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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

Progressing within academia: tips from a professor

uczjsdd6 September 2021

In the third of our series of interviews with PhDs who graduated during the last recession, we spoke with Professor Shun-Liang Chao, who was awarded a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCL, and is now a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. He told us about his journey, and offered tips for those graduating in similarly turbulent times.

  • Tell us about your current role and organisation.

I’m currently a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at National Chengchi University, a top research university in Taiwan which just signed a student exchange agreement with UCL in 2020.

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

I’d always wanted to be an academic since I started my PhD because I enjoyed doing research. Therefore, I devoted most of my time as a PhD student to making myself competitive in the future academic job market: I frequently attended public lectures, seminars, and workshops to keep abreast of the recent trends in my field, presented my research findings in international conferences, and, above all, published my research in refereed journals and edited volumes. By the time I entered the job market, I had managed to publish a few journal articles and book chapters, a publication record that was good enough to have myself invited to job interviews for postdoc and tenure-track posts in the UK, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan. In addition to research, I also gained teaching experience by teaching an undergraduate seminar whilst at UCL. As an Asian working on European comparative literature, I found it most challenging to prove that I could be just as competent as, if not better than, PhD students from the West. Therefore, I had to constantly urge myself to work even harder to get my research published. In this aspect, I benefited greatly from the research training (including PhD supervision and examination) I received from UCL and the IAS at the University of London. One year after I completed my PhD, I managed to publish my thesis as a monograph, which was later awarded in Paris the Anna Balakian Prize (Honourable Mention) by the International Comparative Literature Association. This award paved the way for several research grants and collaborative projects.

  • Did graduating into a recession have an impact on your career path?

When I entered the job market, the humanities were already in crisis. I remember I applied for a tenure-track post at a flagship university in the US and later was informed that the advertised post was suspended due to budget cuts. Nevertheless, since I had always wished to stay in academia, such recessions never thwarted my determination. I considered myself very lucky to land a tenure-track post at a top university in Taiwan just a few months after teaching part-time in Taiwan.

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

Normally, academic life consists of three parts: research, teaching, and service. Service may sound abstract to those outside academia: it involves department admin, serving on department/college/university committees, serving on editorial boards of journals or book series, peer-reviewing articles, books, and grant applications, examining PhD theses and MA dissertations, and so on. During term-time, teaching and service take up most of my time and energy on a daily basis. I can fully concentrate on my research only during summer and winter breaks. Whilst people outside academia may envy that academics don’t have to work a 9 to 5 job, I have to say I find it rather nerve-wracking not to have a clear line between on-duty time and off-duty time in my life because I often have to work at night as well as on weekends and holidays. Fortunately, my wife is also an academic, so we can sympathise with each other.

  • What are the best things about working in your role?

Teaching young minds has helped me constantly to rejuvenate myself psychologically. Also, I find it very rewarding to be able to kindle their passion for literature, particularly when their vision of life has been shaped by neoliberal capitalism.

  • What are the biggest challenges?

Admin-wise, I find cutting through red tape most challenging and frustrating, particularly in the case of intermural/extramural research collaborations. Teaching-wise, under the sway of neoliberalism, university education has become much more conditioned towards a capitalist vision of life, become more about having to look at oneself as an entrepreneur such that students are less willing to ‘invest’ in non-lucrative subjects like literature or, broadly, the humanities. Under such circumstances, the biggest challenge is how to ‘sell’ literature to students. Research-wise, at a research-orientated university, I’m under a lot of pressure to publish or perish whilst also having to satisfy the demands of teaching and service.

  • What skills do you use from your PhD in your current role?

In addition to research skills, the communication skills I learnt from my PhD supervisor have helped me greatly to supervise my students. Also, this is probably not a skill but an attitude that I picked up whilst at UCL and has been motivating me constantly to explore new things (be they academic or not): it wouldn’t hurt to give it a go.

  • What’s the progression usually like in academia?

A PhD is an essential for a tenure-track position. These days many PhDs may have to get a postdoc fellowship before landing a tenure-track post. In Taiwan, getting on the tenure track, a PhD typically starts as an assistant professor and is expected to become promoted to associate professorship within six years in order to get tenure. Whilst the tenure review evaluates one’s contribution to research, teaching, and service, research plays a pivotal role in one’s promotion to associate professorship (and to full professorship) at a research university. Even after having tenure, one still has to go through evaluation every five years at my university. I’m lucky enough to be promoted to full professorship in 2020, eleven years after I completed my PhD. Now I can finally pace myself a bit in life instead of constantly chasing one deadline after another.

  • What top tips would you pass on to researchers interested in progressing within academia?

Here’s my two pennies worth: Above all, enjoy what you do; second, try to get published in refereed journals or volumes in order to make yourself competitive in the future job market; third, stay positive when your submissions or applications get rejected; last but not least, network with other PhD students or colleagues to exchange ideas or research experiences and, furthermore, to pave the way for future collaborations.