As a child, John Robertson loved to tinker with old machine parts and broken tools supplied by his dad, a machinist and electrical engineer.

This hands-on exploration gave Robertson a love of creating things and experimenting with innovation. But his inventiveness was not just a pipe dream. Watching and caring for his mother, who had diabetes, high blood pressure, and a terminal brain tumor motivated him to find tools to solve real problems.

He wanted to find the answer to help alleviate her suffering, and he has extended that determination to his career. If the tool to solve a challenge before him does not exist, he'll create it himself.

This passion for solving problems has earned Robertson recognition from the National Academy of Inventors. Robertson, a research professor in biomedical engineering and mechanics, has been named a senior member of the organization, a distinction that honors the world’s best emerging academic inventors.

NAI Senior Members are active faculty, scientists, and administrators from NAI Member Institutions whose innovation-producing technologies have brought, or aspire to bring, real impact on the welfare of society. They also have growing success in patents, licensing, and commercialization, while educating and mentoring the next generation of inventors.

The 2022 class of senior members represents 41 research universities and government and nonprofit research institutes. They are named inventors on over 1,093 issued U.S. patents. Robertson is among 83 academic inventors named to the 2022 cohort, which also includes Virginia Tech's Chris Williams, the L.S. Randolph Professor of Mechanical Engineering. The senior member level is a step toward becoming a fellow, the group’s highest distinction, with 1,403 fellows worldwide.

NAI senior memberships are nominated by an existing NAI Senior Member, after which individuals undergo a rigorous selection process by the NAI Senior Member Advisory Committee. New senior members are elected annually on National Inventors’ Day (Feb. 11). 

As part of the Cancer Engineering Team, a discipline invented by Virginia Tech and Wake Forest University faculty, Robertson and colleagues have developed the use of energy-based therapies for treating previously untreatable cancers, such as brain and liver tumors. Two of these energy-based therapies – electroporation and focused ultrasound – have been the basis for U.S. patents.

Robertson’s team collaborated with several Virginia Tech experts in developing these therapies. Electroporation, a focus of Rafael Davalos, the L. Preston Wade Professor in biomedical engineering and mechanics; John Rossmeisl, interim director of the Animal Cancer Care and Research Center in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine; and Chris Arena, collegiate associate professor in biomedical engineering and mechanics, is a method that uses short, high-voltage pulses to noninvasively penetrate through a cell membrane using an external electric field.

Focused ultrasound, a collaboration with and focus of Eli Vlaisavljevich, assistant professor in biomedical engineering and mechanics, is a noninvasive therapy that uses lasers and ultrasound to interact with tissue, with applications such as ablation, or destruction, of cancerous tissue.

Displaying the set-up for focused ultrasound, conducted in Eli Vlaisavljevich's Lab. Photo by Emily Roediger of Virginia Tech.
Displaying the set-up for focused ultrasound, conducted in Eli Vlaisavljevich's Lab. Photo by Emily Roediger of Virginia Tech.
The results from electroporation, a method that uses short, high-voltage pulses for noninvasive treatment. This experiment was conducted in Rafael Davalos' Lab. Photo by Spencer Roberts of Virginia Tech.
Displaying the results from electroporation, a method that uses short, high-voltage pulses for noninvasive treatment. This experiment was conducted in Rafael Davalos' Lab. Photo by Spencer Roberts of Virginia Tech.

“Effective treatment of disease and alleviation of human suffering is dependent on the development of new medical device therapies,” said Robertson. “Through collaboration, I have helped design, prototype, engineer, manufacture, and validate several novel devices that are designed to improve the quality of lives. It sounds crazy, but these ideas just happen, born from need and nourished by group brainstorming.”

Some of the patented innovative designs include a system to improve the quality and availability of human organ transplants, a fiberoptic microneedle device for delivery of drugs to infiltrate malignant tumors, and use of electroporation for cancer treatment.

