From Electric Vehicles to Surgical Robots

Catherine Mohr explains how a frustration with energy policy sent her into the operating room and on to her dream job

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Tekla Perry: At age 27, Catherine Mohr had her 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. I'm Tekla Perry for IEEE Spectrum, and I wanted to explore how sometimes dreams change.

Catherine Mohr: I had tried saving the world on the grand scale with energy policy and electric cars. And I was feeling a bit disillusioned. And we'd been in that arena for a while and I was tired and frustrated.

Tekla Perry: When electrical engineer Catherine Mohr realized that electric vehicles weren't actually going to save the world anytime soon, she made plans to leave a dream job designing the world's most advanced forms of transportation. Mohr thought about the impact an engineer could have in medicine, by inventing new tools or medical devices.

Catherine Mohr: While it probably wasn't going to have as large an effect on global health and wasn't saving the world on quite so grand a scale, it was going to make a very big difference in individual people's lives.

Tekla Perry: Mohr opted for a career change: She'd develop medical devices. Her path there led through medical school. Now the surgical robots she helps create are revolutionizing the operating room.
Initially, exploring the possibilities of this new field, Mohr observed a few surgeries involving experimental devices. One surgery, in particular, made an impression. The device, an aortic stent that could be inserted through blood vessels, failed.

Catherine Mohr: Seeing the stent fail, it sort of seemed to me that if the engineers had been as intimately familiar with the body as the surgeons were, that there would have been a better chance that that stent would have worked.
And hearing, you know, the surgeon expressing the way surgeons tend to do what they thought should be done to fix the stent.
And then the engineer sort of noodles on trying to make that solution work, as opposed to the surgeon being able to fully articulate the problem and be able to communicate what that problem is, and then the engineer doing what the engineer does best, which is solving that kind of a problem.

Tekla Perry: Mohr had a revelation, though initially not one she was very happy about.

Catherine Mohr: It really got me thinking that if I wanted to do good device design, I needed to understand the environment in which these things were going to be deployed And so thenthe next logical step is well, then, how does one go about doing that? And that was the start of, Oh, my God, am I really going to go to medical school?

Tekla Perry: Mohr knew that medical school would be grueling, and scrambled to find an alternative. But she concluded that only a full medical program would give her the deep knowledge that she sought. She entered Stanford School of Medicine and spent every free moment trolling the hospital for surgeons that would let her scrub in on surgeries. While a student, she developed a tool that makes it safer to inflate the abdomen before laparoscopic surgery and started a medical device company to market the tool.
Then it came time to register for internship and residency placement. She didn't.

Catherine Mohr: So now I am at the end of my fourth year. I've got a start-up company. I have a 2-year-old daughter. I have loved the intellectual challenge of medicine. I have loved the direct patient connection.
So the obvious thing is to just apply for residencies and go and do my surgical residency and continue on. But in retrospect, I—I guess I still understand why the decision was so hard, but I really—I was looking at residency and family, residency and project, with no time for family, or projects and family. And projects and family was the obvious choice for me.

Tekla Perry: Mohr joined Intuitive Surgical, a company that makes a surgical robot called the da Vinci, currently used for some 75 percent of prostate removals in the U.S., as well as other procedures. She's now director of medical research for the Sunnyvale, Calif.–based company, working in a large development facility that includes a testing lab—in essence, a large, multistation operating room—where surgeons practice their skills and fine-tune robotic operating procedures.

Tekla Perry: One of her current projects is trying to figure out how to eradicate tumors from the inside out.

Catherine Mohr: Instead of cutting something out, you place an ablation catheter into it, whether it's cryo or RF or microwave or laser, and you kill the tumor from the inside out with an application of energy. And that has steering problems, targeting problems, understanding the path of physiology of heat app—and energy application to the tissue.It's an incredibly rich problem space, trying to figure out how do you do the ultimate in minimally invasive, which is not even cut it out, but treat it inside you.

Tekla Perry: Mohr has a few words of advice for engineers who might want to follow in her footsteps—there are more and more of them, she says.

Catherine Mohr: Older engineers who are thinking about going to medical school who talk to admissions officers at medical schools often get sent to talk to me. I can say, Oh, well, it's a long, hard path and it's fraught with lots of really, really hard decisions to make about whether you're going to go all the way and do your residency or just do an internship and get your license, if you're going to practice, if you're not. There's a lot of things to decide along the way. But that it has the potential for being very, very rewarding.
It might not be the right thing for everybody, but I thought it was a very good thing for me, and I feel that the grounding that I got I don't think I could have gotten it any other way.

Tekla Perry: For IEEE Spectrum, I'm Tekla Perry.