Award-Winning Scholarly Project: “Thinking Inside the SurgiBox”

Surgibox Scholarly Project by Debbie Teodorescu, Robert Smalley, and Christopher Murray


Debbie Teodorescu, 2016 MD/M.Eng/A.M, HMS/BU/GSAS, transformed her scholarly project into a dynamic MIT-MGH-BIDMC-Swiss collaboration to bring safe surgery to austere settings like field hospitals, combat zones, and disaster-relief areas.


Originally inspired by a discussion in one of her HMS tutorials with Dr. Stephen Odom, Assistant Professor of Surgery, on surgical care in Haiti and Africa, Teodorescu began to explore the challenge of contaminated surgical environments, tapping a variety of advisory resources at HMS. Encouraged by her Academic Society and the Scholars in Medicine Office, she decided to take the discussion to a broader audience.


Dr. Odom and other HMS faculty connected her with leaders in medicine, the military, government, technology, and business, among other fields, and as she conducted interviews, her project began to take shape.


“Many experts expressed frustration with the near-insurmountable challenges of building high-functioning operating rooms in areas with dysfunctional electric grids, little or no roads access, and numerous infrastructural limitations,” Teodorescu notes. “It was clear that safe surgical care would be the next big frontier in global health; [it could save] 18 million lives per year. At the same time, these experts revealed an unexpected additional challenge in these settings: the much higher risks that providers face of being infected by contact with bodily fluids.”


Several experts interviewed by Teodorescu became deeply engaged with the project. For instance, Dr. David King, Director of the MGH Trauma Research Lab and a surgeon jointly affiliated with MGH and the US Joint Special Operations Command with combat zone and disaster-relief experience, became the clinical lead.


As Teodorescu’s interviews helped shape the SurgiBox concept, funding from the HMS Scholars in Medicine Office and the expertise of MIT D-Lab enabled her to make and test a series of prototypes. Teodorescu reflects, “I felt that the work made me a better clinician-in-training: thinking about creative solutions, working with teams and consultants, and paying close attention when patients [and providers] spelled out their needs.”


As the project gained momentum, the HMS Scholars in Medicine Office helped connect her to likeminded medical students, bringing onboard Robert Smalley, MHAP, MD ’18, and Christopher Murray, MD ‘19. During her post-clinical year, Teodorescu and her team achieved proof of concept, peer-reviewed publication, and international recognition. SurgiBox won the AAAS-Science and Human Rights Award as well as the 2016 Harvard President’s Challenge and was named “one of the top 10 inventions of 2016” by the premier medical device conference, Design of Medical Devices. Teodorescu presented SurgiBox to UNESCO and WHO stakeholders at the 2016 Tech4Dev conference in Switzerland and continues to work on developing it from a student scholarly project into a sustainable venture with clinical impact.


“I feel lucky that I was able to find so much support from a variety of often-unexpected sources,” she reflects. “I hope that future HMS students will experience the thrill of making solutions for their patients, too.”