Brewing up a career in biotech
Whether you’re applying to college or interviewing for a job, we’re asked many times throughout our lives, “What are your greatest strengths?”
It’s never easy to be evaluated and sometimes it’s even more difficult to evaluate yourself. From a career perspective, we are often encouraged to specialize based on these lifelong evaluations and our strengths in academia.
While academic pursuits are certainly one way to find your profession, what if there’s another way?
I’ve known since high school that one of my greatest strengths, public speaking, is often cited as the most common answer to, “what is your greatest fear?” Public speaking is a handy skill in the real world…but it’s not exactly something one can easily craft a career around, right?
I had no idea what I wanted to do for my professional career both at the start and the end of my undergraduate education. I’ve always had a diversity of interests, and throughout my life, I’ve felt pressure to specialize in one area or another.
Now that I work in biotechnology, I know now that not everyone takes the same path.
I hope this article can reassure others who don’t yet “have it all figured out” that there’s more than one path to a career in biotechnology and that:
It’s possible to succeed in biotechnology without following the traditional path.
Believe it or not, I graduated from undergrad with a B.A. in Communication and a minor in chemistry. This was not very common at my in-state engineering school, where deviations from the status quo were often met with statements like:
You’ll regret that degree when you’re 30 and unemployed.
I’m 32 now, and I can say this confidently:
Your undergraduate education, regardless of your major, should never be looked at as a roadblock to your future success.
I share this anecdote not to lament my past, but to help reassure others that don’t (or haven’t) taken the “correct” path that it’s going to be okay.
I certainly had doubts along the way, but I took the following perspective:
Your undergraduate education is best experienced with an open mind and a focus on cultivating your strengths. Graduate school can always be used to specialize and it will always be there.
In my case, I came by my natural pursuit of a diversity of interests quite honestly. My parents were a true case of “opposites attract,” with my dad educated in Math and Chemistry and my mom an English major with an Arts background.
My Eureka! Moment on my path toward a career in biotechnology was not a moment at all. It was a series of Eureka!’s that I came to realize mostly through hindsight, and were pieced together by a series of seemingly random events that all built upon one another. Such is life.
My journey started with a homebrewing hobby.
Upfront, let me say: This is not the way, but another way to drive your own path into the field.
In my 3rd year of undergrad, I began my homebrewing hobby by purchasing the most advanced textbooks that I could find about brewing on the commercial scale. I read about advanced sparging techniques and fluid dynamics without an ounce of pre-requisite knowledge.
Did I understand it all? Of course not, but my preferred method of learning is starting at the end and working backwards. For me, “the end” was starting my own commercial production brewery. So why not start with the best books on the topic?
This hands-on approach to learning forced me to deep dive into other sources, to perform thousands of internet searches, and to scour online forums until there was no outcome for me but to eventually understand some of it.
In essence…I was studying.
This kind of studying was different though, because it was not out of obligation, but purely a pursuit of personal interest.
Before I knew it, I took all of my studying and designed and built my own copper piping manifold for optimal wort extraction for my home-built mash tun based on fluid dynamics equations…literally for my first batch of beer.
Now, there’s no reason a novice homebrewer should ever do this…just go buy your equipment from a local homebrew shop. It’s faster, cheaper, and more fun.
With that said…this was my path.
My first batch of beer, and all subsequent batches with the DIY equipment that I built, achieved >85% mash efficiency. For context, this mash efficiency is better than some commercial scale professional breweries, and better than most craft breweries, which hover around 73–78% on average on good days — even today. I used this mash tun for five years before replacing it and I never once had a batch under 80%.
However, despite the impressive mash efficiency, my first batch of beer was disgusting.
Homebrewing, like the start of every hobby, is sort of like your first kiss. No matter how much you read about it, prepare for it, practice on models, etc.…you’re still going to be bad at it the first time around because there are variables you can’t foresee or understand until you dive in.
In my case, my obsession with a strong mash efficiency completely ignored the fact there are dozens (hundreds) of other variables in homebrewing that build up to a truly delicious batch of beer.
I appreciated this lesson because although I didn’t have the degree in mechanical engineering, I like to think I gained enough experience to chat competently with professional process piping engineers by the time I graduated. This is an important lesson that, in hindsight, I attribute as my first Eureka! Moment.
· Eureka! Moment #1: Dive in headfirst. Never let your academic path taken, nor your lack of experience, stop you from pursuing new interests
At this point, you’re likely thinking, “Great, thanks Steve, super cool (re: boring) story about homebrewing — can we get to the point where you tell me how I can get to a career in biotech?”
