About 150 engineers, medical doctors, students and health professionals gathered in Greenville on Feb. 22 for the Harriet and Jerry Dempsey Research Conference. Attendance has doubled since the annual conference started bringing together Clemson University and Prisma Health-Upstate three years ago. The conference is part of a broader effort to conduct more high-profile medical research in South Carolina, a move that could mean better and lower-cost care for the state’s patients.

From left, three men stand smiling for the camera.

The Harriet and Jerry Dempsey Research Conference is named for Jerry Dempsey, center, and his late wife, Harriet. He is pictured with conference organizers, Kevin Taaffe, left, and Dan Simionescu.

The third annual conference is the latest effort to expand the collaboration between Clemson University and Prisma Health–Upstate, formerly known as Greenville Health System. The two institutions have several joint projects in the works, including a $10-million Center for Biomedical Research Excellence that was announced in October and also includes the Medical University of South Carolina.

The Clemson University and Prisma Health–Upstate partnership is led by Windsor Westbrook Sherrill, associate vice president for health research at Clemson. She works with JoVanna King, also of Clemson, and the Clemson University School of Health Research, to identify sources of philanthropic support for health research.

Sherrill and other Clemson research leaders have built a robust research-and-teaching enterprise that brings together Clemson University faculty and Prisma Health clinicians for multidisciplinary research aimed at making the world a better place through the transformation of health care. The Clemson-Prisma Health partnership has grown to include several new professorships, a $2.66-million grant for diabetes prevention, the $10-million Center for Biomedical Research Excellence and the $31.5-million Clemson University Nursing Building.

Spence Taylor, president of Prisma Health–Upstate, said the conference will help strengthen the bonds between Clemson University and Prisma Health even further.

“Working together, we can make great strides in advancing patient-centered care, quality improvement and service innovation,” he said. “Our combined efforts can help us go further than we could working in isolation.”

“What we’re doing here is building a bridge, bringing the USC School of Medicine-Greenville GHS to Clemson University’s campus and our campus to the medical school,” Clemson bioengineer Dan Simionescu said. “We’re trying to shorten that 30-mile interval.”

The idea behind bridging the two institutions is that Clemson can bring the engineering expertise and that the health system’s clinicians can help ensure the research remains grounded in what happens in real-world health care settings.

A key pillar of that bridge is Jerry Dempsey, who received his mechanical engineering degree from Clemson in 1954 and is the former chairman of what was then known as the Greenville Health System board of trustees.

The conference is named for Dempsey and his late wife, Harriet. An endowment he provided to Clemson in 2015 created professorships for the conference’s two organizers, Simionescu and Kevin Taaffe, who both conduct research with Prisma Health–Upstate.

“This conference brings together two of South Carolina’s most influential institutions, Clemson University and Prisma Health,” Dempsey said. “I am glad to support it and look forward to a vigorous and fruitful discussion that ultimately leads to improved health care for all.”

Simionescu is the Harriet and Jerry Dempsey Professor of Bioengineering, and Taaffe is the Harriet and Jerry Dempsey Professor of Industrial Engineering.

The agenda included:

  • Tom Borg of the Medical University of South Carolina; Extracellular Matrix in Heart development regeneration;
  • Arash Kheradvar of the University of California, Irvine; Mitochondrial Transplantation for Cardiac Diseases;
  • Brian Denton of the University of Michigan; Data Analytics for Optimal Detection of Metastatic Prostate Cancer;
  • Raj Ratwani of MedStar Health; Understanding Physician Stress, Workflow, and Task Interruptions.

Most participants, were faculty members, students and administrators from Clemson and Prisma Health–Upstate. Those in town for the Society of Academic Emergency Medicine Southeastern Regional Conference were also invited.

Martine LaBerge, chair of the Department of Bioengineering, said the conference gives students, faculty and administrators a chance to network with peers and learn fresh perspectives.

“This conference, now in its third year, provides unique opportunities to explore new ground for collaboration,” she said. “Drs. Simionescu and Taaffe did an excellent job of setting the stage for an engaging discussion.”

Scott Mason, acting chair of the Department of Industrial Engineering, said the wide range of speakers on the agenda helped attract a diverse cadre of researchers and health care professionals.

“Drs. Taaffe and Simionescu are both highly accomplished and well-connected authorities in their fields,” Mason said. “They tapped their extensive networks to bring some of the nation’s top researchers to the conference.”

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, thanked Dempsey for his support.

“His generosity and vision are helping bring together Clemson University and Prisma Health–Upstate Greenville Health System to improve health care outcomes for all,” Gramopadhye said. “The work we do together will help shape the future for generations to come. Jerry Dempsey is leaving a lasting legacy.”

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Jerry Dempsey
Jerry Dempsey, the former chairman of the board of trustees for Prisma Health–Upstate (formerly known as Greenville Health System), was born and raised in Landrum, the son of textile workers. He graduated from Clemson University with a mechanical engineering degree in 1954. After graduation, Dempsey accepted a job with Owens Corning Fiberglas and left six months later to serve in the military. Dempsey later rose through the ranks of Borg-Warner, becoming president and chief operating officer in 1979. He joined WMX Technologies in 1984 as vice chairman and a year later was promoted to president and CEO of the Chemical Waste Management subsidiary, becoming chairman in 1991. Two years later, he retired as chairman and CEO and took on those positions at PPG Industries Inc. He retired from PPG in 1997.