Dr. Shean Phelps Helping Coordinate GTRI Medical Research

Published: June 6, 2012

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Already an established global leader in sensors and radar research, the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) has taken steps to move into the medical research space, both in the military and civilian arena.

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Shean Phelps joined GTRI’s Human Systems Integration Division (HSID), part of the Electronic Systems Laboratory (ELSYS), in March 2011. Subsequently, Phelps was named GTRI Director of Health Systems Technology Research and Development. In an active-duty career that spanned more than 30 years, he served both as an enlisted soldier and as an officer, completing his degrees in biology, chemistry, medicine and public health.

At GTRI, Phelps is charged with helping to provide guidance and context to health- and operationally related projects. “My primary responsibility is to provide oversight to health-related projects and programs throughout the Institute,” he said. “I’m working with researchers and scientists to develop technology and insert it into the healthcare realm, with the goal of increasing efficiency within the industry.”

“Our business is to identify anything we need to change so that the final product is something that is useful. It is part of my job to look at these burgeoning technologies and identify that gap: ‘Is this what is needed?’”

Phelps enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1981. After successfully making it through the rigorous, two-year Special Forces qualification course, he spent the entirety of his enlisted military career as a Special Forces non-commissioned officer. Between 1981 and 1990, he deployed on numerous operations throughout Africa, Southwest Asia and the Middle East as a weapons and senior medical specialist, and finally as an Operational Detachment team sergeant before being selected for the Army’s Green-to-Gold ROTC program at Campbell University at Buies Creek, N.C.

He completed a bachelor of science in biology and chemistry at Campbell and subsequently trained at the F. Edward Hebert School of Medicine in the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, located in Bethesda, Md., where he earned his medical degree. He completed his residency in family medicine at Fort Benning in Georgia, and was assigned as commander of the health clinic at Ray Barracks in Friedberg, Germany, before returning to Special Forces as the battalion surgeon for 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), stationed at Panzer Kaserne, Boeblingen, Germany.  

In addition to his tactical and operational duties as the lead medical officer—an assignment that started on Sept. 11, 2001—Phelps was designated additional strategic duties as theater surgeon for the entirety of Special Operations Command-Europe. “I and another officer planned the entire Special Operations medical strategy for the 2003 invasion of northern Iraq,” he said. “We handled all of the medical logistics, estimating how much supplies would be needed, such as water, bandages and medical personnel. We also had to estimate how many wounded we would receive. In addition to constantly deploying on highly classified tactical missions, conducting that kind of high-end planning was really eye-opening and motivating.”

In 2006, Phelps completed his masters of science in public health, with an emphasis in aviation/space and preventive medicine from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. He completed his Aerospace Medicine residency in 2007, and accepted the position as the head of the Injury Biomechanics Branch and the director of the Warfighter Protection Division, both located at the Army’s Aeromedical Research Laboratory in Fort Rucker, Ala.

“I decided to make my way into research,” he said. “I could be a doctor in the Special Forces and maybe help a hundred or a thousand people. But if I went into research, I could impact thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. That made my decision for me.”

A Move toward Research

The events that led to Phelps’ joining GTRI began with a chance meeting with Brad Fain, head of the Human Systems Engineering Branch in ELSYS.

“About two years ago, I met Shean at the Medical Technology, Training and Treatment [MT3] conference in Orlando,” Fain said. “He was talking about the need for human interaction research in the medical field, and his current project was specifically warfighter protection.”

After hearing him talk, Fain wanted Phelps’ input on a project he was working on. “I gave him the abstract on the project, and he must have stayed up all night looking it over. The next day he wrote up a lengthy document containing his thoughts, and he wanted to share it with me. It was an extremely thorough response. I knew then he would be a good fit for GTRI.”

An Institute Direction

As part of Georgia Tech’s strategic plan for its various units, GTRI’s leadership has been seeking out research in the healthcare space. Bringing Phelps on, GTRI Deputy Director Tom McDermott says, was one of the first steps in this direction.

“We have had the initiative for a couple of years now to grow our work in the healthcare field,” McDermott said. “Part of that is the credibility an organization attains when medical doctors are part of the team. So, we had been looking for the opportunity to make a strategic hire.”

Because of Shean’s military background, McDermott says he was familiar with the core of GTRI’s research. And since he was interested in continuing medical research, the timing and fit seemed perfect.

Making His Move

As it turned out, Phelps was already considering making some changes. He already had talked with representatives from two other labs. After meeting Fain, though, he made the trip to Atlanta and visited GTRI.

“GTRI has a completely different atmosphere than anywhere else,” he said. “While GTRI is firmly part of the academic world, it also has a unique, business-friendly environment. I was completely impressed with the Enterprise Innovation Institute and the Advanced Technology Development Center.”

