From geology to vascular and endovascular surgery
Though her extensive academic career has centered on medicine, Erica (Walker) Mitchell ’85 started her postsecondary education with a family tradition—attending Mines.
“Going to medical school after Colorado School of Mines was such a breeze in the sense that we’d developed such good study habits,” Mitchell said. “Mines teaches you to think critically, like an engineer.”
A surgeon, educator and researcher, Mitchell serves as the interim chief of vascular and endovascular surgery at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis and a professor of surgery in the College of Medicine. “As a vascular surgeon, there are more engineers in the field than any other specialty,” she said. “I think it’s because you apply many engineering principles, such as hemodynamics and laws of physics.”
Her path to becoming a physician started early. Her father’s work as a petroleum engineer took the family all over the globe. “He was working in Angola and South Africa, but we were raised in Zimbabwe, which at the time was Rhodesia,” she said. He’d left the oil industry to go into farming, which ultimately cemented Mitchell’s interest in medicine.
“I had always wanted to be a doctor,” she said. “Growing up, our kitchen was always the triage
center for anyone ill or injured on our farm.”
When civil war broke out in Rhodesia, the family fled, first to South America, then to Wyoming and Colorado. Mitchell was 16 at the time and soon followed in the college footsteps of her father, who graduated from Mines in 1948, and sister, who was already a Mines student when Mitchell enrolled. Mitchell majored in geology. At the time, Mitchell said, “The pathway to medicine wasn’t as clear as it is now.”
“When I graduated, oil prices collapsed, but I got a job working an old gold mine in Lefthand Canyon,” she said. But she soon began taking prerequisites for medical school and entered the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine in Denver, then completed residencies and fellowships in Colorado and Oregon and a master’s degree in surgical education from Imperial College London.
Now, Mitchell is focused on research and educating the next generation of surgeons. “We do a lot of simulation and competency assessments in medicine, and engineering prepares you well for that—you have to have a plan, it’s very methodical,” she said. “I’ve written one of the first textbooks in vascular surgery that applies decision-making algorithms to the care of surgical patients: what to do when a patient presents with a certain elective or emergent condition, for example; the decision tree drives you down a specific pathway. Mines prepared me well in terms of decision-making.”
Though many students today focus on biology to get into medical school, Mitchell believes her unconventional route gave her the tools of scientific inquiry that she uses—and teaches—today.
“You can be a doctor coming out of Colorado School of Mines—it really prepares you well,” she said.