Dream Jobs 2010: Catherine Mohr Designs Surgical Robots

Catherine Mohr went from designing solar planes to surgical robots and couldn't be happier

Photo: Gabriella Hasbun

SURGICAL PRECISION: Catherine Mohr's work with medical robots is revolutionizing the operating room.

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.”

mohr bioBut 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.

Mohr realized that if she wanted to design really revolutionary medical devices, she needed a better understanding of the environment in which they would be deployed—the human body. The best way to get that understanding, she thought, would be to go to medical school.

”Oh, my,” was her next thought. ”Am I really going to do that?”

Mohr looked into academic alternatives—”anything but medical school,” as she puts it. But she became convinced that attending a medical school with a surgical program that let her participate in operations was the only way she could get the deep understanding of the human body that she sought.

Everyone she knew thought she was nuts. The typical reaction went like this: ”You’re throwing away a good income in a high position in a world-famous company that makes great things—to go to medical school?”

But Mohr never saw her choice as throwing anything away. ”I always looked at it as adding on. I fully intended to take what I enjoyed at AeroVironment, which is the engineering, and to look at device design from the point of view of someone who’s both an engineer and a doctor.”

She entered Stanford School of Medicine as a five-year medical student (the extra year is devoted to a research project). While studying to be a doctor she had a child, served on the board of the Association of Women Surgeons, worked with the Association of Surgical Education, and spent every free moment trolling the hospital for surgeons who would let her scrub in on operations. She became a regular surgical assistant to two surgeons who specialized in laparoscopies, which are surgical procedures performed through a small incision with the help of a camera. She also developed a tool that makes it safer to inflate the abdomen before laparoscopic surgery and then started a medical device company to market the tool.

And then it came time to sign up for ”the match,” the annual process by which medical students around the country are assigned to hospitals for internships and residencies.

Mohr didn’t register. She loved the intellectual challenge of medicine and the connection with patients. But she loved the design projects she’d been doing on the side just as much. And she had a 2-year-old daughter she needed time for as well. She realized she couldn’t do it all.

So she joined Intuitive Surgical, a company located just kilometers from Stanford. Intuitive makes a surgical robot called the da Vinci. She started out by studying the forces generated during surgery by cutting and suturing and is now applying lower-force alternatives to surgery, such as lasers. As director of medical research, she’s also investigating applications for other new surgical technologies. One is focal therapy, which involves inserting a catheter into a tumor and then destroying the tumor from the inside out by applying RF, microwave, or other forms of energy. She considers how to integrate such novel techniques into the da Vinci and future surgical robots.

And Mohr gives advice to other engineers who are thinking about going to medical school. ”I say it’s a long, hard path, and it’s fraught with lots of really hard decisions to make along the way about whether you’re going to go all the way through residency, if you’re going to practice, if you’re not. I also tell them that you’re probably not going to make a lot of money designing biomedical devices. But it has the potential for being very, very rewarding.

”The job is technical, clinical, and creative, and constantly on the steep part of the learning curve,” she says. ”It has all the satisfaction of being a researcher in academia, but because I’m in industry, when I find things that will make a very big difference in patients’ lives, there’s a very short path to getting them into patients.”

This article originally appeared in print as "Catherine Mohr: RoboDoc."

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For more articles and special features, go to Dream Jobs 2010.

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