But that wasn’t what made him ultimately decide to join GTRI. “The people sold me on this place, more than anything else,” he said. He refers to a term he used while serving in the Special Forces: Quiet Professionalism. “People here are the best at what they do—and they know it. But they’ll never tell you. There’s no need for them to do so.”

He calls on his military experience, referring to “operational common sense,” or what is really going to work, the first time, every time. “My role is to identify problems, help discover the solutions, test them and then optimize the solutions, in order to put them in the hands of the users in the shortest time possible,” he said.

Thinking back to his experience in military research and development, when a new product is introduced to be used, sometimes that technology was not well or completely thought out prior to the implementation stage. “You become very good at looking at something and knowing the good and bad aspects within,” he said. “Sometimes there’s a gulf between the engineers and the technologists and the operators—physician, soldier or businessman—who use it or need it.”

Another reason he decided to enter research is because of his experience with overstated promises in the field of healthcare-related technologies. “Electronic medical records—EMR—fits this category well,” he said. “I worked in and around the EMR world for years. The vast majority of the records are based on technology developed in the 1990s. Why is that? The main reason is because developers repurposed what was already available. But, this technology doesn’t offer what is most wanted by the industry: semantic searches that will create associations the requestor never knew existed.”

“When people talk about healthcare research, they think ‘medical records,’” Phelps said. “Records are very important, but healthcare research is so much more than that. GTRI and Georgia Tech are so strong in so many areas—systems engineering, for instance—that we have the ability to be leaders in this area. There is not a single entity in this organization that could not have a major impact on healthcare research. My job is to figure out how to apply the context of that research in the medical space.”

In April 2012, Georgia Tech’s Translational Research Institute for Biomedical Engineering & Science (TRIBES) appointed Phelps as its medical director.

Building Alliances

In addition, Phelps has been tasked to build collaborations with other Georgia-affiliated organizations, such as Emory, Morehouse and the Shepherd Center for spinal injuries.

Some of the projects that he’s working on include the following:

  • Marcus Autism Center Telemedicine Project—GTRI researchers are optimizing a system so that health care providers can diagnose and treat autism from a remote location, using Cisco Systems cameras and monitors.
  • ArtReach Foundation Project—Phelps is consulting with the Foundation, which strives to use creative arts therapies to assist children and adults who suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from war, violence or natural disasters.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury Study—Phelps is the co-principal investigator on a study for the Department of Defense to develop ways of detecting traumatic brain injury in soldiers.
  • Warrior 2 Citizen—W2C focuses on helping the nation’s military re-integrate into life as citizens after serving as warriors. Phelps is the interim medical officer and medical advisor on the Warrior 2 Citizen Board of Directors.
  • Emory University’s Progesterone Studies—Phelps is serving as a military/medical advisor to Emory’s current and proposed Progesterone-related clinical trials and medical productization efforts
  • Warrior Injury Assessment Manikin (WIAMan)—WIAMan is a Department of Defense initiative to develop 21st century, operationally relevant anthropomorphic test devices (ATDs) in order to design and build more defensible vehicles, improved personal protective equipment, and protective strategies for America’s warfighters.

Additionally, Phelps is working to develop and support multiple tactical and strategic initiatives, such as developing an Integrated Health Systems Technology program, as well as to promote partnerships both within and outside of the Georgia Tech/GTRI framework that take advantage of recent successes (such as the iTrem project) and advances in the use of non-conventional technologies for medical uses.

He is working to grow collaboration between GTRI, Georgia Tech and other organizations, such as the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Emory University and Georgia Tech, Emory University and Virginia Tech, along with other academic and industry partners.

He also recently participated in a panel to help strategize what footprint the medical technology arena will need in the coming two, five and 10 years in order to conduct cutting-edge work. “We should be working in areas in which we are already established—sensors are a good example—to achieve strategic dominance in biomedical science.”

“He has formed the nucleus of a team of people that would be focused on growing our strategic work associated with health and medical systems,” McDermott said. “His medical research matched up well with what we do, and he’s been fairly immediately successful.”

And Phelps credits the Human Interaction Lab with this process. “That’s what Brad and [GTRI Chief Scientist] Dennis Folds and others are working on—making technology easy to use. And that should be the benchmark of medical technology going forward: It needs to be easy to use.”

At the time of the Orlando conference, GTRI conducted a very small amount of work with the U.S. Army Rapid Equipping Force (REF). Now GTRI is working with the group, with a multimillion dollar contract award. “I don’t think we would have much to do with them without Shean,” Fain said. “They have sent a lot of funding to us because of his background in medicine.”

Phelps is, according to Fain, a genuine fit for GTRI. “Where else can you find someone who has more than 20 years of Special Forces experience and is a medical doctor?”