TAMUC Alum designs a cranial prosthesis with the Cornell University team


TRADE, TX—In the two years since graduating from Texas A&M University-Commerce, Karli Thornton has been busy changing the world. She has worked internationally, earned her Masters in Biomedical Engineering from Cornell University in New York City, and designed a patent-pending cranial prosthesis that can potentially help millions of patients.

None of her successes would be possible, she says, without the foundation she built at A & M-Commerce. “I have a lot of Leo love and pride in my heart,” she said.

Thornton transferred from Frank Phillips College in Borger, TX in 2016 to play volleyball for A & M-Commerce.

“I came to A & M-Commerce just for volleyball,” she said. “And, oh my god, this became the best engineering experience of my life.”

She wanted to pursue a premedical path, but switched to industrial engineering after meeting Andrea Graham, Ph.D., who heads the Department of Engineering and Technology.

“Dr. Graham said,“ If you’re interested in medicine, you can be an industrial engineer, ”Thornton recalls.

Thornton was hesitant at first, but soon discovered that industrial engineers often occupy high-level administrative positions in hospitals where they work on process improvement, stream optimization in emergency rooms, etc. .

During her course in industrial engineering, she worked with several professors who played an important role in her academic preparation.

She met former assistant professor Marty Yaqub, Ph.D., who encouraged her to consider a master’s degree in engineering after earning her bachelor’s degree. She also worked on several projects with Perry Moler, Ph.D., assistant professor of engineering and technology, who introduced her to SolidWorks, a computer-aided design and engineering software.

“A&M-Commerce provided a different skill set and mindset,” Thornton explained. “I have learned to see a problem for its possibilities, not its constraints.”

The Dean of the College of Science and Engineering, Brent Donham, Ed.D., said he was not surprised at Thornton’s success.

“We are very proud of Karli and his accomplishments. She was a very motivated individual and a strong leader during her time at A & M-Commerce, ”said Donham. “Karli is a shining example of quality graduates from the College of Science and Engineering. ”

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering in the fall of 2019, Thornton was not quite ready to pursue her Masters. She wanted an internship and she wanted to see Israel. She found both opportunities as a biomedical intern at Medinol, a manufacturer of cardiovascular stents based in Tel Aviv. The position also matched his growing interest in biomedical engineering.

“They taught me incredible engineering skills and completely changed my view of building a product and the device itself,” she said of her one-year experience. at Medinol.

While in Israel, she spent a day at a café in Tel Aviv where she applied to eight schools offering master’s degrees in biomedical engineering. She was surprised to be accepted by seven of the schools, including Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Thornton chose Cornell and began his masters studies in the fall of 2020. In addition to a year of study, the program required him to complete a biomedical engineering project. She was assigned to a team responsible for designing a cranial prosthesis for patients who have undergone craniectomy.

A craniectomy is a surgical procedure to remove part of the bone from the skull, often called a bone flap, in order to release the pressure resulting from traumatic brain injury. Doctors are more likely to stop swelling and reduce postoperative complications by leaving the bone flap open longer instead of replacing it during surgery.

Thornton said there are several internal options for replacing a bone flap during surgery, but few external options for protecting the brain when the bone flap is removed for an extended period or even permanently.

A neurosurgeon from Weill Cornell Medicine, Dr. Susan Panullo, has asked for help designing a new head prosthesis. She envisioned an external device that would protect the brain from further trauma and allow patients to live fuller lives.

The Thornton team set out to design a device that would be aesthetically pleasing and comfortable. The aircraft also had to pass TSA security checkpoints. And, since each craniectomy is unique, the design had to be customizable for each patient.

They spent a year working on the device, from conceptualization to finished product.

As the only member of the team with experience in 3D modeling, Thornton became the project manager and device designer.

“One of the main reasons I have been such an integral part of this project is that I learned a lot at A & M-Commerce about project management and 3D modeling,” Thornton reports.

She worked with Moler to learn Fusion 360, the modeling software used at Cornell. Although he was not involved in the design of the product, Moler was an integral part of the 3D modeling process.

“He was there every step of the way; I couldn’t have done it without him, ”she said.

Moler was happy to help on the project.

“When Karli asked for help, I didn’t hesitate because I know that any project she works on will have a positive impact on the company,” Moler said.

The project has expanded to collaborate with a neurosurgery clinic in Tanzania where thousands of people are killed or seriously injured in motorcycle crashes every year, resulting in large numbers of neurosurgery patients. This global expansion meant that the team’s cranial prosthesis had to be cost effective so that large numbers of the device could be sent to nonprofits around the world.

The final product consists of a device with interconnecting gaskets. Several pieces can be assembled to form a single protective device, making it customizable for the wearer. The team has been granted a provisional patent, and Thornton is optimistic that the device will ultimately be approved by the FDA due to its thorough design, material composition, and construction.

Thornton said she feels empowered by the process because she and her teammates – Stacey Kim, Shwetha Sairam and Tyler Webb – have designed a viable, cost-effective device that can help millions of people. She said they had a wonderful experience working directly with Panullo, who was the product advisor and the team sponsor.

“Dr. Panullo is one of the most positive and supportive people I have ever worked with, and she is so successful in an elite environment,” Thornton said.

The team participated in the Cornell Biomedical Engineering Design Project Showcase earlier this year against more than a dozen other teams who also designed mechanical devices and processes.

They ranked first in the design category and won the showcase pitch competition, similar to the ‘Shark Tank’ TV show in which inventors and entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to potential investors. The team also placed third in the Fusion 360 3D Modeling Software Device Drawing competition.

Thornton graduated from Cornell with her Masters in Biomedical Engineering in May of this year. She often reflects on the academic and experiential foundation she has built at A & M-Commerce, which she believes has prepared her well for the success she has enjoyed so far.

“I worked internationally and in New York, which might as well be international,” Thornton joked. “I can say that I never once felt unprepared. While dealing with great people from the Ivy League and working in another country, I did really well, all thanks to A & M-Commerce! ”

Learn more about engineering and technology programs at A & M-Commerce.


About Texas A&M University-Commerce

Texas A&M University-Commerce serves rural and metropolitan areas of eastern Texas with a dedicated mission to Educate. Discover. To achieve. With an enrollment of 11,624 students, the university is the third member of the Texas A&M University System. The 2,100-acre business campus offers many opportunities for students to learn and grow. The university offers more than 130 degrees at the undergraduate and graduate levels. A vibrant student experience includes 14 NCAA Division II sports teams, a thriving Greek system, and over 120 student-led organizations. Classes are taught onsite at Commerce, Corsicana, Dallas, McKinney, Frisco and Mesquite. In November 2021, the university will open A&M-Commerce in Dallas, located at 8750 North Central Expressway.

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