If there is one word to describe Rachael Wagner’s time at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, it would be opportunity.
“I wanted to pick a school that felt close to home where I had really good opportunities,” she said.
Throughout her undergraduate and graduate education, Wagner has had the opportunity to explore different aspects of engineering, discover a passion for teaching, work for an award-winning surgical robotics startup company and to help prepare a surgical robot for its trip to space.
Now, she’s excited for her next steps as she nears the finish line of her master of science degree in mechanical engineering and applied mechanics with a specialty in systems design and controls and a minor in computer science.
“I’m open to any opportunities that happen to come my way,” she said.
The Lincoln native is on track to complete her degree in May 2023, after which she’d like to continue pursuing her interests, which include designing medical technology that helps people.
“I think my dream job has changed a lot,” she said. “If you had asked me five years ago, I probably would have said that I wanted to start my own business. Now, I’m considering potentially pursuing my Ph.D. or being a professor someday. I also want to design medical technology that helps people. I’m specifically interested in surgery technology, so my experience with surgery robots fits that avenue very nicely.”
Wagner first discovered her passion for helping people through her first job after receiving her undergraduate degree.
“At my first job got to attend a lot of surgeries where we tested our device on cadavers and animal studies,” she said. “Through that process, I just fell in love with the medical field. All of the rules that they use to keep patients safe and, all the innovations they make to enure that we’re pushing the needle forward, helps people live longer and better lives.”
The job was at Virtual Incision, a renowned surgical robotic technology company based in Lincoln. As a manufacturing engineer, she worked under the mentorship of Shane Farritor, David B. and Nancy K. Lederer Professor of Engineering at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Farritor earned his bachelor’s degree from NU before earning his master’s and Ph.D. from MIT. Farritor, the co-founder and chief technology officer of Virtual Incision, was Wagner’s professor before he offered her a position with his company.
“He invited all the students in our class to apply for an NSF grant to do graduate research,” she said. “At the time I didn’t want to go to graduate school, but it turned out his company was hiring. I applied. It was kind of lucky how that worked out.”
As an employee at a startup company, Wagner wore many different hats. She developed the manufacturing line for the surgical robot and surgical camera that Virtual Incision made for their FDA iteration of the device. She also wrote over 150 pages of manufacturing instructions. Wagner helped with the rigorous FDA testing of the device by attending surgical studies and by leading a durability study. She then analyzed the data collected during the surgeries to help improve the design.
“When I first got the job, I had no idea how intense it could be to try to get something FDA approved,” she said.
Farritor’s mentorship helped Wagner navigate the industry and pursue her interests in medical technology.
“I’ve learned so much from working with him,” she said. “I think he’s a really good teacher. I think a lot of why Virtual Incision is successful goes back to him, his philosophy about how he runs a business and how he approaches engineering. He always surrounds himself with good people, and he likes to give those people opportunities to learn new things and try new things. I am where I am right now because of all the opportunities that he’s allowed me to have.”
While working in the field, Wagner decided to return to school to learn about robotics in graduate school. Wagner joined Farritor’s lab to continue working with surgical robots and has since been working on a grant from NASA to design technology that will eventually fly on the International Space Station.
“There are a lot of aspects of this project that are new to me,” she said. “The testing that’s involved to go to space is a lot different than the testing that’s involved to go to surgery. Thankfully, Dr. Farritor has a lot of experience with space flight testing, and he’s helping guide me through this process. I use a lot of the career and engineering skills that I learned through my degree all the time. I think I just happen to be learning new things about how they apply to space technology. The details are different, but the skills are the same.”
Wagner also spent time this summer as an intern with Honeybee Robotics, a company that develops space mining robots for NASA, in Los Angeles. In that position, she worked on a drill that was intended to eventually look for water ice on the south pole of the moon. Despite her recent experiences with space technology, she’s still interested in primarily pursuing a career in medical technology.
“I think my first love is surgery and medical technology,” she said. “But we’ll see what happens.”
Throughout her education, the creativity and problem solving involved in engineering have carried Wagner through. Having work that is challenging and interesting is important to her, and she’s also discovered a passion for teaching and mentoring undergraduates that may lead to a future career as a professor. Wagner has also been involved with the Engineering Ambassadors Network.
From the challenges of starting a career, Wagner’s big takeaway is this:
“I’ve learned just how much I don’t know,” she said. “Learning that is huge, but I think the technical things are less important than the life lessons you learn, like following your gut and pursuing opportunities that you’re interested in.”
Wagner’s final advice for others includes not only being open to any opportunities, but also creating them.
“I would say the most important thing for graduate students is self-advocacy,” she said. “In graduate school, things are much less structured. There are a lot of opportunities that are at your fingertips, but you might not get them if you’re not being vocal about it. I would say speak up for yourself whenever you can. I like to think you can make opportunities for yourself when you’re interested in them.”