Robertson conducts research in diverse areas within the department – tissue engineering, translational cancer research, neuroengineering, fluid mechanics, cardiovascular engineering, and biomaterials. He focuses on diagnosis and treatment for kidney failure and for aggressive malignant neoplasms (brain, liver, urinary bladder, skin, and pancreas). Robertson also focuses his research on biomedical device development. The primary focus of his work, inspired by his childhood experiences, has been invention to improve human and animal health.

“My lifelong goal is to utilize my training in veterinary medicine, pathology, nephrology, and oncology to alleviate human and animal suffering,” Robertson said.

In two different projects, Robertson targeted the organ transplant shortage problem in the United States. More than 100,000 people in the country are waiting for an organ transplant, according to the Mayo Clinic, resulting in a shortage of available organs for patients with failing kidneys, livers, or hearts. Fewer than 25 percent of patients with failing organs will ever receive a transplant. Furthermore, many potentially usable organs are never transplanted, due to concerns about viability and long-term function. With the first project, in collaboration with Ryan Senger, associate professor in biological systems engineering, and Pang Du, associate professor in statistics, Robertson worked to develop a Raman spectroscopy-based technology for early screening of bladder cancer, diabetic kidney failure, and how to detect organ viability or dysfunction.

In another project, sparked by a discussion with Virginia Tech alumnus George Barr '83, Robertson had the idea to use a flexible, industrial-engineered material to build a system to preserve organs outside the body for a day, to characterize the organ and its functionality. In collaboration with two colleagues in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, Ran Jin and Blake Johnson, Robertson and his team prototyped a kidney and liver preservation and characterization system that provided non-invasive methods (infrared and form-shape imaging) for quickly assessing organ transplant preservation to help address concerns about viability and long-term function.

Robertson’s innovative designs and research often extend beyond the lab, as he takes his projects and outlook to the classroom and to engineering design teams to discuss and further develop. In 2021 he presented his organ preservation and characterization system to a senior design team in the College of Engineering, and they extended the idea to heart preservation. The team will unveil their prototyped heart preservation system, called HokieHeart, this spring.

Robertson mentors multiple engineering teams throughout their senior design projects, and his innovative, let’s-find-a-solution outlook quickly permeates the group. One of those students, Justin Laiti, a fourth-year student majoring in biomedical engineering, said his favorite professor was “Dr. Bob.”

“We all call John Robertson ‘Dr. Bob’ because he is so personable,” Laiti said. “He is a great mentor. Every interaction our team has with him leaves us more motivated to do higher quality output, because he showed us how important this work is. He is an instrumental guide in creating our best team project. I am constantly learning and growing as both a biomedical engineer and as a person thanks to his encouragement and mentorship.”

One senior design team this semester has extrapolated from Robertson’s idea of monitoring dialysis patients and helping to predict complications during treatment. The team developed a wearable “sock” that functions as a sensor array system to monitor hemodialysis, a procedure where a dialysis machine and special filter, such as an artificial kidney or dialyzer, are used to clean the patient’s blood. Robertson also mentored teams of industrial design and biomedical engineering students that participated in a summer design sprint.

Robertson’s dedicated mentorship, coupled with his growing success in patents, helped secure his spot as a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors.

The latest class of 83 senior members have been named inventors on more than 1,093 issued U.S. patents. It is Robertson’s dreamer-mentality and collaborative spirit that has such great results, leading to his multiple patents. He has 11 issued patents, according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office database, and more than 60 patent applications.

“I am deeply honored to receive this recognition,” said Robertson. “It is more of a reflection of the efforts of my students and colleagues – past and present – at Virginia Tech than it is of just me. I’m a dreamer who addresses serious problems with crazy, impractical, and impossible ideas. I love brainstorming with others, launching into the solution, and trying over and over again until we get there.”

Robertson received his bachelor’s in biology from State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook; a master’s in zoology from SUNY Brockport and a second master’s in pathology from the University of Pennsylvania; and two doctorate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, in medical pathology and veterinary medicine.

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