Well, after I had my first three years (2009–2012) of homebrewing experience under my belt (and the associated literature digested) I came across the term “bioprocessing” many, many times. However, for me, I never picked up on it as a theme and didn’t care to dig deeper. To be honest, I didn’t even really understand what it was.
That changed early-2012, when I learned about the emerging field of monoclonal antibodies as the next generation of cancer therapeutics. This was quite serendipitous and came on my radar solely out of an unfortunate and deep exposure to the clinical drug development world. I had a direct family member enter a clinical trial before ultimately passing away from cancer the same year. I don’t want to focus on my family’s situation here, but I do credit this serendipity as another Eureka! Moment.
· Eureka! Moment #2: Look out for repeat patterns or trends in your personal interests and experiences guiding you toward your own path.
For me, I never figured out what I wanted to do by the time I graduated from undergrad. Personally, I believe that if I had focused on a narrow educational niche from ages 18–21, I likely never would have appreciated how valuable it is to let experience and serendipity guide the journey.
Accordingly, one of my favorite quotes comes from the late comedian, Mitch Hedberg:
I’m sick of following my dreams. I’m just going to ask them where they’re goin’, and hook up with them later. — Mitch Hedberg
Can you have a successful career in biotech by going to a Top 10 institution and doing a PhD and/or post-doc at a Top-5 lab?
Do you need to?
Nope, not unless your goal is to lead an R&D team.
There are so many other career paths in biotechnology and there’s room for everyone.
At this point, my path had led me to a humbling blunt truth: I did not have the foundational pre-requisite knowledge to understand this next generation of biotherapeutics development.
If I wanted to learn more, I’d have to expand my knowledge.
So, in late 2013, I was admitted to an M.S. in Biotechnology program at Johns Hopkins University, and I kept homebrewing along the way.
Perhaps the only reason I was admitted to this program was because I took both Drug Chemistry and Organic Chemistry of Polymers as part of my Chemistry minor. I never expected those courses to benefit me in life in any way. I simply found interest in the topics and I took those courses in my 3rd and 4th year of undergrad, respectively. This was another Eureka! Moment:
· Eureka! Moment #3: Follow your gut instincts and interests, even if they don’t make sense at the time.
Truthfully, I had no idea where the M.S. program was going to lead me, either. I was drawn to it for its generalist approach to biotechnology education and, more important to me, its curriculum focused on biologics development.
After I completed my pre-requisite studies (Molecular biology, Biochemistry, Advanced Cellular Biology 1 & 2), I had the opportunity to take a course titled, Bioprocessing & Scale-up Technology. I recognized that word, Bioprocessing, instantly. I distinctly remember saying to myself on day one of the course, “Get ready Steve, this is the reason you’re here!”
On my first day of class, we were introduced to our first bioreactors… and I literally laughed out loud when I realized what I was looking at.
See if you can notice the similarities in these two images:
1. Most bioreactors are essentially a cross between a brewing mash tun and a fermenter (and vice versa)
2. Both bioreactors and brewing equipment share the purpose of making a product from scaling-up various cell types.
3. Bioprocessing is essentially brewing, but (often) with different organisms and downstream filtration and purification components that beer brewing mostly excludes. Note: some breweries are quite advanced, even integrating similar downstream processes.
Of course, I never expected my self-taught foundation in homebrewing to (a) prepare me for this class and (b) prepare me for a career in biotech.
I simply followed my interests, paid attention to patterns throughout my post-college life, and took action to gain more experience in topics that I enjoyed.
When I graduated from Hopkins in 2015, I had a specialized education in bioprocessing of mammalian cell lines for the development of monoclonal antibodies. I simply looked at it as “expanding my brewing repertoire.” I literally chose mammalian cell lines specialization, at that point, simply because I had 5 years of homebrewing experience with yeast and other microbial “bugs” (sour beer lover, let’s talk) under my belt. This situation is essentially a mixture of Eureka Moment #2 and #3 because…
What I didn’t expect was how in-demand mammalian bioprocessing knowledge would become over the next 6 years. I had no idea what was on the horizon for this market segment.
I simply followed my homebrewing hobby, a newfound interest in biotherapeutics development via mammalian cell lines, and my passion for a pursuing a diverse set of skills. I love the process, and I followed my passion.
I never let my education or past experience prevent me from taking my next step.
