This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report on Dream Jobs 2010.
Catherine Mohr wanted to save the world, or at least a piece of it. But she just wasn’t sure how to go about it.
At age 27 she had what most engineers would consider a dream job: product engineering manager at AeroVironment, a boutique firm in Monrovia, Calif., that designs and builds some of the world’s most advanced land and air vehicles. She’d helped build cars for Switzerland’s Tour de Sol and Australia’s first World Solar Challenge, worked on power trains for hybrid cars, supervised construction of a hybrid off-road military reconnaissance vehicle, and started a laboratory to develop fuel-cell systems for aircraft designed to stay aloft for months at a time.
“It was a glorified toy factory,” Mohr recalls. “It was just the kind of thing I wanted to be doing.”
But in the late 1990s, she started to tire of making incredibly cool vehicles in lots of one or two. “We’d been working with each one of the Big Three U.S. car companies for years. We had built electric prototypes, hybrid prototypes.” But the U.S. car companies weren’t commercializing these designs.
“I’d been trying to save the world on a grand scale, with energy policy and electric cars,” Mohr says. “But there were these huge entrenched political, philosophical problems lined up against being able to just go out and do that. I was tired and frustrated.”
So, sitting in her office at AeroVironment, she thought about her options. As a graduate engineering student at MIT, Mohr had worked briefly with Ernesto Blanco, a professor involved in medical device design and medical patent litigation. She remembered what she liked about medical devices, which was that they “were going to make a very big difference in individual people’s lives.”
She was still pondering the idea of a career change when she talked to a surgeon friend about her situation. The friend invited her to come to Massachusetts General Hospital to watch some surgeries involving experimental medical devices.
She observed the test of a new device, an aortic stent that could be inserted through the blood vessels like a catheter. The attempt failed, and the surgeons had to revert to traditional open-heart surgery. But that failure was a revelation to Mohr.
“It seemed to me that if the engineers had been as intimately familiar with the body as the surgeons were, there would have been a better chance that the stent would have worked,” Mohr says. She listened to the engineers and the surgeons in the operating room. “They just didn’t speak each others’ languages,” she says, noting that the surgeons would propose fantastical solutions that involved breaking the laws of physics, and the engineers would try to bring those solutions into the realm of reality without fully understanding the fundamental problem the device was meant to solve.