Early career spotlight

Robert J. Webster III
Vanderbilt University


Continuum Robots: Helping Surgeons Save Lives


Thin, flexible robots able to bend and elongate can help surgeons reach deeper and more accurately into the human body than ever before, through increasingly smaller incisions. This talk will cover recent breakthroughs in design, control, and sensing that are rapidly pushing the boundaries of surgical robotics to smaller scales, greater accuracy, and more effective interaction with surgeons. In particular, it will describe the fascinating process of partnering with surgeons to create new robots with the potential to be powerful weapons in the fight against lung disease, brain tumors, epilepsy, and urologic disorders, among many others.


Dr. Webster received his B.S. degree in electrical engineering from Clemson University in 2002 where he did undergraduate research under the guidance of Ian Walker. He received his M.S. (2004) and Ph.D. (2007) degrees in mechanical engineering from the Johns Hopkins University, where he was advised by Allison Okamura and Noah Cowan, and worked in the Engineering Research Center for Computer Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology headed by Russell Taylor. He became an Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University immediately afterward, and is currently Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Otolarygnology, Neurological Surgery, and Urologic Surgery at Vanderbilt, where he directs the Medical Engineering and Discovery Laboratory. He serves as an Associate Editor of IEEE Transactions on Robotics and as chair of the SPIE Image-Guided Procedures Robotic Interventions, and Modeling Conference. He also serves on the steering committee of the Vanderbilt Initiative in Surgery and Engineering. He has had several patents awarded on surgical robotic systems, with multiple licenses to industry partners. His research interests include surgical robotics, image-guided surgery, and continuum robotics. In 2011, Professor Webster received the IEEE Volz award and the NSF CAREER Award. In 2014 he received the Vanderbilt Award for Excellence in Teaching, and in 2015 he received the IEEE RAS Early Career Award. All three people to date who have left his laboratory with PhD degrees are now in faculty positions: PhD students Caleb Rucker (University of Tennessee) and Jenna Gorlewicz (Southern Illinois University), and postdoctoral researcher Jessica Burgner (Hannover University).