Now, you might be thinking, “This guy is incredibly lucky, those situations are all essentially serendipity.” I’d say it’s 50% serendipity, but 50% of paying attention to opportunities and taking them at the right time. I say this not to defend myself, but to reassure you that this approach is repeatable by anyone.
It should come as no surprise, that my career developed similarly.
In 2018, I began an incredibly rare experience that I never could have forecasted, even in graduate school.
By 2018, I had spent a couple of years of working adjacent to biotechnology in the Federal Biosecurity space. How ironic is this: I was being recruited to a boutique architecture and engineering firm, with no formal engineering education.
This company specializes in design, engineering, and operational consulting for high-containment laboratories (e.g.BSL-3 and BSL-4). They had just won a contract to support Department of Homeland Security with operational planning for USG-owned, commercial-scale bioproduction facilities. This company pursued me for two specific reasons: (1) My technical knowledge and (2) They had previously heard me speak publicly and knew that I could communicate effectively to high-level government leadership.
Few people can say they’ve written entire operational plans for commercial-scale biologics development facilities… and even fewer have experience in designing operational plans for BSL-3 and BSL-4 commercial-scale bioproduction operations. This is what our small team did from 2018–2020. I feel confident this experience was equally as preparatory for joining the biotechnology industry as any PhD program or post-doc training. Remember Eureka! Moment #1?
Dive in headfirst. Never let your academic path taken, nor your lack of experience, stop you from pursuing new interests
At this point, I had seemingly followed my brewing passion to the “Pro” levels.
To recap: In essentially 7 years, I went from an “unemployable” homebrewing communication major to a subject matter expert defining new strategies and operational approaches for some of the most advanced laboratory bioproduction scale-up challenges today.
How hilarious is that?
Shortly thereafter, that unique experience led me to be recruited to my latest position working in Biotechnology today.
As I look back on my path to biotech, and evaluate the broader market landscape today, I want to share that there is currently a significant shortage in bioprocessing workforce capacity across the world.
Organizations from cell-based meat companies (e.g. — Memphis Meats, Impossible foods), to next generation synthetic biology materials companies (e.g. — Bolt Threads, Spiber), to biotherapeutics companies (e.g. — monoclonal antibody-focused biopharma) all aim to get over this “scale” hurdle — and more experts are needed with a diverse range of skills to do so.
This realization has led me to another very relevant Eureka! Moment, which I hope will inspire readers with non-traditional backgrounds to explore further:
· Eureka! Moment #4: There’s room for everyone in biotech, and the opportunities are expanding more than ever before.
My journey to biotechnology was circuitous, but my proclivity for the pursuit of a diversity of interests has never led me down a wrong path.
I’ve continued homebrewing to this day — more than 11 years after my first batch. My equipment and quality of beers have all improved drastically, but I’ve never stopped intentionally learning. I can confidently say that I will continue this self-directed approach for the rest of my life.
Further, over the next 10–15 years, I predict brewing, biologics development, automation, and robotics will all converge to develop new ways to scale biology. Let’s chat if that piques your interest.
My invitation to you:
One trend that has always stuck out to me uniquely about the homebrewing community is an ever-inclusive culture built upon generosity and the invitation of diverse backgrounds.
More recently, these homebrewer’s values are extending throughout the professional craft brewing industry, too (good!). Here’s one great example:
Craft x EDU - Championing Inclusion, Equity, and Justice in the Craft Beer Community
Championing Inclusion, Equity, and Justice in the Craft Beer Community
Championing Inclusion, Equity, and Justice in the Craft Beer Communitycraftxedu.org
What if the pathways toward becoming a biotechnology professional were equally diverse, continuously expanded, and intentionally evolved as the Bioeconomy itself?
How many new and awe-inspiring innovations might emerge? How might the industry benefit from encouraging and inviting new and unique perspectives from those with non-traditional backgrounds?
I invite you to join me, and all others with non-traditional backgrounds, to join the fun.
There’s plenty of room in biotechnology for everyone to create their own opportunities and drive their own path.
This is my first Medium post and I plan to keep my medium account going to (hopefully) contribute to the Bioeconomy!
My posts will focus on business and technology in the brewing and bioprocessing markets. If that sounds interesting, please feel free to subscribe to my profile: https://medium.com/@dontmindsteve.
I enjoy meeting new people and supporting their success. I’ll always be happy to send out my homebrews or grab a beer if you’re ever in Denver.
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