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Erica Emmons

A Background in Chemical Engineering

Erica Emmons first glimpsed her future medical specialty inside a cardboard box.

She had been taking a class called Technical Frontiers in Digestive Diseases, meant to steer Stanford University’s engineering majors into the medical field.

One day, an interventional radiologist walked in carrying a large shoe box filled with tools designed to help doctors diagnose and treat patients in minimally invasive ways. Emmons was fascinated.

“We got to play with all the toys. Being at the technical frontier is cool to me and appeals to the engineering side of my brain.”

As a chemical engineering major at the time, that side of Emmons’ brain was already pretty well engaged.

The daughter of a chemical engineer, she’d grown up living abroad with her family in Cairo, then Scotland and finally Azerbaijan as her father took on new jobs.

She was attracted to the field because of its versatility.

“Most people can’t pin down what a chemical engineer does,” says Emmons, whose parents now live in Colorado Springs. “That’s because it has the broadest skill set of all the engineers. It can be anything from drug design to waste plant manufacturing design. It’s anything you can think of.”

After an engineering internship in Alaska, she decided to hold off on medical school. Her first job with Schlumberger Drilling and Measurements, the world’s largest oilfield services company, was in Rifle, Colo., and from there she spent her time in Wyoming and western North Dakota.

Living in remote parts of the West appealed to Emmons. But the call to medicine remained strong.

Emmons, 25, had grown accustomed to physicians early on; she was born with a cleft palate and some missing fingers and toes. She had surgeries at regular intervals through her young life. But it was the first surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Denver, an operation she is too young to remember, that impacted her choice of career.

“My mother always tells me about the doctor who did the first surgery. She became a role model for me, even though I haven’t met her. I think it’s because of how my mom said she treated her. She talked to her and explained things. She was a really gentle, wonderful lady, and I hope I get the opportunity to meet her someday because I’ve tried to follow in her footsteps.”

Even as an engineer in the oil fields, Emmons said her goal was to work in medical device design. But eventually she realized that working with people rather than technology was what made her job satisfying.

Interventional radiology would include both aspects.

“I could still be in a clinical setting working with patients, then cross over and collaborate on the tools. It’s a cool field and an amazing, emerging section of medicine.

“It’s where I want to be.”