CHARLESTON — A Clemson University professor who plays a key role in bringing together some of South Carolina’s leading minds for bioengineering research is the new Ernest R. Norville Endowed Chair in Biomedical Engineering.

Hai Yao’s appointment comes as the result of a $1.5-million gift from Mitch and Carla Norville. Mitch Norville received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Clemson in 1980, and the endowed chair is named after his father.

Hai Yao, left, works in his lab in Charleston.

Hai Yao, left, works in his lab in Charleston.

Yao oversees the Clemson-MUSC Bioengineering Program as associate chair of the department of bioengineering. The six Clemson bioengineers who take part in the program are based at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston and collaborate with MUSC scientists and clinicians on a wide range of research projects.

“Thank you to Mitch and Carla Norville for their generous support,” Yao said. “The appointment acknowledges the uniqueness of the Clemson-MUSC joint program. Clemson University sees the future in biomedical and bioengineering research. The collaboration with MUSC is going to bring Clemson tremendous opportunities.”

Mitch Norville said that Yao’s leadership and team spirit made him a perfect fit for the endowed chair appointment.

“Both are key ingredients in success, whether it’s in business or at a university,” he said. “Carla and I are glad to be able to help advance the collaboration that Dr. Yao has been so instrumental in building. It’s an honor to play a role in research that will have a positive impact on people’s health.”

Yao is one of two engineering faculty members who will receive medallions Tuesday as part of a ceremony honoring them as endowed chairs. Amy Landis, whose appointment was announced last April, is the Thomas F. Hash ‘69 SmartState Endowed Chair in Sustainable Development.

Yao is an expert in disorders of the jaw’s temporomandibular joint, commonly known as TMJ. He and his team create computer models that predict dynamic changes within the jaw, helping answer critical questions about its pathophysiology for developing new diagnosis and treatment strategies.

Yao is now using his expertise to create computer models of various organ systems that will serve as virtual clinical trials for new drugs and medical devices. The work he is doing would apply to middle- and late-stage testing and would be especially useful for drugs and devices treating musculoskeletal diseases, such as osteoarthritis, osteoporosis and back pain, he said.

Animal and human trials would still be needed. But virtual clinical trials show promise for reducing the time and cost it takes to get products to market, Yao said. The trials could also be tailored to individuals.

Yao is doing the research as leader of the group South Carolina Translational Research Improving Musculoskeletal Health, or SC-TRIMH. The group brings together Clemson and MUSC researchers with Greenville Health System clinicians.

Yao said that to create the models for virtual clinical trials, the group is working to better understand the human body and developing mathematical tools. Researchers are also working to validate the models, he said.

“One person cannot do all of that,” Yao said. “Only SC-TRIMH and Clemson can do it. We have the resources. Clemson’s bioengineering department plays a pivotal role. We have the main campus in Clemson, we have CUBEInC at Greenville Health System’s Patewood campus and we have a significant presence at MUSC through the Clemson-MUSC Bioengineering Program. These three components are perfect for SC-TRIMH and virtual human trials.”

While Yao is a Clemson faculty member, his office and lab are in the bioengineering building that opened in 2012 at MUSC as part of the $120-million James E. Clyburn Research Center. He has been based out of Charleston for 10 years.

Martine LaBerge, chair of the bioengineering department, congratulated Yao on his appointment to the endowed chair.

“This honor is a reflection of Dr. Yao’s hard work, creativity and team building,” she said. “Clemson has a strong history in bioengineering that goes back more than 50 years, and Dr. Yao’s efforts are helping ensure that the future is just as bright. I would like to thank Mitch and Carla Norville for helping make this possible.”

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said the endowed chair program helps Clemson attract and retain top talent critical to economic development.

“Dr. Yao is richly deserving of the Ernest R. Norville Endowed Chair in Biomedical Engineering,” Gramopadhye said. “He is playing a key role in creating opportunities for innovation and collaboration that is putting South Carolina at the forefront of bioengineering and biomedical research. Thank you to Mitch and Carla Norville for their support of this important initiative.”



About E. Mitchell “Mitch” Norville:

A 1980 Clemson graduate, E. Mitchell “Mitch” Norville retired as chief operating officer of Boston Properties, one of the nation’s largest self-managed real estate investment trusts, and is the owner of Atlantic South Development Inc. He is chairman of the Clemson University Foundation and past chairman of the Investment Committee. Norville also serves on the Real Estate Development and Advancement Board and is chairman of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences Dean’s Campaign Cabinet. He has made significant financial contributions to IPTAY, the basketball program and the West End Zone at Memorial Stadium, where Gate 6 is named for the Norville family. He and his wife, Carla, have three sons.