Fung Feature: Tara Armand on bridging academia and engineering
Tara Armand, MEng ’17 (BIOE), currently works as an R&D Scientist at Siemens Healthcare Laboratory. A two-time Cal graduate, Tara takes us through her academic and professional career, and provides some tips for current students.
Tell us about yourself!
“ I’ve always had a wide variety of interests spanning science and art. I majored in Bioengineering at Cal as an undergrad because I liked how it brings together fundamental aspects of the medical sciences with innovation and creativity.
I supplemented my academic training with research in Biochemistry, Chemistry, Molecular Biology and Enzymology. I worked in the labs of Prof. Judith Klinman, Prof. Luke P. Lee, and Prof. Teresa Head-Gordon. I have four co-author papers as a result of the research I completed as an undergraduate, the most recent of which was just accepted to JACS where we discovered the missing link in the biosynthesis of Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ), a redox cofactor that is involved in bacterial metabolism.
With the vast research experiences obtained during my time at Cal, I decided against going to medical school, since my goals were increasingly focused on the innovation and R&D side of healthcare. Not only that, I had also started to develop an interest in leadership roles within the biotech industry.
What made you choose the MEng program?
I chose MEng because of the emphasis on leadership training, abundance of professional resources, and the unique aspect of the almost family-type network built with the MEng alumni. The tipping-point in my decision came at Visit Day, where I found the people, community, and learning culture extremely impressive. I decided then that the MEng program would be a great fit. I also met people that day who became and remain important parts of my life and profession network.
What was your time like in the program, both in and out of school?
I took classes ranging from go-to-market strategies for medical devices to proposal writing for research grants. I really enjoyed the series of leadership courses that the program offers, which provide training in business (particularly to the tech industry). These classes have a Socratic seminar structure, which centers around discussions between the students and instructor. These classes were very valuable and taught me how businesses are formed and operate. We evaluated case studies and critically analyzed the inner workings of different companies, some of which are currently high-profile. I really enjoyed these classes both for the way they required me to engage with other students and also for the content that was being taught.
Additionally, personal well-being has always been an important part of my life so even during my busy schedule, I would go to the gym 3–5 times a week to weight lift or hike up to Big C to catch the sunset. Tilden is also fantastic for the occasional weekend hike!
What was your Capstone project?
I dedicated the necessary time to my coursework but spent most of my time working on my Capstone project, entitled “Thermocycler for Performing In-Gel Nucleic Acid Amplification.” It was a project in the lab of Prof. Amy E. Herr in the Bioengineering department. In this project, my partner and I worked to design and develop a temperature control platform capable of enabling nucleic acid amplification on a microfluidic chip. This technology has implications in the work that Prof. Herr is doing in her lab and has broader implications to the field of microfluidics. In the beginning it was quite outside of my knowledge base, but it pushed me outside of my comfort zone, where I tend to do most of my best work. At the end of the year, I had developed as a technical engineer and scientist, and learned a multitude of engineering skills. Not to mention- my project partner and I worked amazingly well together; neither of us anticipated how great of a fit it would be but he is now one of my dearest friends.
At the end of the year, I had developed as a technical engineer and scientist, and learned a multitude of engineering skills.
What skills learned from the MEng program have proved the most valuable in your career?
I learned an incredible amount of professional skills that helped me become a better speaker and colleague. Presenting my work repeatedly to a diverse audience taught me how to communicate technical details at a high level. I learned how to be comfortable being put on the spot- a skill I find valuable both in a professional setting and in day to day life. Communications for Engineering Leaders (E295) taught me not only how to answer a targeted or loaded question, but also how to conduct my body language, something that has been super useful. My experiences in the MEng program also helped me understand how to break the ice with employers and how to network, something I used to feel awkward about. These are very valuable skills that will stay with me forever.
Additionally, I learned how to keep up in an academic area outside of my training. Having had much more hands-on experience in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology than pure engineering, my Capstone experience forced me to learn and produce quickly with high quality. This skill is helping me today in my current position, where I am primarily working in more clinical applications.
What inspired you to pursue your current career?
After the MEng program, I worked for a startup company that was building microfluidic platforms for drug screening and then moved to a pharmaceutical company developing therapies for rare orphan diseases. These experiences further fueled my interest in the healthcare sector and led me to my current position as a Scientist II at Siemens Healthcare Laboratory (SHL) where I am developing assays for pharmaceutical partners going to clinical trials with their therapies. I primarily work in the development of cell-based assays for drugs intended to treat rare diseases that are currently untreatable.
As you can imagine, my work is biology heavy, which was not my academic focus. However, my engineering background helps me tackle problems with a multi-disciplinary, application-based approach. I started at the company in May 2018 and have been rapidly growing and developing as a scientist and innovator, combining my engineering skills with fundamental science. I work alongside a team of exceptional scientists who have become very influential in my life and inspire me to work harder and push my limits every day.
Do you have any advice for current MEng students?
Don’t procrastinate! The MEng program is an accelerated one-year program, meaning everything goes faster than other Master’s programs. While this gives you the opportunity to obtain a graduate degree relatively quickly, it comes with the challenge of balancing your time appropriately. When something comes to the table, take care of it in a timely manner. This is also good advice for a job in the fast-paced industry world. Like with anything else in life, the MEng program is what you make of it. If you engage fully and take advantage of the opportunities provided to you, you will come out of it a better, stronger, and more capable individual with an unparalleled education and a professional skill set that will set you apart from everyone else.”