Making Surgery More Effective and Safe

As a child growing up in Mexico City, Fernando Cordova knew he wanted to be an engineer.  He loved building Legos and taking apart radios to find out how they worked. Attending high school in Mexico City, Cordova also gravitated toward natural science, and thought about going to medical school. To fulfill both interests he moved to the U.S., specifically to study biomedical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin.

“I was familiar with UT culture as a child,” Cordova says. “My father received his PhD from UT Austin in education, so from the ages of 4 to 8, I remember being on campus. One of my first memories is playing hide and seek in the Perry Casteñeda Library, and I think I knew the Eyes of Texas before I knew the Mexican national anthem.”

Cordova initially thought he would enter the field of drug delivery, but the more classes he took, the more he gravitated to instrumentation, and the electrical and mechanical engineering components of the field.  

“I took a circuits class with Professor John Zhang, and really appreciated learning about the practical applications of our research. I worked on a microfluidics project in his lab, and under his direction, I was able to see the potential results for the science we were advancing. It’s important to me to see science can be applied.”

Cordova also remembers Professor Andy Dunn’s classes and lectures as a highlight. He credits Dunn’s patience and skill in explaining difficult concepts with his success in the program.

When he was a senior, Cordova interned with Michael Patton, who received his MS in biomedical engineering from UT Austin in 1990, at Patton Surgical.  As an intern, Cordova helped design trocars, or ports that make it possible to insert cameras and instruments into the body during laparoscopic surgery. This internship would give Cordova a taste of what to expect in his future career, which is primarily spent in operating rooms, assisting doctors with brain surgeries.

After graduation, he began working with Brainlab, Inc. in Dallas.  The company develops, manufactures, and markets software-driven medical technology that supports targeted, less-invasive surgery treatments. Today Cordova is based out of Washington, D.C. and works as a senior application consultant, where he collaborates with hospitals and clinicians, providing technical and clinical support to physicians across the mid-Atlantic states.

Cordova specifically supports the use of Brainlab’s image-guided therapy tools for use in neurosurgery, oncology, orthopedics, ear, nose, and throat, and spine and trauma procedures. The technologies developed by Brainlab give surgeons a comprehensive picture of where they are operating in real-time, which is imperative when removing a brain tumor or treating a spinal injury where there is little room to maneuver without damaging nerves or other tissues. Cordova is present during surgeries to ensure proper use of the equipment and answer surgeons’ questions.  

“I work closely with surgeons, and over the course of the past few years, I’ve now developed friendships with them,” says Cordova. “I’m lucky in that I get to see the rewards of my work. I collaborate with doctors on medical cases where we are able to remove a deep-tissue brain tumor, because we have a technology that allows for precise navigation. And, I’ve been able to meet with patients after these surgeries, which is fulfilling.”

Cordova’s work is a great example of collaboration between engineers, who can offer solutions, and medical doctors, who understand the challenges that arise with certain treatments for patients. Collaboration is something Cordova became familiar with while at UT.

“When I got into the BME program I was surprised. I thought it would be competitive, but it was a much more collaborative environment. People had different interests and different backgrounds and cultures, but the commonality was that everyone was really smart. It was a program that helped me learn to manage my responsibilities and time and ultimately that prepared me for where I am today.”