Engineering a new approach to health care challenges
By Jill Yesko
Russell Taylor recalls the many hours he spent as a Hopkins undergraduate, writing computer programs in the Eisenhower Library for his advisor, Mandell Bellmore. The programs implemented an algorithm designed by another Bellmore advisee, John Malone. At the time, Taylor couldn’t have predicted that Malone would one day become his benefactor.
But that’s exactly what happened. In 2011, Taylor received the first in a series of professorships endowed by Whiting School of Engineering alumnus Malone, a pioneer in communications and media and current chairman of Liberty Media Corporation and Liberty Global, Inc. The John C. Malone Professorships support faculty whose work crosses the borders of multiple disciplines, particularly engineering and medicine. To date, three faculty members (including Taylor) have received full professorships and three have received assistant professorships. All are part of the John C. Malone Center for Engineering in Healthcare housed in Malone Hall, which was built thanks to a previous gift from Malone in 2011.
“The commitment John Malone has made to our faculty through Malone Hall and these professorships ensures that, in partnership with our colleagues in the School of Medicine, we will deliver on our promise to help transform health care and make an impact on patients and systems around the world,” says T.E. “Ed” Schlesinger, the Benjamin T. Rome Dean of the Whiting School.
Taylor has been making that kind of impact for decades. He joined the Hopkins faculty in 1995 after working at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center for 19 years. There, he led a team that developed the prototype for Robodoc, considered the first surgical assistant robot for major procedures. Taylor has licensed his patents to some of the world’s largest medical robotics companies, and in 2015, he received the Honda Prize for his contributions in medical robotics.
“I think engineering culture is very much about solving problems in the world,” says Taylor, who directs both the Engineering Research Center for Computer-Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology and the Laboratory for Computational Sensing and Robotics at Hopkins. “The constant in my research has been a partnership between physicians and robotics, and the desire to change processes. A lot of my work is focused on getting each individual patient the best intervention.”
The Malone Professorship has allowed Taylor to build upon his groundbreaking research in medical robotics by providing seed funding for projects like the new Galen Surgical System. Galen is a robot that can reduce surgeons’ hand tremors and increase precision during head and neck microsurgery. A clinical version of the system is being produced by Galen Robotics, Inc., a Hopkins startup. Taylor has collaborated with surgeons, operations research managers, and other medical professionals on the project, and it has given him a chance to involve Hopkins undergraduates in his work — just like Bellmore and Malone did for him decades ago.
Mariah Schrum, a senior biomedical engineering major, says Taylor assigned her to design some of the robot’s tools as well as the simulated body parts used for testing the machine. Schrum knows that such hands-on industry experience is rare for undergraduates.
The Malone funds Taylor has received also provided seed funding for many other projects involving undergraduates. One of these is a collaboration with Sanaria, a Rockville, Md.-based biotechnology company that is developing a malaria vaccine using salivary glands extracted from anopheles mosquitoes. Working with Schrum and another undergraduate, Amanda Canezin, Engr ’17, Taylor developed tools that double the number of mosquitoes per hour that technicians can process and reduces the learning curve for technicians from 29 weeks to one and a half days. With funding from a National Institutes of Health grant, the team is now developing a fully automated robotic system for this process.
“Dr. Malone’s gifts have helped us create partnerships [like Sanaria’s] and have allowed us to expand research in very important ways for society,” Taylor says. “The professorships and the Malone Center for Engineering in Healthcare facilitate a partnership between healthcare professionals, technology, and information to improve patient care. The increased resources also help recruit new faculty with strong interests in healthcare and translational applications and provide a specific meeting point for this kind of work.”
That kind of exposure and collaboration is essential, especially for young faculty members, he says. Today, Taylor is considered the “father of medical robotics.” But he knows that his foundational collaboration with Bellmore and Malone more than four decades ago was the critical launching point for his current success.
“The first time my name appeared in an academic publication was in one of John Malone’s papers,” Taylor says. “I guess it’s a nice coincidence that I became the John C. Malone Professor.”
This article originally appeared on Johns Hopkin’s Rising to the Challenge site.
To learn more about the Malone Professorships, or to make a gift to support Whiting School faculty, please contact Megan Howie, associate dean for external relations.