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Robert Webster, Ph.D., Richard A. Schroeder Professor of Mechanical Engineering

robert webster in lab

Robert Webster, Ph.D. (third from left), joins Dr. Fabien Maldonado, Dr. Michael Lester and postdoc Joshua Gafford to make adjustments to a homemade ventilator in the Center for Experiential Learning and Assessment. Webster and Gafford created this home-made ventilator prototype in the hope that it would help relieve the shortage of ventilators due to COVID-19. (Photograph was taken before mask-wearing protocols were implemented.)

We all had that moment. When the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic hit home. For Bob Webster it was on a Saturday morning in March. That’s when Duke Harrell, a Vanderbilt University Medical Center physician, called to discuss the nation’s dwindling supply of ventilators.

“The seriousness hadn’t sunk in until then. That’s when I knew the world had fundamentally changed,” recalls Webster, holder of the Richard A. Schroeder Chair in Mechanical Engineering.

Over the years, Webster and other engineering colleagues had built strong ties with VUMC physicians through collaborative work at the Vanderbilt Institute for Surgery and Engineering (VISE). In particular, Webster’s expertise is in surgical robotics and other tools that enhance medicine.

“I had never thought about ventilators before that call. But the partnerships we grew through VISE allowed us to move quickly. After only three weeks, we had come up with a design for a low-cost ventilator that could be built with everyday supplies.”

Webster also attributes their success to a team of postdoctoral scholars and Ph.D. students who worked around the clock—and to philanthropy.

“This would never have been possible without funding from my chair. You can’t pivot with a federal grant. Only philanthropy provides that kind of flexibility. It’s what allowed us to adapt quickly in an emergency.”

Once the team had the design, they published it widely, so that anyone could replicate it. Colleagues across the globe reached out as their need for ventilators spiked.

“We have heard from people in India, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Africa—truly all over the world. We knew there would be this need, which is why we built our ventilator the way we did and shared the design. This pandemic touches everyone. Our solutions need to be for everyone, too.”

“I see this chair as an investment in the ability of engineers to innovate and solve problems. It’s an honor to help advance solutions to some of our society’s greatest challenges.” — Richard Schroeder, BE’74