Biological drugs, biofuels, industrial biocatalysts, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are among the many product breakthroughs that are driving tremendous growth in the biotechnology sector. If you are intrigued by how these novel products are developed or want to get involved in this biotech boom, then consider a career move to the biotechnology industry.
While cutting-edge developments in biotech may make it seem like a new field, it is, in fact, quite ancient. Many familiar products, such as beer, wine, cheese, and bread, depend on biological processes or organisms. Károly Ereky, a Hungarian agricultural engineer, coined the term “biotechnology” in 1919 when he predicted that biology could be purposefully used to manufacture products intended to improve the quality of human life.
The biotechnology industry of today is organized into ten subspecialties and each is associated with a particular color. The primary subspecialties of biotech are associated with red, white, green, and yellow, but there are additional subsets and colors. Red biotech includes medical and pharmaceutical products and processes; white involves biocatalysis for industrial processes; green applies to agriculture, including GMOs; and yellow relates to food production.
Nasim Mansoori, a scientist at Zymergen (Emeryville, CA), notes a need for ChEs in biotech: “The emerging field of synthetic biology — in which artificial biological systems are developed — offers many opportunities for ChEs,” he says. Patricia Bubner, senior scientist in process analytics at Boehringer Ingelheim (Fremont, CA), also sees a place for chemical engineers: “In the next few years, I anticipate the budding food biotechnology industry to need chemical engineers proficient in upscaling lab processes,” she says.
As new biotech products move out of the lab and into production, opportunities for ChEs abound. Chemical engineers can work in many areas, from process development and scaleup to manufacturing and process optimization. “Scaleup from the lab is usually a challenge. For example, the shear and oxygen transfer characteristics of a production-size fermenter are quite different than whatever a research scientist used in producing small quantities of a product,” says Joseph Alford, an AIChE Fellow who retired from Eli Lilly and Co. Chemical engineers have the skills and training to overcome these challenges and, as Alford notes, “They can design the manufacturing process in a way that is profitable to the company, safe, and reliable, and complies with environmental and current good manufacturing practice regulations.”
Because biotech is often data intensive, data analysis, programming, and software skills are essential to performing efficient processing and data interpretation. Bubner counsels, “Being willing to reevaluate results, to question the status quo, and make data-based decisions are important skills. Beyond the data, being a team player with excellent communication skills can also help you immensely.”
As with many industries, having an advanced degree can help qualify you for higher-paying positions. “While work experience can compensate for not having a master’s degree, in many cases, having a PhD can give you more access to jobs with higher pay and responsibility,” says Bubner. “Also, having a strong engineering background combined with business know-how is definitely an asset.”
The demand for chemical engineers in the booming biotech industry is evident, so follow these tips to transition you career:
- Join a professional association. Depending on your interests, joining AIChE’s Society for Biological Engineering (SBE); Food, Pharmaceutical and Bioengineering Div. (FP&BE); or Forest Bioproducts Div. (FBP); or another biotech association can help you to network and learn from current engineers and scientists in the industry.
- Take relevant courses. Mansoori suggests choosing from courses in molecular biology, strain engineering, and fermentation, and learning the programming languages SQL and Python for script writing. SBE also offers workshops and webinars to help you build your knowledge.
- Use social media. Identify specific companies where you would like to work and interact with them on LinkedIn or Twitter. This will give you insight into their culture, challenges, and products, and may help you land interviews. BioSpace (www.biospace.com) is also a good resource for biotech news and career information.
- Conduct informational interviews. Through your professional association memberships and social media, build connections to individuals who work in biotech. Then reach out to those at your targeted companies to set up informational interviews. Be prepared to ask questions about the other person’s career path, their current role, and appropriate ways to position yourself for a similar job.
- Refocus your résumé. Emphasize how your background and skills can be applied to a biotech position and incorporate keywords relevant to that position. If possible, have your résumé critiqued by someone who works in the industry.
- Consider temping to gain experience. Many companies hire temporary workers and this can be a great way to transition to the industry. “Temping helps you get to know the company and its opportunities from the inside. If you’re not converted to a permanent position, the experience gained will help you in applying for a permanent position elsewhere,” says Bubner.
This article originally appeared in the Career Corner column in the June 2018 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at www.aiche.org/cep.