduate student award in science.

Rettig and Brittain still talk about space, and their teacher-student relationship is now grounded in a longterm friendship that extends to their families.

In this 2017 video, Brittain discusses the discovery of exoplanets.


Human-robot collaboration and autonomy: Clemson’s Yue Wang and Notre Dame’s Panos Antsaklis

From autonomous vehicles to advanced manufacturing, the world is increasingly reliant upon successful relationships between humans and robots. More simply, humans have to “trust” machines the way humans trust any other work partner.

Since coming to Clemson in 2012, Yue (Sophie) Wang has received millions of dollars from a bevy of federal agencies, from the National Science Foundation to NASA to the Air Force Office of Sponsored Research and others.

In engineering parlance, she works on “cooperative control and decision-making for human-robot collaboration systems, symbolic robot motion planning with a human-in-the-loop, cyber-physical systems, and multi-robot systems.” In other words, she figures out what humans need for a trusting work partnership, then she programs those actions into robots, from how quickly robots move to how they provide feedback to a coworker.

The foundation of her work in intelligent and autonomous control was honed as a postdoc at Notre Dame from 2011 to 2012. Panos Antsaklis, professor and chair of electrical engineering, was principal investigator of an NSF Cyber-Physical Systems project that funded Wang’s work; professor Vijay Gupta in electrical engineering and professor Bill Goodwine in mechanical engineering were co-PIs. The scientific mind melding continues to this day.

“We still communicate constantly with each other,” Wang says.

Wang and her postdoc advisor have also participated in big-time college football: Wang was honored as a faculty member during Clemson’s 2016 home football game against the University of South Carolina, and Antsaklis was similarly honored at Notre Dame at a home game in 2011 against Boston College.

In this video, Wang describes how art inspires and motivates her:


Understanding consequences: Clemson’s Miao Li and Notre Dame’s Sarah Mustillo

This is a portrait of Dr. Miao Li standing outside with the Cooper Library in the background.

Miao Li, a medical sociologist, joined Clemson’s faculty in August 2018 after a postdoc at Notre Dame.

Miao Li is one of Clemson’s newest faculty members, joining the Department of Sociology in August 2018 after a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Notre Dame. But his work, and that of his Notre Dame postdoc advisor and collaborator, has the potential to impact generations of families.

Li, a medical sociologist, and Sarah Mustillo, professor of sociology and dean of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters, study how hardships in childhood affect mental and physical health. “Childhood misfortune has a long imprint in a person’s life. It casts a long shadow,” Li says.

In one study, Li and Mustillo found that parents who are highly materialistic have children with higher levels of distress. This results from a “lack of warmth,” as materialism leads parents to view children as possessions instead of individuals, and to create a sense of happiness based on possessions instead of relationships.

The pair are also creating research statistical tools that will help the field understand the cumulative effect of childhood misfortune.

Li and Mustillo have done extensive work in China; their next step is to replicate and expand some of their studies in the United States.

“We hope our research can improve the awareness” of some parenting and familial issues that find their way into interventions and parenting programs, so at least some forms of preventable childhood misfortune become things of the past.

That’s something every team can agree is worthwhile.