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Chad Duke, PE, has performed a variety of roles during his 20-plus-year career at UAB, but none of them bigger than his current role as Director of the UAB Engineering and Innovative Technology Development (EITD) research group.

Chad Duke 320Duke took over as EITD’s second director following the retirement of longtime director Lee Moradi, Ph.D., earlier this year. In his new role, Duke plans to fulfill EITD’s current contracts—including its long-running projects of designing and maintaining cold-stowage products for use on the International Space Station (ISS)—while also leveraging the group’s expertise to embrace new opportunities.

“EITD’s work with NASA has long been a point of pride for the School of Engineering and for UAB,” said Jeff Holmes, M.D., Ph.D., Dean of the School of Engineering. “Replacing the founding director of an organization is always a daunting task, but in this case, it makes sense to turn to someone who has spent his entire career as a part of the EITD team. I have no doubt that Chad Duke is the right choice to continue EITD’s success in the years ahead.”

Twenty Years of Preparation

A native of Ranburne, a small town in east Alabama, Duke earned an associate’s degree from Ayers State Technical College and completed all of his core curriculum at Gadsden State Community College before transferring to UAB, where he earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering in 2000.

Barely two weeks after graduation, Duke started a job with the UAB Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering, which at that time was primarily concerned with the study of protein crystallography under the direction of UAB Optometry Professor (and former astronaut) Larry Delucas, O.D., Ph.D.

polarThis Polar unit is one of several cold-stowage products built by EITD engineers for use on the International Space Station. The units are used for everything from galley refrigerators to freezers capable of freezing scientific samples to as low as negative 95 degrees Celcius.In the years that followed, Duke worked in a variety of engineering roles as the group’s focus shifted from protein crystallography to designing and manufacturing thermal control systems including GLACIER, the first of several cold-stowage products designed by UAB engineers for use in space. Initially designed for use on Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS) missions, UAB’s cold-stowage hardware was soon adapted for use on NASA’s new commercial cargo and crew vehicles developed by Space-X and Northrup Grumman that replaced the Shuttle for transporting both crew and cargo to and from the ISS.

As the NASA-related projects expanded, the CBSE engineering group evolved into EITD, and Duke’s responsibilities continued to grow under the mentorship of CBSE’s first-class senior engineers. In 2010, he moved into a managerial role as a Research Engineer and Systems Section Manager. In that position, he supervised a team of engineers responsible for system performance, integration and flight operations for UAB’s space-flight hardware.

Duke would later work as Mechanical Section Manager, Research Machine Shop Manager, and (most recently) Quality Assurance Manager, before a surprising meeting with Moradi in early 2022.

“I don’t think anyone saw it coming,” Duke said. “I was completely surprised when he told me he was going to retire. And then when he asked if I would be interested in replacing him as director, I was speechless. I asked if I could take a few days to think about it.”

Team First

The extra time, Duke says, wasn’t so much to consider the job or the expanded opportunities. Instead, he says he wanted to discuss the change with Tanya, his wife of 21 years, as well as his EITD colleagues whose total support he says was vital. “The strength of EITD has always been our teamwork,” he explained. “If the other engineers and support staff had any reservations at all about me being the new director, I didn’t want to do it.”

Lewis EITDEITD engineers provide around-the-clock monitoring of their products from their remote control operations center on the UAB campus. Once those concerns were answered to his satisfaction, Duke accepted the job and began a crash course on directing a multi-million-dollar operation. “I had gained a thorough understanding of the operations of the organization while working as the Quality Manager for several years,” he said. “I already knew the details of the engineering and fabrication processes through my experience managing the mechanical and systems sections, but I had never had to deal with budgets or contracts or any of the bigger picture aspects of running EITD. For that, I am working closely with our support staff to make sure everything stays on track.”

For the short term, keeping on track means continuing to build, maintain and monitor EITD’s cold-stowage equipment—which includes 15 systems currently on board the ISS. Those devices are constantly monitored from the EITD remote control center at UAB. The current contract for building and maintaining those devices runs through 2025.

But Duke says his new job is about much more than maintaining the status quo. With the ISS scheduled to be taken out of service in 2030, governments and private companies are already at work on what comes next, and Duke says EITD is positioning itself to continue to be a major player in those enterprises.

“There are plans for privately funded space stations that are in the early stages of development and additional commercial cargo vehicles are coming online in the next year. In addition to our low-earth orbit projects, new exploration programs for NASA are ramping up and we a pressing to be a part of these exciting new endeavors,” he said.

Two examples are the new HTV-X cargo transfer vehicle evolved from the H-II Transfer Vehicle being developed in Japan and NASA’s renewed focus on returning to the moon with the Artemis program. EITD recently sent two engineers to Japan to test its equipment on the new Japanese cargo vehicle. One of those engineers, Joe Moore, is designing and testing more robust electronics for use in the harsher environments outside of low-earth orbit, while engineer Jud Dunlap is analyzing current hardware for the higher launch loads of the newer vehicles.