Hon D Tech Speech 19th June 2017 – Dr Tom Shannon

Hon D Tech Speech  19th June 2017

Vice Chancellor, Chair of Governors, Distinguished Guests, Ladies, Gentlemen and Graduates

I am hugely grateful to Hilary Churchley for kindly nominating me, to our fine University in honouring me with this wonderful award and to be given the opportunity to speak to you today also as an alumnus. You might well be asking yourself why I, a complete unknown, am standing at this podium to receive an award on your very special day.

My Wife, Cindy, knows me only too well by giving me a very readable book on genetics for one of my holiday reads last year. It was a book titled “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived” by Dr Adam Rutherford who weaves a compelling tale about our own history as it is does for the 100 billion modern humans who have ever drawn breath. He elegantly describes the science that identified the around 20,000 genes spread across 23 pairs of chromosomes and comprising of 3 billion letters of genetic code containing the instructions that make each of us unique. We are all truly amazing, born with our own innate talents and an ability to dream and to aspire.

After a recent trip back home, I was looking at some old school reports and the yellowing pages gave me a stark reminder that I was not the most academically gifted of students and that I had to really struggle to get the grades I needed if I had any chance to achieve my career ambitions. I did know that I could understand how machines worked and strangely was reasonably good at calculus, possibly because the equations described to me motion, which I could readily imagine.

Having to stand before you today has caused me to re-visit the question of what talent I might actually have to bring me to this place. Within the worlds of the measurement of human locomotion and shape that aid in the understanding of the aetiology of presenting abnormalities, I have had the privilege to ride on the shoulders of giants of science, engineering and medicine who came before me and to continue my ride with amazing colleagues across the world to this day, two of whom are here in the audience. I think my actual talent has been to keep hanging on long enough to make my small contributions to the bodies of knowledge and to not yet to have fallen off!

Thinking about this also reminded me of a seminal moment in my career that I would like to share with you when I was working as a biomedical engineer in a major Australian teaching hospital before coming to Oxford. Have you ever wondered why your heart goes ba-doomp, ba-doomp, it is all due to a most amazing electrical conduction system with inbuilt delays that control the correct timing of the contraction of the upper atrium and the lower ventricle chambers to facilitate optimum pumping efficiency. Wolff–Parkinson–White syndrome is a disorder with the heart which can be best described as short circuits in the conduction system described clinically as accessory pathways. Symptoms can include:  dizziness and fainting, palpitations, poor endurance and tiring easily during exercise. Periods of increased heart rate can begin rapidly and last for less than a minute, or they can persist for a number of hours. In more severe cases, patient can experience: tightness in the chest, breathing problems, chest pain or sudden death.

In late 1982, Duke University in the United States published an exciting paper in the New England Journal of Medicine. They reported results where they successfully treated patients where pharmacological agents were ineffective or poorly tolerated; pacemakers failed to control the symptoms and surgery was not an option, by delivery the full energy of a defibrillator directly into the heart via a tiny catheter placed next to the ventricle septum to ablate or destroy the accessory pathways.  Soon after, I was co-opted onto a cardiology team at my Hospital as the engineer to try and workout how to get the very scary 50-200 joules of energy (which your physics teacher would have told you was volts x current x time) to safely emerge from the tip of the catheter inside a patient’s heart without killing or injuring them and to then design the instrument to do it!

After months of research, a good number of spectacular failures and loads of further experimentation, the day finally arrived when the procedure was to be applied to hopefully treat a very brave lady with sadly no other treatment options open to her. The time seemed to stand still after the Cardiologist shouted “clear” and I still believe I saw a corona emerge from the tip of the catheter on the X-Ray screen, although it might have been in my imagination, with the patient arching her back, and it all happening in a fraction of a second.

The procedure was a complete success giving the brave lady a much improved quality of life. Here is the actual catheter used that day that I have kept on the assumption that my world could only get easier after that experience, and so it has proven to be.

It was at that moment that I said to myself :- You are now an engineer  which I believe has led directly to us all being together in this place today.

I cannot thank our fine University for this award they have bestowed on me today, I am very touched by your great kindness to this simple geek you see before you,


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