Postcard from Mississippi: Lean into community and enjoy the journey

Dr Tristan Clemons, Advance GameChanger based in Mississippi

Dr Tristan Clemons Advance GameChanger and Contributor

If I look back over the past four years the first words that come to mind are what a wild ride we have had. Right now, I am an Assistant Professor within the School of Polymer Science and Engineering at the University of Southern Mississippi, one of the top four schools in the United States for Polymer Science Education and Research. My team in the Clemons Lab focuses on using polymeric materials for drug delivery and tissue regeneration applications for the treatment of a range of diseases including cancer, heart disease, and burn injuries. But let me take you back four years and just provide some context for this ‘wild ride’ I mentioned in the beginning.

Explaining microscopes at a school in India (Courtesy Tristan Clemons)

Four years ago, my wife and I were living in Perth, Western Australia, I was working on exciting research for burn injury treatments, playing field hockey for Australia, running a small business with my wife making sun smart and funky flap hats, I was a marriage celebrant, ambassador for the Rotary Foundation’s Microscope’s in Schools project, and was even able to find some spare time amongst all of that to catch up with friends and family.

Life was busy and fulfilling – but the call of an international research experience was strong.

With the Australian Field Hockey Team after their win at the Odisha Men’s Hockey World League Final Bhubaneswar 2017 (Courtesy Tristan Clemons/WORLDSPORTPICS FRANK UIJLENBROEK)

It was at this point my wife and I decided to move to Chicago in the United States as an American Australian Association Research Fellow to work with a world leader in materials for tissue regeneration in Samuel Stupp at Northwestern University. In the following 12 months my wife and I had a couple of changes, we found out we were expecting our first child, we sold our business, I retired from international hockey, we respectively left our jobs in Perth, packed up our house, and moved to the US. Oh wait, I forgot to mention that our beautiful daughter Tilly was born before we left so we took a 3 month-old from sunny Perth into a Chicago winter leaving all of our support network in Australia.

In hindsight this period for us was best described by that cartoon meme that always bounces around on social media of a dog with their cup of coffee smiling ‘this is fine’ but the house around them is burning down.

The cartoon meme that best describes Tristan and his wife’s experience packing up their family to move to Chicago with a 3 month-old, and dealing with the pandemic (Courtesy K.C. Green’s Gunshow comic #648)

The research was fast paced and exciting, but being new parents in a new city was more challenging than we initially anticipated, we also learnt quickly that Chicago winters can be brutal! But as the weather warmed and we got out more we met some amazing people, found a great network, I ran the Chicago marathon, and with some family visits and plenty of Cadbury care packages we were able to find our rhythm in Chicago. The transition from our busy lives in Perth was fulfilled with new experiences, a new city to explore, and parenthood. 

After the Chicago Marathon (Courtesy Tristan Clemons)

Within our first year we had progressed to really enjoying our time in Chicago, research was great, we were planning some holidays in the States and had found a great network for support amongst our friends and neighbours, then comes along a global pandemic. Cancelled travel plans, work from home, shift work in the labs, a sprinkle of a little more Chicago winter, oh and why not have your second child in the middle of a pandemic in a country where the only thing more complicated than how bitcoin works is the healthcare system. Back to the white dog drinking coffee amongst the flames in the burning house scenario.

In the Northwestern University Cell Culture Lab (Courtesy Tristan Clemons)

But again, the people around us, the friendships we had made – friends turned to family, neighbours became life savers and we all leant on each other to make it work. The pandemic clearly showed us some challenging times, as it did for everyone, but I feel so many positives came from it as well.

My relationship with my wife developed great strength as we leaned on each other for everything, neighbours who we had not met prior were donating toys, gifts, and babysitting for Mackenzie (our youngest) knowing we had no family around us. It is counterintuitive but the sense of support and community we felt during this period when we were social distancing and quite frankly scared to hell as COVID19 ran rampant through the US was amazing and inspirational.

Tristan and his family (Courtesy Tristan Clemons)

Inspirational enough that we have decided to stay – to continue the US adventure some more, again during the pandemic, multiple full-length days of Zoom interviewing for faculty positions, I was very fortunate to get the position at Southern Miss. As a family we have been in Mississippi for just under a year now, the Clemons Lab is established with some great students and collaborators working on exciting research right at the intersection of materials science and medicine.

We learnt our lesson in Chicago and have immediately started connecting with the community and finding friends, embracing the Southern hospitality we have experienced since arriving.

On the family front, as I write this piece, we are holidaying in Florida with my in-laws – our first visitors from Australia in approximately 3-years. As I sit here, despite the wild ride I am extremely grateful for the experiences we have had abroad to date and the opportunities we have been afforded in the US. My advice for others starting out abroad is to lean into the community and find your network for support – mentors, colleagues and friends and to enjoy the journey, the real fun is to be had while you’re on the ride. 

Connect with Tristan

Tristan Clemons is a Mississippi based prominent emerging leader in polymer science and a role model to young sports and science enthusiasts everywhere. As an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, one of only a handful of specialised polymer research departments in the U.S., Dr Clemons is pursuing cutting edge research in the way polymer materials can interface with medicine and biology. Dr Clemons and his team are working to enhance bioactivity and the 3D-printing capabilities of the hydrogel of neuronal cells. Ultimately, these techniques will lead the way in regenerative medicine applications for ailments such as spinal cord injury, cancer treatment, wound healing and cardiovascular injury.