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Clemson genetics major receives prestigious Truman award

A person in a lab coat and gloves holding a pipette.

Recognized for her commitment to raising accessibility awareness and ambition to influence health care policy related to her rare disease research, Elizabeth Caldwell, a National Scholar and third-year genetics major, has been named a Truman Scholar. She is Clemson’s fourth Truman Scholar since 2017 and the University’s fifth recipient in 42 years.

The Truman Scholarship, named in honor of the late U.S. President Harry S. Truman, is given to high-achieving college students who show commitment to public service and potential to continue that service beyond graduation. Caldwell will receive up to $30,000 for graduate study, leadership training, career counseling and other opportunities within the federal government. She is the only student to be named a Truman Scholar in South Carolina this year.

“I am incredibly excited and honored to join this amazing network of change-makers and advocates,” said Caldwell. 

Caldwell plans to work at the intersection of medicine and healthcare policy, with a focus on addressing patients with rare diseases that involve both invisible and visible disabilities. She plans to attend the Truman Summer Institute after she graduates and eventually apply for competitive MD/MPH programs to begin her career serving the healthcare sector.

University President Jim Clements surprised Caldwell with the news during a Clemson University Board of Trustees meeting last week.

For only the 5th time in University history, one of our very own Tigers has been named a Truman Scholar,”  said University President Jim Clements. “Elizabeth Caldwell, our newest Truman Scholar, is incredible, and the work she is doing to support people with disabilities as well as her research in genetics will have a significant impact on the lives of people across the nation and the world. This is an exciting day for Elizabeth and for Clemson, and it is also a great example of the work our students, faculty and staff do every day to elevate our University to new heights.CLEMSON UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT JIM CLEMENTS 

Leadership and Service 

Caldwell’s volunteer and advocacy initiatives made her an ideal candidate for this award. 

She is the only undergraduate student currently serving on President Clement’s Accessibility Commission, which works to ensure that students, employees and visitors with a diverse range of abilities have the tools and environment needed to succeed.

Caldwell also championed disability awareness by co-founding Tigers 4 Accessibility, a club that aims to decrease the stigma surrounding disability while promoting disability inclusivity and physical accessibility on campus.

Last month, the club hosted its second annual Accessibility Awareness Week (AAW). This year’s AAW included daily educational and social events, such as a wheelchair basketball clinic, a trivia night and a grilled cheese fundraiser that engaged over 200 students. 

“Our focus for this year’s AAW was to create events where students with disabilities and able-bodied students could get to know each other and organically educate each other,” said Caldwell. “We work to shed light on issues that face the disability community, both on campus and nationally, so that we can work together to make lasting, positive change.”   

Sarah Winslow, dean of the Clemson University Honors College and former director of the National Scholars Program, said that Caldwell is making a significant impact — and leading change — on campus and in the scientific community. 

“Elizabeth came to Clemson for its unrivaled undergraduate research opportunities,” said Winslow. “She has excelled in that but has also found her voice in combining these experiences with high-impact efforts to improve lives. We are so proud of her and all she is doing to effect change.”

Caldwell also volunteers at the Clemson Free Clinic, a local medical center that provides health care to the area’s low-income population. When she saw a need for funds to provide durable medical equipment to Free Clinic patients, she created a Mobility Aid Program to raise awareness and organized fundraisers to purchase medical equipment. 

Caldwell plans to help drive legislative updates that can better support people with disabilities. She has already begun these efforts, spearheading a number of letter-writing campaigns.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with many Truman Scholars during my career, and they just have a special quality,” said Robyn Curtis, the director of  Clemson’s Office of Major Fellowships. “From the start of this process I saw that Truman fire and drive in Elizabeth. I am so pleased that the Foundation saw it, too.”

Personal Commitment 

Caldwell’s research on rare diseases and disability advocacy is rooted in her personal experience. 

At 14 years old, Caldwell was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a group of disorders that affect connective tissues supporting the skin, bones, blood vessels and many other organs and tissues.

Caldwell has been determined to find answers for diseases like hers that are under-researched. 

Later this month, Caldwell will be a guest speaker at TEDx Clemson to share her experiences as a person without disability, as a person with an invisible disability and as a person with a visible disability. She believes her unique experiences, having held each of these identities, will allow her to be a change agent in healthcare access.

“My first-hand experience with a disability has shown me that it often adds another financial burden to the cost of a patient’s health care,” said Caldwell. “I want to take my perspective, see patients, do the necessary research and then advocate for a policy that helps my patients receive the care they need.”

Academic and Professional Excellence 

Last summer, Caldwell was an intern with St. Jude’s pediatric oncology education program, where she researched a rare, cancerous fusion protein related to leukemia and was able to find a drug that showed “promise for treating the disease.” Her work led to a co-authored publication in Leukemia, which is one of the leading journals in its field.

Caldwell will return to St. Jude’s for a second internship this summer, where she hopes to break even more ground in finding answers for under-researched diseases. 

Michael Sehorn, Caldwell’s research mentor and associate professor in the Department of Genetics and Biochemistry, said the Truman award is indicative of her potential. 

“The Truman Award underscores Elizabeth’s remarkable dedication to advocating for inclusivity for people with disabilities, highlighting her tireless efforts to promote accessibility and equal opportunities,” said Sehorn. “Her recognition also signifies her tremendous potential to drive impactful changes in public health policy, addressing critical issues faced by individuals with disabilities.”

Truman Scholarship 

Caldwell joins 60 scholars selected from a pool of 709 candidates nominated by 285 colleges and universities.

Since the origin of the Truman Scholarship in 1975, five Clemson students have been named Truman Scholars: Caldwell in 2024, Ronnie Clevenstine in 2021, Ashni Bhojwani in 2020, Killian McDonald in 2017 and Joyce Baugh in 1979.

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Tamia Sumpter

Tamia is a driven senior undergraduate Bioengineering student currently enrolled at Clemson University. With a strong foundation in her field, she has honed her skills through hands-on experience in research and development at Eli Lilly & Company. During her time in the ADME department, Tamia contributed significantly by working on siRNAs and their applications in finding In Vitro-In Vivo Correlation (IVIVC). Looking ahead, Tamia has set her sights on a promising career in law. She aspires to specialize in Intellectual Property Law, with a particular focus on serving as in-house counsel for leading medical device or pharmaceutical companies. Her enthusiasm for this role is palpable as she prepares to embark on her legal journey! She is also a proud member of the Omicron Phi chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., PEER Mentor for Clemson PEER/WiSE, and currently serves as the President of Clemson Bioengineering Organization (CBO). With her unique blend of scientific knowledge and legal interests, Tamia is poised to make a meaningful impact in the healthcare and life sciences industries.