Warren Grill: On Top of Neuro-Engineering, in the Lab and the Classroom

Biomedical engineer receives 2014 University Scholar/Teacher Award

Warren Grill

Biomedical engineer Warren Grill's research has been cited more than 6,300 times. Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke University Photography

Warren Grill isn't a great tennis player, and he knows why. It's all about practice.

"Watching the U.S. Open on television, the sport looks pretty easy,” said Grill, a professor of biomedical engineering and a Bass Fellow. “But when you get out on the court, hitting the ball is hard. The only way to get better is practice. Unfortunately, when it comes to tennis, I need to practice a lot more."

Grill translates that theory in his classroom, where his Duke students get plenty of engineering practice. He teaches an undergraduate core biomedical engineering course on bioelectricity and a graduate level course on neural prosthetics, his area of expertise.  In both, he tries to keep the lectures to a minimum and emphasizes problem-solving.

"Making mistakes is valuable in engineering education," said Grill, who often challenges his upper-level students with unsolved problems from current research. "Engineering is all about problem-solving. Too often, students are afraid to fail, and it leads to a fear of initiating new approaches.  But what they need to see is even the best engineers have to make multiple failed attempts at a problem before arriving at a successful approach. 

"The best thing that can happen in class is if a student offers to solve a problem and does it wrong. Then we'll solve it together."

Grill's approach has won praise from students and engineering colleagues alike; on Thursday at the Academic Council meeting, President Richard H. Brodhead presented him with the 2014 University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award.  

The Division of Higher Education of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church established the award to honor faculty excellence in connecting teaching and research. In 2013, Edna Andrews, a linguist and neuroscientist, received the honor.  

In nominating Grill, Pratt School Dean Tom Katsouleas said he has "blazed a trail of continuing excellence in all areas of teaching, research and service."

Katsouleas noted that Grill, who directs a large lab of four postdoctoral scholars, seven Ph.D. students, two masters students and five undergrads, previously received the University Award for Excellence in Post-Doctoral Mentoring and the Pratt School's Capers & Marion McDonald Award for Excellence in Teaching and Research. 

Grill, who joined the Pratt School a decade ago and who holds secondary appointments in surgery and neurobiology, studies pacemakers for the nervous system – trying to develop devices to use electrical stimulation to improve the quality of life of patients with neurological disorders.  He's founded two companies based on the research innovations that have come out of his lab, as well as a medical device incubator.

His lab's research focus spans three primary areas: spinal cord stimulation to treat chronic pain, deep brain stimulation to treat movement disorders and electrical stimulation to restore bladder function.  

Spinal cord stimulation was just beginning when he was a Boston University undergrad, but Grill said the field remains fundamentally the same 25 years later. "That's why we're so interested," he said. "Chronic pain is big problem and there are great opportunities for advances in this promising therapy."

Deep brain stimulation targets disorders such as tremors and Parkinson's disease by placing pacemaker-like devices in specific areas of the brain. Electrical control of bladder function – which, like chronic pain, is a widespread problem -- is being driven by new collaborations between engineers and physicians.

At Duke, Grill loves being able "to walk five minutes across campus and learn first-hand how devices are working in the clinic."

That ease of collaboration, he said, makes for better biomedical engineering research and for better education.

"The students and I enjoy being able to hear from clinicians to understand what works well in practice, what should work differently, and where the challenges lie. Engineers can always conceive of problems to solve, but it's much better that we solve a real problem that exists in the clinic.”