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Ken Gall Named Chair of Duke’s MEMS Department

Ken Gall has been named chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science in the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University.

Ken Gall has been named chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science in the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University. An interdisciplinary scientist whose work focuses on developing and understanding advanced materials for biomedical applications, Gall is currently a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He will join Duke June 1 and assume the role of chair on July 1, 2015.Duke MEMS Chair Ken Gall

“In our national search, Ken distinguished himself as someone of tremendous energy, exceptional teaching and leadership ability, and broad talents in engineering and entrepreneurship,” said Tom Katsouleas, Vinik Dean of the Pratt School of Engineering. “We believe he not only provide a boost to Duke MEMS but to several other of our school’s strategic priorities, including enhancing innovation and entrepreneurship in collaboration with the Duke I&E Initiative, creating a joint initiative between Engineering and Medicine, and developing  a nationally recognized program that builds upon our strengths in materials science.”

Gall founded the medical device company MedShape, which commercializes new polymers and alloys that can change shape on demand to actively mold to human tissue—a useful trick in many medical procedures including reconstructive surgery. MedShape has five products cleared through the FDA and used in orthopedic surgeries, including a fusion system that keeps ankle joint bones together while healing and soft tissue fasteners to help graft tendons onto the skeleton. All of the materials used by MedShape were a focus of strong basic research efforts in Gall's lab before being translated to clinical use. 

With a joint appointment in Georgia Tech’s departments of mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering, Gall is well-prepared to lead a department that unites the two.

“Duke is strong in both materials science and mechanical engineering, and having the two fused together into a single department presents unique opportunities for collaboration,” said Gall. “With a deep pool of talented young faculty joining a solid foundation of experienced senior faculty, the department is currently in a sweet spot that I find very attractive.”

Gall also sees opportunities to leverage ties to Duke’s world-class medical school and leading biomedical engineering department—opportunities his own work demonstrates.

Gall’s research has arms in both basic research and applied science. In the former, he explores how material structure influences the properties of biomaterials, and how that structure can be used to make a stronger material or give it a unique mechanical or biological response. He also works with materials that can spontaneously change to a different shape.

In translating his basic research into new applications, Gall works closely with clinicians to create better solutions for helping the human body mend itself after injury or surgery. For example, he helped create an active intramedullary nail (a metal rod placed within the bone) to replace traditional static materials used during fusion surgeries in the foot and ankle. Unlike its rigid predecessors, the nail’s material contracts along with the body’s tissue during healing—reducing failure rates for the fusion surgery from the typical 50 percent down to around 5 percent.  Another device, currently in review at the FDA, is based on a new porous, high strength plastic discovered in his lab that better integrates spinal discs during fusion procedures to help relieve back and neck pain. While existing metal devices on the market stay in place well, they can’t be imaged with MRI; traditional plastic devices, on the other hand, can be imaged but don’t hold well. The porous plastic material in the new device checks both boxes.

The ankle “nail” technology, coincidentally, is being studied in a clinical trial at Duke Medicine.

“I feel like there’s a huge interest at Duke in bringing new technologies to market,” said Gall. “Here, innovation and entrepreneurship isn’t something extra that faculty have to work at on the side—it is actively encouraged. I like that basic research that is translated into devices that directly benefit people can be a part of what you do as a professor. It will be a big thrust of mine, and of course not everybody has to follow that path, but I want to make sure they all have the opportunity.”

Whatever path faculty choose to take under Gall’s leadership, it will be something they’re passionate about.

“I definitely want to help people work on things they’re most excited about,” said Gall. “Five years from now, I’d love for the department to have grown substantially in size and to help my colleagues work in state-of-the-art areas that not only attract new funding, but also new attention and recognition to the department.”

That in turn will help fuel another of Gall’s priorities; strengthening educational opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students. “One thing that really appealed to me was how passionate Duke Engineering faculty are about teaching and engagement with students,” he said. “I want to support that so that every one of our students leaves Duke having had a very positive experience that prepares them for success.”   

Gall succeeds Earl Dowell, who has served as chair of Duke MEMS since 2010. Dowell, a former dean of Duke Engineering, will continue on the faculty as the William Holland Hall Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

Video (shows slides with audio)