Surgical Precision

Winter 2014

"Russ Taylor is a giant of medical robotics, a field he virtually created from scratch." -Louis Whitcomb
“Russ Taylor is a giant of medical robotics, a field he virtually created from scratch.” -Louis Whitcomb. Photo by Will Kirk/

A Life in Engineering

Taylor’s remarkable professional achievements are evident in a flip through his curriculum vitae, which stretches 44 pages. There are the requisite journal articles—95 at last count—and another 249 refereed conference papers. There are the invited colloquia. There is, of course, a textbook, Computer-Integrated Surgery, as well as chapters in numerous others. Taylor owns or shares at least 30 patents, with more pending.

Taylor has helped raise untold millions in research funding, most notably the roughly $30 million National Science Foundation grant that underwrote the Engineering Research Center on Computer-Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology (CISST ERC) that he now directs at the Whiting School.

Staggering as that total is, it doesn’t include another $35 million of additional funding raised for the center, or the $14 million or so of in-kind contributions that bring total funding for CISST to a whopping $79 million. He is also the director of the Laboratory for Computational Sensing and Robotics, which does about $4.3 million per year in sponsored research.

The accolades have flooded in, too. He is a fellow of the IEEE, among the highest honors in engineering. He has won the Robotics and Automation Society Pioneer Award “for pioneering work in medical robotics” and the Third Millennium Medal from the IEEE, as well as the Enduring Impact Award from the Medical Image Computing and Computer Assisted Surgery (MICCAI) Society. And he is a fellow of the Engineering School of the University of Tokyo.

“Russ Taylor is ahead of his time not only because he invents things that no one ever imagined, but also because he realizes things other people have imagined but believed were impossible,” says Greg Hager, who has collaborated with Taylor on numerous engineering efforts at the Whiting School. “He has a unique sort of brilliance to be able to imagine where he wants to go and to know how to assemble the pieces—in this case experts from various disciplines—that can make a thing real. Russ connects the dots.”

The professional standing so apparent in the rewards and recognition and in the praise of his colleagues invites the question: What led Russ Taylor into medical robotics in the first place?

Taylor earned an interdisciplinary undergraduate engineering degree at Johns Hopkins University back in 1970 before heading to Stanford University for his doctorate. His dissertation, written in 1976, focused on methods for combining sensing and programming to enable not-so-accurate robots to perform very precise tasks such as mechanical assembly. That work led to a job in research at IBM, where he rose through the ranks working on automated systems, mostly for manufacturing applications. He eventually became a middle manager in the Research Division at IBM.

Taylor has a picture on his wall of his first “robot.” It looks like a glorified workbench with an arcade-game-style pincher device at the end of a rigid arm suspended from above on a movable track.

In the late 1980s, two surgeons from the veterinary school at the University of California, Davis, approached IBM about developing a robot that could help them in hip replacement surgery. The two wondered if IBM could create a surgical robot that would help them make the procedure more exact.

At this point in his story, Taylor rises from his desk and goes to a box of assorted medical instruments. He shuffles through the synthetic bones, medical instruments, and other paraphernalia of his profession, talking all the while. He produces a large piece of inscrutable dull-gray metal. It looks like a stake for a circus tent. It looks positively medieval.

“Do you know what this is?” he asks. “This is a standard instrument for hip replacement surgery. The surgeon cuts off the top part of the femur and pounds this in with a hammer to make a hole the shape of the implant,” Taylor says. “It’s a rather ungraceful and inexact way to seat an implant, don’t you think? Plus, there is about a 5 percent chance of cracking the femur for cementless implants, where the implant must fit the hole exactly.”

Thus was born IBM’s Robodoc, Taylor’s first venture into medical robotics. In Robodoc, the surgeon uses CT images of the patient’s femur to select an appropriate implant and plan where it is to be placed. In the operating room, the surgeon does most of the procedure manually, but the robot moves a surgical cutter to ream a cavity in the bone that is almost an exact match for the implant shape. This ensures that the implant is placed exactly where the surgeon wants it to go and improves the grafting of the implant into the patient’s bone. The process is also less likely to produce an accidental fracture of the bone.

“I hated the name, but Robodoc was and is a good system,” he says.

One of the surgeons, Howard Paul, was a veterinarian, and Taylor led an IBM/UC Davis team that produced a prototype system for use on Paul’s animal patients. Subsequently, a company was formed to produce a version of Robodoc for use on humans.

Fearing the confines of working at a startup, however, Taylor instead built a research group within IBM to support the Robodoc company and to develop novel robots for minimally invasive surgery. He formed collaborations with several leading medical schools, including Harvard, New York University, and Johns Hopkins.

After a few years, he realized that it would be much easier to pursue his vision if he were in the same institution as the surgeons who were using his technology. Taylor searched for a university, preferably on the East Coast, with both a top engineering school and a top medical school. Ultimately, there was no better fit than his undergraduate alma mater, Johns Hopkins.
“There was no place more ideal for me. The faculty of the engineering school is just incredible. The medical school is second to none. It was the absolute best place for me and what I do,” Taylor explains.

One factor he likes in particular about the camaraderie at Johns Hopkins is the presence of undergraduates in advanced research labs. There are few other institutions that do as good a job in teaching undergraduates by involving them in research, says Taylor, who says he himself profited greatly by his own undergraduate research work with Mandell Bellmore, in the Operations Research Department at Johns Hopkins.

“It’s an amazingly easy place to work, where everyone has this shared passion for what we do and there is little departmental friction to stand in the way of cutting-edge research,” Taylor says.

Though older now, Taylor still seems just as curious as a grad student and excited at the thought of what lies ahead.

Medical robotics remains far from perfect, says Taylor, and many challenges still stand in the way. In particular, he is intent on refining his instruments to work in ever-smaller places at the extreme edge of scale.

“There’s more work to be done, for sure,” Taylor says, as he provides a guided tour around his lab.

During the tour he seems a bit whimsical showing off all the latest things he’s working on and a few he worked on long ago. He describes in detail the particular talents and peculiarities of each robot. He gestures to each affectionately, as if to a child. In this moment, Russ Taylor is every bit the Geppetto, and each robot a Pinocchio—machines dreamed up and brought to life by a master artisan.