Cutchis in the 1983 Terra Mariae Medicus
He holds five
No Appetite to Tag Along
Since he was a boy, Protagoras N. Cutchis has had an unquenchable curiosity about electricity; more specifically, electrical gadgets and how and why they work. In the basement of his home he keeps the relics of his youth, the gadgets he built from scratch. There is a color organ in a black, trim case that flashes to the beat of music, a stereo power amplifier called the Cutchis P 480, and two monster stereo speakers each with two 12-inch woofers that hammer out a Carlos Santana rock tune almost loud enough to make the ceiling tiles in his basement dance. “You can turn it up as loud as you want,” says Cutchis, ’83, over the din.
Cutchis, better known as “Tag,” knew from around 12 years old that he wanted to be an electrical engineer. “I just like designing things and seeing them work,” he says. “I still like building stuff and trying it out.”
The passion carries through to this day. Cutchis is senior engineer in the National Security Technology Department of The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). He holds five patents and has four degrees, including an MD and a master’s degree in electrical engineering. He has helped design portable ventilators that can be used on the battlefield, a pill used to monitor internal temperatures of athletes, astronauts and hospital patients, and most recently, conceived of a device that may one day help amputees move artificial limbs simply by thinking about the movement they want to make.
This idea made a splash. For his efforts, Cutchis received The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory Inventor of the Year award in 2005 in the physical sciences category. He was named to the 2006 Scientific American 50, a prestigious list in the magazine that comes out annually and is made up of technical innovators. “I had no idea I was being considered,” says Cutchis, 49, about the award, which he displays on his desk at home in Highland, Md. “If anything, it validates my creativity.”
As a senior engineer at APL, Cutchis works closely with the Department of Defense, Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration.
For a biosurveillance-related project, Cutchis’ team designed software that enables hospitals and physicians to monitor patients’ complaints in emergency rooms and physicians’ offices throughout the country. Once the data is entered into the computer, public health officials in counties and states can examine the data and look for patterns or unusual developments. Is there an outbreak of food poisoning in a certain county or city? A spike in seizures?
Tuberculosis? Small pox? The mission is to find patterns that could signal a potential terrorist attack. “A system like this is designed to help you detect a disease outbreak or a possible bioterrorism attack sooner, enabling you to treat a lot more people and save more lives,” Cutchis says. So far, the health officials haven’t detected evidence of terrorism, but they have seen ramp ups in food-born illnesses and the flu.
Cutchis grew up in Silver Spring, the older of two children. His father was a physicist and contractor for the Department of Defense, and his mother was a mathematician also at the defense department. As a youngster, Cutchis admittedly wasn’t a standout as a student, but he showed an aptitude in electrical gadgetry and spent hours in his dad’s workshop. In grade school, he designed and built a pink noise generator to blot out background noise. It was hardly a brilliant piece of work, but it set a tone for bigger and better things to come: the color organ, the stereo power amplifier, speakers, a police radar jammer—a project he never completed—and a digital bow and arrow range gauge that lets the archer know how high to point the bow to reach a desired distance. “Ideas would just come to me,” Cutchis says. “They just pop into my head.”
At APL, Cutchis designed fiber optic sensors and circuitry to detect intestinal bleeding. He conducted research on new pulse train patterns for spinal cord electrical stimulation to relieve chronic pain, and was the lead design engineer for a portable ventilator for the U.S. Army.
Lately, he has been noodling with the color organ because one of the four channels doesn’t work. But Cutchis is confident that he will solve the problem when he has time to focus. “Designing and building can be pretty frustrating because it doesn’t always work,” he says. “But if you are not failing every once in awhile, you are probably not trying very hard.”