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Sophia Hannaford ’10 Interaction Designer

Sophia Hannaford ’10, Interaction Designer

As an interaction designer at Intuitive Surgical Inc., a company in Silicon Valley that develops robotic-assisted technologies, Sophia Hannaford ’10 is working with a team of people developing the next generation of surgical robot. At present, the most advanced surgical robot is the 4th generation da Vinci Xi ® system. Sophia is working on the 5th generation.

“With this 5th generation, we are making the robot friendly and approachable,” says Sophia. “Our goal is to enable caregivers to focus on what matters: caring for the patient, not running a machine. We want it to be intuitive; we want to make things seamless.”

The da Vinci Xi ® enables superhuman capabilities, allowing surgeons to turn on x-ray vision and perform intricate and complicated procedures with extreme precision. But these capabilities are less effective if the surgeon gets tangled up in the robotic arms or has to pause to reposition the machine.

“We do not want the user to get bogged down in the mechanics of the machine,” explains Sophia. “For example, the robot that performs laparoscopic surgery has a lot of joints, and it’s ideal when the surgeon can push one button and have the robot put all its joints in the right position.”

Sophia’s role is unique in that she is constantly thinking of hardware as it relates to software. “We have to think through all these workflows: what task does the surgeon need to set up so surgery is seamless? How can we slim down the steps involved?”

Sophia, with the the da Vinci Xi ® Gen 4 Robot, in the Intuitive Surgical development Lab, Silicon Valley, 2019

Inspired by Grey’s Anatomy

In her early teen years, Sophia decided after watching the TV series Grey’s Anatomy that she wanted to be a surgeon. While in Upper School at Northwest, her father, an electrical engineering professor at University of Washington’s Bioengineering Department, arranged for Sophia to view a da Vinci Xi ® robot perform a procedure at Seattle Children’s Hospital

“It was a pediatric neurology case,” recalls Sophia. “I saw the possibility of using a robot in practice.”

At Whitman College, Sophia majored in biology, in a premed track, and minored in chemistry. Upon taking the MCAT, she received a decent score, but in the end, she decided she didn’t want to go to medical school.

“Once you commit to med school you can’t go back financially,” explains Sophia. “I knew I was interested in other things, and also, I was listening to my body; I wanted to avoid a stressful work-life imbalance.”

When she learned of a ‘simulated use’ opportunity at Intuitive Surgical Inc., she jumped at the chance. Simulated use is when a person steps into the role of a surgeon or caregiver and performs a simulated procedure to test the robot and report any bugs.

“I got to play a surgeon operating on pig hearts, and I sutured a heart valve back together using the Gen 3 Xi,” recounts Sophia. “I became an expert user on both the Gen 3 and Gen 4 Xis.”

Sophia whiteboards wireframes as precursors to digital prototypes, 2019.

From Math to Art

Sophia describes herself as a very math-science-logic-oriented person and she reveled in those subject areas while attending Northwest.

“Thomas (Elliott)’s math class was huge for me. Her passion made it fun,” recalls Sophia. “Mark Terry’s Primate Bio class—he gave us open-ended projects like creating a skeleton from a mummified rat. I loved Renee Fredrickson’s class. She and I are similar: there is not space for fooling around—we are getting down to business.”

But it was Northwest’s Humanities and arts classes that Sophia now credits for giving her many of the skills she draws on as an interaction designer.

“The school’s emphasis on creativity and art is why I’m here today,” states Sophia. “That’s the form part of what I do: you have to have an artistic mind. I spent three years in Lyn McCracken’s photography class and that helped me develop an artistic eye.”

The Humanities classes were equally valuable to her education, precisely because they stretched her in ways that weren’t comfortable.

“At Intuitive, so much of what I do is communication and so much of my work is building relationships and trust,” confirms Sophia. “A big part of being an action designer is to empathize with the person who is the caregiver. Those skills you get through Humanities.”