Imperial College London

Aeronautics Alumnus recognised for battling COVID-19 on wards


Miss Catherine Rennie

Miss Catherine Rennie, a former PhD student and current fellow at the Department of Aeronautics has been recognised as an Engineering Hero.

Catherine was recognised as one of the Women Engineering Society’s Top 50 Women in Engineering (WE50) 2021. The Awards celebrate Engineering Heroes, which WES describes as recognising the "best, brightest and bravest women in engineering today."

It’s fantastic: women in surgery are rare, and women in both surgery and engineering even rarer. Miss Catherine Rennie

A specialist ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, Catherine has been recognised for projects that successfully combine aeronautical engineering and surgery, both fields with traditionally low numbers of female role models.

Professor Denis Doorly, who co-supervised Catherine’s PhD (together with Professor Neil Tolley) and who nominated her for the award, said “Catherine is a wonderful exemplar of what can be achieved by bringing together expertise from different fields.”

Miss Catherine Rennie holding her award and smiling
Catherine Rennie with her award

Catherine was thrilled to be recognised with the award, saying: “It’s fantastic: women in surgery are rare, and women in both surgery and engineering even rarer. I feel proud to be part of an excellent department that has enabled me to combine my skills and to be able to highlight the possibilities of innovation when there is collaboration between disciplines and industry.

"It is an exciting partnership that holds potential for further research which could ultimately translate into developments that make a difference to patients’ lives. There’s now a chain of women who work in medicine going through the Department of Aeronautics, and that can only be a good thing!

“A lot can be achieved through the collaboration between Aeronautics and Surgery. It’s an exciting area with huge potential. Through applying engineering principles to solve medical problems we can improve outcomes for patients.”

Response to COVID-19

The Zephyr Hood has been designed to ensure safety of patients and to reduce the likelihood of transmission across hospital wards. Miss Catherine Rennie

After Catherine received her PhD at the Department of Aeronautics in 2014, she was appointed consultant ENT surgeon at Charing Cross Hospital in 2017.

Last year, in response to the COVID-19 emergency, Catherine worked as both an engineer and surgeon. As a surgeon, she has been on the front line, performing high-risk airway surgery on COVID-19 patients, whilst as an engineer, she has started projects to find solutions to improve treatment and to protect patients and staff from the spread of COVID-19.

Much of Catherine’s work has involved examining and operating on the upper respiratory airway. Because of the risks associated with aerosol generation during ENT surgery and during aftercare, staff, surgeons and patients in wards were all at a higher risk of COVID-19. Therefore, the need to contain the spread of dangerous aerosols was crucial.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Catherine responded by forming a collaboration including colleagues across Imperial departments, Imperial College Healthcare Trust, and designers at Mercedes AMG-F1 to investigate ways of reducing the spread of aerosols in hospital wards. Rigorous research, development and testing resulted in the design of the ‘Zephyr hood’, an aerosol containment device.

Photo depicting the Zephyr hood
Catherine testing the Zephyr hood

Catherine explains “If you’re transporting a patient between wards, there’s a real danger of that patient spreading or contracting the virus. So the Zephyr Hood has been designed to ensure safety of patients and to reduce the likelihood of transmission across hospital wards.”

A second device, the ‘Boreus shield’, which prevents aerosols from spreading to surgeons during operations is completing phase 1 of testing prior to clinical trials.

In addition to this work, Catherine is giving her off-duty time to contribute to the Exovent Design group, in an effort to develop negative pressure ventilators. Catherine explains “There’s a real lack of oxygen availability in lower and middle income countries, and a great need for low-cost child and infant respiratory support devices. Negative pressure ventilators tend to be seen as archaic, but advances in technology have seen them develop considerably. They are now far less bulky, and wearable devices. The device expands the chest wall, and as the chest expands it draws air in. Therefore, it’s a more physiological way of ventilating people”

Catherine’s energy has encouraged other students from surgery (Dr. Lulu Ritchie, Dr. Charlotte McIntyre) to follow her in studying for degrees in aeronautics, just as she has inspired engineering graduates here and abroad (including Dr. A Bates at CCHMC in the US, Dr. H Calmet at Barcelona Supercomputer Centre) to pursue airway research. Catherine is also active in teaching, lecturing on image guidance technology in surgery and contributing to the surgical innovation MSc course at Imperial and supervising MSc projects in the Department of Aeronautics.


Tom Creese

Tom Creese
Department of Aeronautics

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