World Class Kiwi Catherine Mohr on the impact of solving big problems

World Class Kiwi Catherine Mohr on the impact of solving big problems

When you set your mind to solving problems that matter to you, you can make a big impact globally, says World Class New Zealand award winner Catherine Mohr.

1. When did you realise you could be world class and what steps did you take to get there?

It was probably solar car racing in University. While I was at MIT in the late 1980s, I was one of the founding members of the solar car team, and we built and raced our cars in Switzerland, Australia and the US. Being part of this larger international dialog on solar technology and alternate energy transportation was eye opening. It also led me to realise that the activities of a small group of university students could have effects far beyond our borders. We were not part of this international movement because of any authority conferred upon us by someone else, but rather because we had taken the initiative, and built this car ourselves and come to the table on our own.

2. What's your advice for Kiwis who want to make their name offshore or in the same industry as yours?

Try to focus on real solutions to important problems that you are passionate about, and don't shy away from the work that it will take to solve them. The rest will follow. The passion is essential, because if you don't care, you can't expect anyone else to. The passion is what makes it possible to put in the hard work to get educated enough to be in a position to contribute.

We as humans are irresistibly drawn to the short cut, we want things to be easy, but the important things are hard. Put in the time to get enough formal education to give you the tools, and then use those tools to break out into the unknown. I have several times been surprised how much international attention has come from doing something that I thought I was doing only for myself.

For example, when I wanted an academically rigorous way to evaluate the energy footprint of building a house (as I was doing at the time), I was frustrated that there was nothing out there on the web that could help me very much. So I spent an enormous amount of effort understanding the underlying science and methodologies, and developing a spreadsheet to calculate this. In the course of developing the spreadsheet, I contacted several of the researchers whose numbers I was using for embodied energy of materials, and then when I was done, I published the results under the creative commons.

The result of this is that two of the organisations which were developing the raw numbers are now working together (they were unaware of each other), and the original spreadsheet has been expanded and improved by architects from all over the world who now use it to calculate embodied energy of their new constructions. I certainly couldn't have planned for that type of effect, but rigorously solving an important problem that I was struggling with, and then sharing that solution led to quite an effect.

3. What's been the toughest time in your career?

Making the decision to leave"engineering and go to medical school. In many ways, it felt like a failure - I had succeeded as an engineer by external measures of success, but I wasn't happy as a senior engineering manager. It took a lot of soul searching and exploration to figure out what was going to make me happy, because I didn't really have a map for it. Going back to medical school in my 30s was an enormous step, and there was no way for me to predict how well it was going to turn out.

4. What would you would do differently if you had your time again?

I would recognise the power of setting expectations correctly. Several times I have accepted a job title that was convenient for the company because they already had that as an existing job title, even though it didn't fit what I was going to do for the company. I erroneously thought 'what is the harm in that?', but it turned out that the titles carried very specific expectations with them, and gave people the wrong idea about what it was that I did, and materially got in the way of my being effective in some cases.

The wrong title turned out to be much more harmful that I ever would have predicted. In these situations, we eventually changed the title to something more ambiguous that didn't carry a set of expectations with it that had to be tediously undone whenever I would interact with a new person. It turned out that an ambiguous title was much better, as if people didn't know what the title meant, they had to draw their own conclusions after interacting with me. The title could encompass whatever I ended up doing. It is hard to think of other things I would go back and un-do. Even the projects that had disastrous outcomes taught me so much, I wouldn't trade the experience I have now for my earlier self not having to go through that pain.

5. What are your tips for the best way to use your networks?

Networks have been and are enormously important for me. I tend to think of them not as a set of business cards of people I have met as that is not a real, vibrant, network (I have a famously bad memory for names anyway). Instead, I build long term relationships with people over years when I don't need or want anything from those people other than interesting conversation or a sharing of ideas.

I look for opportunities to help the people I think are doing great things by introducing them to other exciting and interesting people I know who could help them - looking for opportunities to connect people in my network when I have nothing personal to gain from it. In turn, people in my network then start looking for opportunities to do the same things for me. The less you ask of your network, the more you are willing to just give, and invest in the relationships, the more it gives back to you - often in unexpected and unlooked for ways that are infinitely better than anything you would have dared ask for.

Catherine Mohr won the services to life science award in this year's World Class New Zealand Awards, a New Zealand Trade and Enterprise initiative delivered by Kea New Zealand. Living in Silicon Valley, she's the senior director of medical research at Intuitive Surgical, which offers the minimally invasive, robot assisted da Vinci surgery technology.