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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University November 15, 2004 | Vol. 34 No. 12
Tool Time: If You Need It, This New JHMI Office Can Make It

Terry Shelley in the JHMI Instrumentation Design/Fabrication/Service Center.

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series about in-house resources available to the university community. For previous stories, go to

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 precision instruments.

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 or 410-955-9847.


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