She calls herself "a tinkerer at heart."
And ever since Catherine Mohr walked into a Boston-area bike shop looking for a high school job repairing drive trains and spokes, the New Zealand-born surgeon and inventor has taken tinkering to a mind-boggling high art here in Silicon Valley.
As director of research at Sunnyvale-based Intuitive Surgical, makers of a surgical robot called da Vinci, Mohr bridges the fields of medicine and technology as she tries to build upon the already amazing advances in robotic surgery. Like other new and disruptive technologies, the practice of surgeons remotely using robotic "surrogate" hands instead of their own to perform operations has generated controversy in some parts of the medical community. A spate of litigation and questions about cost-effectiveness have partially deflated Intuitive's stock price in the past year, but the company recently introduced its newest version of the da Vinci and plans to expand into new surgical areas.
We spoke with the MIT- and Stanford-trained Mohr. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Q Tell us a little about your background and how your experiences growing up set you on this path.
A I was born in New Zealand, but came to the United States so my dad could do his postdoc and we ended up staying. While my mom's a biostatistician and my dad's a biochemist, I never thought growing up that I'd do anything terribly medical in my life. We were a scientific family and I always loved taking things apart for school experiments, but I only started to realize that I was a tinkerer at heart when I got a job as a bike mechanic. I loved bicycles and I loved machines.
Q You've sort of made a career out of tinkering. What was it that you loved so much about the process?
A I think it was that ability to learn about something by taking it apart that got me. You can really figure things out that way, and that's been a paradigm for almost everything I've worked on as the years went by.
Q Tell us about the road that led you to the world of robotic surgery. It was not a straight path, it seems.
A I was going to be a chemistry major at first and then become a professor, but I realized I was really a tinkerer at heart, so the chem major was abandoned for engineering. I spent time in college building and racing electric cars. But I decided to leave before getting my Ph.D. and instead worked with electric cars in Southern California, where I became program manager for (legendary racer and vehicle designer) Rod Millen.
But what happened to me is what happens to a lot of people in tech: You go from being an individual contributor to project manager to finally VP of engineering and you find yourself managing people who are managing people who are doing the things that got you into engineering in the first place. For a lot of people, that's a natural progression, but it wasn't making me happy.
Q Why the decision to go to Stanford for a medical degree? That's quite the pivot.
A I went to observe an experimental surgery with a surgeon friend of mine. They were testing a new device and it failed and the surgeons and tech people were talking past each other, trying to figure out what had happened. It was geek-speak on one side and medical jargon on the other. Thinking about that afterward made me realize that I was really interested in working with technologies to help fix the human body, which is really the ultimate machine. Just designing medical devices wasn't enough for me, but I loved being in the OR and that hands-on aspect of surgery, so I decided to go to medical school.
Q Yet when you finished, you didn't go into practice.
A My husband was working at Intuitive back in 2001 and they were working on the da Vinci robot, so I watched its continuing development while I was still in school. I suggested to a surgeon I was working with doing minimal-invasive bariatric surgeries that we try the da Vinci. Intuitive later invited me to do consulting for them. I graduated and then started doing tech evaluation and product development for Intuitive, which I've been doing ever since.
Q How is robotic surgery, using something like da Vinci, better than the old-fashioned way with human hands?
A Think of the robot as an expansion of the surgeon. I think of it as giving the surgeon superpowers, things like better vision and finer dexterity. The robot is what we call a telemanipulator, where the surgeon is at the controls moving knobs. And all the things the surgeon looking into the monitor sees and does is done through this intermediary. When the surgeon makes a motion with their hands, this tiny instrument becomes a surrogate hand inside the body, doing exactly the same motion as the surgeon is doing.
Q What do you see as the future of robotic surgery?
A I'm looking for new technologies that'll give surgeons even more superpowers. We'll do things like use special fluorescent dyes that will mark out structures inside the body, like lymph nodes or blood vessels, so the machine helps us move beyond the capabilities of the naked eye. I see huge advances in using these markers to tag cancer so that when the surgeon sees no more glowing tissue, they can be sure all the cancer has been taken out.
This is all about using technology like a GPS for surgeons inside the body. I see the hardware getting smaller and smaller, with tools to do microsurgery that will become less and less invasive.
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689 or follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.
Birth date: Nov. 23, 1968
Birthplace: Dunedin, New Zealand
Position: Senior director of medical research, Intuitive Surgical
Previous jobs: Bicycle mechanic in high school; consultant engineer in college and graduate school; mechanical engineer at AeroVironment building hybrid cars. In medical school, she founded Veresure, a medical device startup that was sold to Aragon Surgical in 2006, and built a chocolate coin stamping machine that was never sold to anybody.
Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering, MIT; M.D. from Stanford School of Medicine in 2006
Family: Her husband is Paul Mohr; they have an 11-year-old daughter
Residence: Mountain View
Five Facts About Catherine Mohr
1. She took up playing the cello three years ago because she believes one should always be a beginner at something.
2. Although you can't tell from her accent, she is a Kiwi, and was recently honored as a "World Class New Zealander" by her fellow expatriates.
3. She loves to cook, from the basics to molecular gastronomy, and makes her own yogurt.
4. When building the family home (the subject of her second TED talk), she put in a gray-water system that feeds her native garden.
5. She was 24 years old before she had driven more miles in a car than she had on motorcycles.