Dr David Noonan

How I got into medical robotics

Working as a mechatronics engineer on Imperial College London’s Wellcome-funded i-Snake® project means things are more complicated for David Noonan than when he was playing with Meccano sets as a child, but they are no less fascinating. He talks to Chrissie Giles.

(This interview was conducted in 2012. In the autumn of 2017, we checked to make sure its careers advice was still accurate and updated the essential subjects and salary guide sections.)

It sounds a bit clichéd but I always wanted to be an engineer, and spent my childhood playing with Lego and Meccano. There weren’t any engineers in my family – they’re all accountants, businessmen and teachers – but from a very young age all I wanted to do was build stuff.

While mechanical engineering is very well established and electronics has been around a while, the field that combines them – mechatronics – is relatively new. I like it because you get to make systems that move or make intelligent decisions, rather than purely functional, stand-alone items. The field straddles all disciplines: hardware, electronics, mechanical engineering and some programming. We also include some computer vision work: for example, using feedback from a camera to control a robot. It’s a bit of a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ field so you get to learn a lot about different areas, which is great.

After a degree in mechatronics in Ireland, where I’m from, I took a job on a six-month project at St James’s Hospital, Dublin. The project was to build a device that can measure a low-amplitude oscillation of the eye called ocular microtremor, which can potentially be used to infer the brain activity of patients who have had a stroke or those under anaesthetic. This project was really interesting, particularly as I got to interact directly with surgeons and clinicians. I became fascinated with the medical side of engineering and decided that’s what I wanted to work in.

From work experience in engineering companies, I figured the most interesting place for me to work was in research and development. I moved to the UK and took up a research Master’s at King’s College London looking at how robotic devices interact with soft tissue during surgery. After that, the opportunity came to join Professor Guang-Zhong Yang and Professor Lord Ara Darzi’s team at Imperial College London. I knew I wanted to do a PhD in medical robotics and was looking to either join this group or go to the USA. The right project for me was here. My first year involved helping put together the proposal for i-Snake®, an articulated ‘snake-like’ robotic device for use in keyhole surgery. I’ve been working on the project for three years now.

Alongside my job working on i-Snake®, I’m writing up my PhD. While some PhDs are very theoretical, mine is very applied and that’s what I wanted – something with a grand challenge with lots of multidisciplinary problems to solve along the way. The bread and butter of any PhD student is to publish as many high-quality papers as possible, but we couldn’t publish for the best part of two years because of patents we were filing. This has been restrictive for my thesis, but we recently published the first ‘system’ paper about the i-Snake® and it won the Best Medical Robotics Paper award at ICRA, the leading international robotics conference, which was really satisfying.

As an engineer, the best thing you can do is to make things that help people. It’s very interesting to build a robot that will drive around a corridor but a practical application of the same technology inside a human has a greater potential benefit. When people ask what I do I say I work in medical robotics, developing medical devices for surgery. Sometimes I say I work on a snake robot for surgery. I’ve never had a negative reaction. ‘Snake robots for surgery?’ It sounds pretty cool, and not many people can think of a question to follow an answer like that!

Reproduced from ‘Wellcome News 68’.

Salary guide (2017)

Mechanical engineer salaries can start at around £20,000–£28,000, then increase upwards depending on where you work and what you specialise in (Prospects).

Essential subjects (2017)

To study mechanical engineering, you’ll generally need physics and maths at A level. Some universities offer a foundation year for students without these subjects (Top Universities).

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Careers From Biology’ in June 2012 and reviewed and updated in November 2017.

Careers, Biotechnology and engineering
Careers From Biology
Education levels:
16–19, Undergraduate, Continuing professional development