Hai Yao and Michael Kern were posing for a picture in a lab packed with microscopes, computers and other scientific equipment when the photographer asked, “How close are you?”

Without hesitation, Kern threw an arm around Yao’s shoulders, and they beamed at the camera with the kind of familiarity that comes from working together for 13 years.

Michael Kern, left, and Hai Yao, right, work with rising sophomore Shad Grant in a lab on MUSC's campus.

Michael Kern, left, and Hai Yao, right, work with rising sophomore Shad Grant in a lab on MUSC’s campus.

Yao is a Clemson University professor, and Kern is a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. But to the professors, any divisions between the two universities have been  completely erased.

Yao and Kern serve as a shining example of how researchers from two institutions can work seamlessly together, sharing ideas, constructive criticism and credit for success.

The partnership has benefitted both. Yao and Kern have generated millions in research funding, co-authored several papers and provided dozens of students with opportunities to work on the cutting-edge of bioengineering research.

The collaboration serves as a model others could follow, Yao and Kern said.

Trust and respect for each other has been key, they said, and so has support from the two universities’ leadership, including: Martine LaBerge, chair of the Department of Bioengineering at Clemson; Tanju Karanfil, vice president for research at Clemson; Kathleen Brady, vice president for research at MUSC; Robert Jones, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at Clemson; and Lisa Saladin, executive vice president of academic affairs and provost at MUSC.

“Clemson and MUSC can do a joint venture with each other, so this is a good example,” said Yao, the Ernest R.Norville Endowed Chair in Biomedical Engineering. “If another party wants to do these things with Clemson, we can develop another collaborative program like this.”

A big part of what makes it possible is the Clemson-MUSC Bioengineering Program. The program started in 2003 as a way of strengthening health care research in South Carolina.

Yao, who now serves as associate bioengineering department chair for the program, is among six Clemson faculty members embedded at MUSC and treated as if they were MUSC faculty members.

They have office and lab space on MUSC’s campus in downtown Charleston. Bureaucratic hurdles, such as parking permits, have been cleared away.

One of the big advantages of bringing together Clemson’s bioengineers and MUSC’s clinicians and scientists is that they can approach the same research challenges from different perspectives. The approach helps come up solutions that neither group could discover on its own.

Yao and Kern began collaborating in 2005.

Yao was a postdoctoral researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology when he left to join the Clemson-MUSC Bioengineering Program as an assistant professor.  Kern, the more senior researcher, served as Yao’s mentor.

They have tapped several spigots of funding and worked on several projects over the years.

One of the latest projects is overseeing a T32 training program in MUSC’s James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine. The program is funded by the National Institutes of Health and “encourages innovative and novel research training opportunities for individuals interested in pursuing independent research careers in dental, oral, and craniofacial research,” Yao and Kern said in a written statement.

“This training program is critical for the dental school at MUSC,” Yao and Kern said in the statement. “Only 16 dental schools in the nation have this program.”

Kern served as principal investigator until turning over the role to Yao on July 1.

Another area of focus for Yao and Kern has been a National Institutes of Health program that provides funding to establish Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence, also called COBRE.

Each center has a specific research theme and can receive as much as $30 million distributed in three phases over 15 years. Junior faculty mentors are paired with more senior colleagues who serve as mentors, showing their mentees how to secure their own federal funding for research.

“This is a grant where you give them some money, but you mentor their development,” said Kern, who is a professor in MUSC’s Department of Regenerative Medicine and Cell Biology. “You help work with them, talk with them about things like publications and research and writing grant applications.”

In their first project together, Yao trained under Kern with funding they secured through the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence for Oral Health Research, based at MUSC.

What Yao learned helped him launch his academic career and would serve him well nearly a decade later when he set out to start a separate COBRE, one based at Clemson.

“He was the apprentice, and I was the more senior person,” Kern said of the early days of their collaboration. “Now, it’s flipped. He’s the principal investigator, and I’m helping him.”

Yao in 2014 began pursuing funding for a COBRE that would be based at Clemson, and it worked.

The National Institutes of Health decided in fall 2018 to provide $11 million to establish a COBRE that researchers are calling SC-TRIMH, an acronym for the South Carolina Translational Research Improving Musculoskeletal Health.

Kern’s guidance and experience with three other COBREs played an instrumental role in establishing SC-TRIMH, Yao said.

“Basically, if there’s no Dr. Kern, there’s no SC-TRIMH,” Yao said.

Through the center, Yao and Kern are now trying to replicate their success with other mentors and mentees, playing matchmaker to 13 pairs of faculty members.

“We’ll multiply by 13 at least,” Yao said with a smile. “Maybe they’ll do much better than us.”

Yao and Kern provided further elaboration on their involvement in the T32 program in a written statement:  “NIDCR/NIH provides support through the T32 program to eligible institutions to encourage innovative and novel research training opportunities for individuals interested in pursuing independent research careers in dental, oral, and craniofacial research. Training programs provide trainees with a robust curriculum of study and research experiences that will facilitate development toward independent research careers (i.e., university professors). The trainees include Ph.D. students, DMD/Ph.D. students, and postdoctoral fellows. Some are Clemson bioengineering Ph.D. students and postdocs, who have become university professors and rising stars in their research fields. Dr. Kern was the principal investigator for this program, and Dr. Yao helped him as a student mentor and steering committee member. Since July 1 this year, Dr. Yao is the principal investigator and Dr. Kern is assisting him as a co-principal investigator. They received strong support from both Clemson and MUSC leaderships, especially Dean Huja (MUSC, James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine) and Dean Gramopadhye (Clemson College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences).”