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Terry Shelley says he used to worry about being
squeamish when he stepped into an operating room. He jokes
that he didn't want to faint and fall into the doctor.
He still doesn't relish the sight of blood, but, as
Shelley can attest, it's easier to build a better mousetrap
if you know more about mice.
For the past 14 years — eight of them at the
Wilmer Eye Institute's Microsurgery Advanced Design
Laboratory and three at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute
— Shelley has designed and built surgical instruments
and laboratory equipment, everything from a .25-gauge
scalpel to a five-foot Faraday cage. In September, he
became senior instrument designer of the JHMI
Instrumentation Design/Fabrication/Service Center, a new
office that falls under the auspices of the Department of
Neuroscience at the School of Medicine but services the
entire Johns Hopkins enterprise.
As its name suggests, the center is a full-service
machine shop capable of advanced design, fabrication and
service/repair of medical instruments, from the large to
the micro. If a physician wants a new forcep, or a
researcher wants a new cell tray, Shelley is their man.
"You name it," says Shelley, a machinist by trade who
grew up in Parkville, Md. "Part of the cool thing about
this job is that you think of it, and we'll find a way of
manufacturing it. Somehow, someway, I usually come up with
a method of doing what the customer needs me to do."
Shelley's instruments have found their way into
operating rooms across the country. Perhaps his most
significant invention to date is an optical laser probe
that bends 90 degrees, allowing physicians to get to parts
of the eye they never could before.
"Probably the best compliment I ever had was from a
doctor at USC who told me that because of you, people now
have their eyesight," he says. "It's nice to know I played
a little part in helping them."
The new instrumentation center is located in room 928
of the Preclinical Teaching Building on the East Baltimore
campus. Modest in size, the shop contains a modern-day
machinist's tools of the trade, including a surface
grinder, lathe and computerized milling machine. Most of
Shelley's work, however, involves a microscope, a miniature
file and sandpaper, which he uses to fashion minute
Some of his recent projects include designing a cell
chamber for physiologists and a micro-sized scalpel used to
make incisions for retinal surgery.
A one-man shop, Shelley designs prototypes that
typically need to receive institutional review board
approval before they can be used. He has secured a number
of patents to date, and some of his inventions have been
bought by manufacturers.
Shelley learned his trade from his brother and then
spent several years at a job shop where he "would do jobs
for anyone who walked in the door." Two major customers
were NASA and the U.S. Navy; for the latter, he fabricated
a tray for submarine torpedoes.
"It seems that every year the things I make get
smaller and smaller," he says. "I really enjoy building
things, and I love making surgical instruments. I do this
with a passion."
Shelley — who does most of his design work in
his head or as sketches on paper — says he often
brings work home with him, whether it means tinkering in
his basement workshop or rolling over a problem or design
in his mind until he can declare, "I got it."
Some jobs he can finish in a day, while some can take
up to six months. And some ideas never make it to fruition,
he says, usually because the amount of time and money
needed are simply not cost-effective.
Shelley sees the instrumentation center as a one-stop
shop for Johns Hopkins affiliates and says he is looking
forward to expanding his repertoire across disciplines.
"I'm here to help you design it, fabricate it and take
it to the marketplace," he says. "In the end, it's all
mechanical. People come in here with a problem, something
they want to do but can't. So I sit down with them and try
to find out what we can do together to solve it."
The JHMI Instrumentation Design/Fabrication/Service
Center is open from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday to Friday.
Shelley can be contacted at email@example.com or