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The UCL PhD grad helping to bring us COVID-19 vaccines

uczjsdd25 October 2021

Dr Ranna Eardley-Patel has an EngD from UCL in Biochemical Engineering and Bioprocess Leadership, and is now a Bioprocess Engineering Consultant. Ranna kindly took the time to tell us about her current role and her career journey so far, and offered tips for researchers looking to follow a similar path.

This interview forms part of our series speaking with PhDs who graduated during the last recession.

  • What are you up to now?

I am a freelance bioprocess engineer, working through my own company (PTF UK Ltd) to provide consulting and specialist engineering services. One of my current contracts is as an advisor to the UK Vaccines Taskforce. I am one of ten Tech Specialists seconded from industry, supporting deployment of COVID-19 vaccines to UK and Northern Ireland. My main tasks are as the overall and technical lead for a multimillion-pound investment project involving onshoring of vaccine manufacture, including development of variant vaccines. I also represent the UK VTF to explore partnerships with other international government / public health bodies.

  • How did you move from academia to your current role?

I did an EngD involving >50% of my time with my sponsor companies, so I felt that I was transitioning out of academia at the outset. My department has a fabulous industrial network, and I grew my own whilst doing the courses open to the wider sector. I spoke to people in my network once I’d decided that design and consultancy appealed to me more than R&D or manufacturing, and I got my first job with an alumni. I did have to answer technical questions, mainly about my own research; I quickly worked out that this was not a test of my intelligence, but as a way to find out if I had the right work ethic and personality to work in a small team on problems that there may not be an obvious answer to as the field was new!

  • What does a normal working day look like for you?

No such thing as a normal day, and working patterns continue to evolve with mobile devices and remote working. I am not a morning person, so I tend to do my best work in the evenings – a plus when working with clients in e.g. the USA.

  • What are the best bits?

Being part of a highly capable, diverse and multi-disciplinary team to support the UK government to bring technological advances in vaccines manufacture to the public at a time of great need. It has been amazing to carry on the work I did to bring the AZ COVID-19 vaccine from tech transfer to commercialisation and leverage that experience to other vaccines and infrastructure investments. I am now seeing life slowly returning to pre-pandemic days, feeling proud and privileged to know that I had a part in making that possible via the vaccination efforts.

  • And the challenges?

Engineers need to go to where we are needed to be involved in initiatives that make a global impact. That may mean a compromise between work and home-life, for example, living away from home for long periods of time. This is still not so typical for females, so it is good to know the coping strategies with regards to downtime when being the only woman contractor on site. I chose to become a contractor so I can be free to work on projects that really mean something to me and are worth the trade-offs of being away from my family. Mentors can be found in many guises, and there’s always a handy life-hack to learn from colleagues as well as friends.

  • Is a PhD/EngD essential for your role?

No it is not essential, but it certainly helps a lot! It is called a PhD for a reason no matter what the subject – it trains you in a way of thinking and communicating in ways, that no other experience will, to solve unknown problems, and it often tests the limits of your imagination and perseverance.

The main skill I continue to develop is to be able to communicate complex scientific and engineering concepts to different audiences. Some people need all the detail, but in a language that they can understand from other engineers, architects, politicians, investors and students;  some only need the high level consequences of decisions without the background, but not losing any nuances of the key contributing factors.

  • What’s the progression like?

The biotech sector is booming right now, and there is plenty of scope for progression. Personally, I feel like I have achieved where I want to go, and plan to do this for the rest of my career. I am financially free and can chose what projects I do, and where I work. This freedom happened sooner than I expected; it took me a while to recognise that I had reached my career goals and to feel the confidence that I could say no to work that I did not want to do. My ultimate aim is to leave the world a better place i.e. a legacy beyond my work. Being part of major vaccine initiatives is a significant part of fulfilling that desire.

  • What are your top tips for researchers looking to enter bioprocess engineering?

Please do – we need more talented people like you now to be ready for future pandemics! You will recognise many concepts from other branches of chemical engineering – the fundamentals of mass and energy balances, component specification, process flow diagrams and P&IDs still all apply. There are lots of directly transferable skills from sectors requiring high containment (semiconductor, volatile solvents, nuclear) that are core to working with vaccines, so experience from other sectors is all valuable.

The biopharmaceutical industry has some specific terminology and concepts that takes some time getting used to, as well as a necessarily onerous regulatory compliance landscape. ISPE good practise and baseline guides provide a great overview of these along with practical examples of where they are used. Always keep the customer i.e. the patient, in mind in whatever you design/specify/build/validate. There are lots of resources out there to upskill via the IChemE and the ASTSN Home | AT Skills Training Network.

  • Any specific insights for those graduating into a recession?

I graduated into a recession twice and did not get any of the jobs that I applied for from both the milk-round or speculative applications. First time, I discovered the EngD, which was the perfect mix of working and academia.

Second time, it was whilst I was struggling to write up my thesis, getting married to someone who was not geographically mobile, and only sure of what I did not want to do i.e. work in the finance sector.  It was only when I wrote down what I wanted my ideal career goals and potential paths to be, then communicated that to my network, that I got my first job. It was not quite what I wanted on some fronts, but I asked a trusted mentor and we agreed that it would be a great steppingstone to get me to the career goals I had envisioned.

 

Profile portrait courtesy of Geraldine Curtis, Women-in-Engineering-Photography-Booklet.pdf (skillsandlearningace.com) taken at UCL ACBE in 2019