I work as a subject matter expert (SME) in bulk biologics processing – primarily the manufacture of biopharmaceuticals – for Jacobs Ireland where I support projects across Europe. This is a rewarding role where every day is different and there is always another challenge around the corner. I am a chartered chemical engineer, a fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, and work in the process engineering department.
In this article I will outline some of the characteristics of an SME and how my career path led me to my current role. There are, as always, many routes to the same destination and this outlines my personal journey and some of the characteristics that are key to this type of role.
I graduated with a master of science degree in biochemical engineering from University College London in 1989 and started work for a small biopharmaceutical company in its pilot plant doing process development (yeast fermentations producing recombinant proteins).
I moved on to support manufacturing through the provision of technical support, supported the facility through a major refit, startup and into routine manufacturing before moving to a small capital projects group. All of which was the foundation for becoming a recognised expert, both internally and externally, in my sector.
After nine years in an operating company, I moved to engineering design and consultancy. My early career in this sector broadened my experience in that I worked on projects outside of pharmaceuticals, supported site construction and validation efforts and regulatory consultancy, as well as routine biopharmaceutical project work.
Subsequently I have worked as a department manager, managed projects, and had responsibility for departmental performance. This breadth of experience helps me to take a holistic approach to my work.
Figure 1: Career synopsis
Jacobs is a significant provider of engineering services to the life sciences industry and has been involved in the design and construction of many of the world’s pharmaceutical facilities. My role is to support the design teams and our clients with specialist bioprocessing skills across the project life cycle.
I work on a wide range of projects from small consultancy assignments (eg, process optimisation, troubleshooting) process modifications and retrofits through to large greenfield stainless steel multiproduct facilities.
The project capital costs range from €20m to €700m, and technologies that span the breadth of biopharmaceuticals, including microbial fermentations; cell culture; gene therapy; vaccines; human and animal products; upstream/downstream; perfusion; stainless steel; single use and hybrid platforms.
My impact on projects is greatest in the early phases (feasibility, concept and start of basic design) where my responsibilities typically include understanding the process, defining the throughput, sizing the equipment, developing the operating philosophies, and supporting layout development.
A key aspect of my role is supporting business development where demonstrating technical expertise is an important facet. This support includes client visits and capability presentations, and proposal preparation, review, and presentation.
While I have formal roles in projects, I also have an informal role in providing support to all our staff and projects on technical issues. To facilitate this, I need to be enthusiastic about imparting knowledge, I need to operate in a modest and collaborative manner, I need to encourage open communication and I need good communication and interpersonal skills.
I also have a role in training graduates, both formally and informally, and in providing presentations on aspects of biopharmaceuticals that are of general interest to everybody in the company. All these facets work towards being inspiring to others and emphasising an 'open door policy' (albeit electronic at the moment!).
I have been fortunate that my employers have always encouraged and supported a range of professional 'extra-curricular' activities. I was a committee member of the IChemE’s Biochemical Engineering Subject Group, and chairman for a few years; I have spoken at external conferences and had work published.
In addition, I have lectured at universities in the UK and Ireland. These were important in developing communication and presentation skills, as well as building up a network of professional contacts.
Figure 2: Summary of Presentations and Publications. (Note: This excludes many presentations at one-day technical seminars)
There are many personal characteristics that contribute significantly to technical leadership. A high level of commitment and a positive attitude are essential as these qualities will influence others on the project team.
As a technical professional I have no formal levels of authority and therefore it is important to have developed strong impacting and influencing skills, which must be supplemented by sound judgment, common sense, the confidence to ask the difficult questions and the ability to provide advice and make decisions objectively and based on the facts.
It is important in any role that we operate with a strong sense of ethics, we operate with integrity (choosing actions based on values rather than personal or organisational gain) and from these, come people’s trust (confidence that a person will do what they say they will do).
Within this framework the SME must be objective and ensure decisions are based on data. These characteristics are vital for a technical expert who is operating based on their personal knowledge and experience.
In summary my career has given me 'cradle-to-grave' experience where I understand the science, I can define the process and I know what it will look like at the end. These skills, together with my personal characteristics, have allowed me to develop my career to become an SME within Jacobs.
And finally, I live in the UK, in the beautiful hills of Derbyshire, where I enjoy time with my family, walking the hills, cooking (it is like chemical engineering where you turn raw materials into useful products!), listening to heavy rock music and sailing. I am active in my local sailing club, where I am a sailing and power boat instructor and club treasurer. I also instruct children (sailing and power boats) at our local sea cadets unit.
Author: Chris Davis (BSc Hons, MSc, CEng., FIChemE) is a chemical engineer working as a biopharm consultant for Jacobs Ireland, where he supports projects all over Europe. He has more than 30 years’ experience within biopharmaceuticals and has worked in process development, operations and on the design of a wide range of projects encompassing microbial and mammalian processes, human and veterinary products, therapeutics and vaccines, proteins, nucleic acid vaccines, cell therapy and viral based gene therapy products.