“Here’s a cervical collar for Tanzania,” says Dean, an associate professor in Clemson’s globally recognized department of bioengineering, as she holds a neck brace woven from African grasses.

In much of Africa, medical equipment is costly and in short supply. So, Dean’s Creative Inquiry undergraduate research students designed a collar to be made by local basket weavers for about $5.

Another student team developed a neonatal warming blanket to sustain preemies in Tanzanian hospitals. The battery-operated unit costs about $30, and the team hopes to have the blankets produced locally, as well.

Dean and her colleagues manage a total of 10 Creative Inquiry teams. One of those groups won the 2014 Lemelson-MIT national collegiate “Cure It!” prize for technology inventions to improve healthcare. (A particularly exciting award for Dean, an MIT graduate.) The winning work? Producing unusually low-cost glucose test strips using a standard inkjet printer and a glucometer using widely available parts.

The undergraduate students are encouraged to think creatively and openly about different applications or new combinations of existing materials. They also have a patent pending for an ultrasound rotator cuff to image and assess muscle tissue in shoulder injury patients. Two students hacked a Wii for sensors and got the project rolling. Her students thrive as they see their work come to life in ways that directly benefit people.

“We collaborate really well across the disciplines,” Dean says. “When students go to work for industry, they have great experience.”

Dean’s personal research in her microscopy lab studies how cells interact with different materials, as well as how they change through disease and injury. An $850,000 NIH grant supports this molecular investigation with implications for heart attack prevention.

One of Clemson’s newest bioengineering programs is a joint MBA/MS that brings entrepreneurial opportunities for students. Student researchers who help to invent a patented item share in the profits as well. “This opportunity for lab involvement, for hands-on design, is not found at other places,” Dean says. The bioengineering department has now received a “cold call” from a neurosurgeon that prompted students to work together on a new project.

Determined to improve lives through science — Head On