Bionics Expert Hugh Herr Describes Efforts to End Disability, Offers Hope at ATEC Lecture
Former CIA Officers Tony and Jonna Mendez to Discuss 'Argo' at Next Lecture

Kathryn Kuehn

Hugh Herr’s lecture showcased the most recent developments in bionics and prosthetics, and pointed to a bright future for those like Kathryn Kuehn of Richardson. “His talk gave me hope for the future," Kuehn said.

Last year, Richardson resident Kathryn Kuehn lost both hands and feet from a sudden bacterial infection that caused septic shock. The amputations left her in need of prosthetic limbs advanced enough to help in daily activities, including all that goes into raising two children.

When Kuehn saw that bionics expert Hugh Herr would be speaking at the UT Dallas campus as part of the Arts and Technology Distinguished Lecture Series, she snagged a front-row seat.

“He told me it gets easier as time goes on,” Kuehn said. “His talk gave me hope for the future. Who knows with advances in technology what kind of prosthetics I’ll have in 10 years. It was special for me to meet him. The lecture was exactly one year from the day I had my legs amputated.”

Herr’s talk showcased the most recent developments in bionics and prosthetics and pointed to a bright future for those like Kuehn.

Dr. Hugh Herr

Hugh Herr, who heads the biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab, is creating bionic limbs that match the function of natural limbs.

“The key challenge, truly, in bionics, is to eliminate disability in the world through biology, technology and design. This is the challenge of the century,” Herr said.

What made Herr’s talk promising was his own personal investment in advancing the field of bionics: Herr is a double amputee himself. Traversing the stage, revealing a pair of bionic limbs, he shared the story about a blizzard he encountered while rock climbing that left him without legs at the age of 17.

Herr showed a picture of himself lying in a hospital bed without his legs.

“What do you see in this picture?” he asked. “Do you see weakness or strength? Do you see a cripple or a great athlete?

Initially, Herr’s team of doctors leading him through his recovery said he would never climb a mountain again, and that even the simplest of tasks — like driving a car — would be difficult.

“My doctors were wrong because they took a common view of my body. I believe they viewed me as broken. They viewed technology as static. But technology is not a static thing; there is innovation. So I switched it upside down. I said, ‘I’m not broken — the technology is broken.’ ”

Herr proved his doctors wrong. He designed customized prosthetics for himself and went back to rock climbing. He made narrow feet for small rock fissures and spiked feet for ice climbing. Eventually, he became a better rock climber than ever before, he said.

Society said I was a cripple without legs. A year after my amputation surgery, I climbed walls that no human had ever climbed before.

Hugh Herr,
associate professor who heads the biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab

“Society said I was a cripple without legs. A year after my amputation surgery, I climbed walls that no human had ever climbed before,” Herr said.

Herr’s inventions showed him potential for an augmented human. He saw that inadequate technology was the only obstacle to ending disability.

Herr said technological developments that could help end disability are currently being developed. 

Herr talked about researchers who are mapping the brain and complex tissues and developing tools that interface with the brain with a high speed of specificity. He also discussed the challenges of attaching these mechanical interfaces to the body in safe, comfortable ways.

New technologies, Herr said, are also being developed at places like the MIT Media Lab, where internal tissue strengths of a limb can be mapped to make prosthetics customized and comfortable. These developments extend beyond artificial limbs, he said.

“This notion that things are small, medium, large has to be eliminated. My view of the world is that every human is mapped. The technology that a person uses is informed by one's own data. In that world, shoes will no longer give us blisters,” Herr said.

Herr ended his visit at UT Dallas by fielding questions from the audience. When a student asked what Herr’s advice would be to students interested in working in the field of bionics, he responded by encouraging students to jump in and start building.

“Just take this view that life is for learning. Learn through building,” Herr said. “Find a problem to solve that you’re passionate about and learn along the way.”

Hugh Herr with students in Dr. Gregg's lab

Before his lecture, Herr met with a handful of UT Dallas faculty and students. Here, engineering PhD students Hanqi Zhu (center) and Toby Elery describe the work they are doing in the Locomotor Control Systems Laboratory.

Tony and Jonna Mendez,former CIA officers

Duo to Present the Story of 'Argo' at Lecture on Tuesday The last talk in the ATEC Distinguished Lecture Series is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building lecture hall.

Speaking will be Tony and Jonna Mendez, the pair behind the story told in the Warner Bros. feature film Argo, winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2012. The lecture is presented by the Ann and Jack Graves Charitable Foundation

Tony Mendez is a retired CIA officer, author and award-winning painter. In 1965, he was recruited by the CIA’s Technical Services Division. He led two lives. To his friends, he was a quiet bureaucrat working for the U.S. military, but for 25 years, he worked undercover, often overseas, participating in some of the most important operations of the Cold War. To the CIA, he was its disguise master. From Wild West adventures in East Asia to Cold War intrigue in Moscow, he was there.

Over the course of his career, Mendez moved into the CIA’s executive rank. Mendez and his subordinates were responsible for changing the identities and appearance of thousands of clandestine operatives, allowing them to move securely around the world.

In 1980, Mendez was awarded the Intelligence Star for Valor for engineering and conducting the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Iran during the hostage crisis. This rescue operation involved creating an ostensible Hollywood film production company, complete with personnel, scripts, publicity and real estate in Los Angeles. The story served as the basis for his most recent book, Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, as well as the film Argo.

When Mendez retired in 1990, he had earned the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit and two Certificates of Distinction. Seven years later, on the 50th anniversary of the agency, he was awarded the Trailblazer Medallion, which recognized him as an “officer who by his actions, example or initiative … helped shape the history of the CIA.”

Jonna Mendez is a retired CIA intelligence officer with 27 years of service, living undercover and serving tours of duty in Europe, South Asia and the Far East.

She joined the CIA’s Technical Services Division in early 1970 and was overseas within a few years, serving as a technical operations officer with a specialty in clandestine photography. Her duties included training the CIA’s most highly placed foreign assets to use spy cameras and process the intelligence they gathered. She earned the CIA’s Intelligence Commendation Medal before she retired in 1993.

The couple continues to consult for the U.S. intelligence community and has participated in more than 22 television documentaries. In 2002, the two collaborated on Spy Dust, a book about their work in Moscow during the last decade of the Cold War.

Both are founding board members of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. Jonna Mendez also serves as vice president of the La Gesse Foundation, presenting American pianists in Europe and at Carnegie Hall, and is on the board of the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts in Hagerstown, Maryland.

Tickets and Parking

Prices vary between $10 and $20 for seats in the lower level of the Edith O'Donnell ATEC Building's lecture hall. Tickets for balcony seats are $5.

Staff and faculty members can purchase up to four tickets for each lecture that will be discounted by $5. Emails were sent to staff and faculty with a discount code. The discount only applies to assigned seats in the $10-to-$20 range.

If seats are still available, free standby tickets will be distributed to students with a valid Comet Card beginning one hour before the lecture. First come, first served. One ticket per student. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here using a desktop or laptop computer. For information about parking and valet service, click here.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].