Ask a child what they want to be when they grow up and not many will say ‘a chemical engineer’. I wanted to be a fireman! I did however, have an interest in science, in how things worked and in solving problems.
It was therefore predictable perhaps that I would study science subjects at school, complete a degree and PhD in chemical engineering and establish a career in the pharmaceuticals industry. I think careers develop partly through your response to opportunities. Hopefully, the route to my current role and future expectations are testament to this.
Currently, as Head of Process Engineering, I am responsible for leading a group of approximately 30 engineers and scientists. Developing the Function, we make a valued contribution to the creation of commercially viable manufacturing processes.
I also sit on a site management team, working with people from different backgrounds and skills. My experience in chemical engineering has given me a strong foundation in the core skills required to move a technical Function forward, as well as communicating across technical boundaries and in solving problems. It is these skills I now rely on every day, not the detailed technical knowledge I gained through my degree.
Why chemical engineering?
I discovered chemical engineering late through a developing interest in chemical sciences. My chemistry course had many references to industrial scale processes and the thought of manufacturing chemicals at larger scales excited me.
Further investigation, work shadowing and an appreciation of chemical engineering course at a local university confirmed that a degree in chemical engineering prepare me for an attractive career. However, I realised that it also provided training that many other employers sought and therefore would provide other career opportunities.
I chose to study at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), now the University of Manchester, because of its location, the facilities and the range of courses that were offered.
An alternative path
Throughout my studies I played in a band. At the end of the first semester we were signed to a record label. Recording and promotional tours prevented me gaining work experience during holiday periods and also influenced my decision to complete only a Bachelor degree rather than the longer Master’s. In hindsight these were the right decisions for me, but work experience helps give a deeper understanding of the subject and employers recognise this.
Twelve months after completing my degree, the band (and more importantly the record company) decided not to continue with a third album. Despite having a good degree, my lack of work experience and the way that I had spent my time since graduation appeared to be a barrier to getting a job as a chemical engineer so I returned to education. Despite a late job offer, I returned to UMIST and began a PhD.
Developing new skills
I studied for a PhD as part of a postgraduate training partnership (PTP) between UMIST and EA Technology. My PhD provided the opportunity to develop academic research skills in an industrial environment.
I was also able to learn and practice my self-management, interpersonal and business skills, through courses, projects and other activities provided by the company. The decision to do a PhD certainly affected the subsequent development of my career. It allowed me time to mature, acquire new skills and become more independent.
I enjoyed the research but not enough for a career in the subject, so I applied for graduate positions rather than roles that exploited the detail of my PhD. My studies had been towards the outside edge of traditional chemical engineering, therefore I wanted a job that would establish core chemical engineering skills and provide great breadth in a short time.
Entering the world of work
I joined AstraZeneca’s Process Technology Department. My first role was in supporting the development of new processes and manufacture of material for field trials.
This pilot plant environment provided a wealth of experience in a short time on a variety of different projects. It involved working with operators, technicians and other scientists to install a process into the plant. Each day brought a new problem, some easier to solve than others.
My next role was on a large capital project. I joined a team of engineers to design, construct, commission and start up a new chemical plant. Such projects are intensive, provide a steep learning curve, involve rapid problem solving and develop good technical and interpersonal skills.
In the four years since starting work I had acquired the breadth and depth of technical knowledge necessary to qualify as a Chartered Engineer. I had also developed skills required to operate at a higher level and looked for a role that would provide this opportunity.
I joined AstraZeneca Process R&D as a process engineering team manager. This department is responsible for delivering material for clinical trials and developing processes suitable for manufacturing tonnes of material. This requires an understanding of chemistry, but also of technology and the manufacturing environment – understanding chemical engineers possess.
My team supported the successful development of manufacturing processes and scale-up through laboratory experimentation and the application of chemical engineering science. It is a multi-disciplinary environment and my team and I worked closely with the chemists and other scientists. This role provided me with technical challenges and showed me the importance of being able to influence, deliver through others and make decisions.
My success in this role supported a move into PR&D project management, a role that gave me a view of the rest of the business. A greater understanding of activities across the whole of research and development was required. However, Influencing skills, decision-making, understanding risk, problem solving and anticipation, were more important skills to possess here than my scientific knowledge.
I have now returned to Process Engineering to lead the Function. This presents a new set of challenges, including working with other Heads of Function to develop the strategic direction for the department, delivering through others and managing managers.
The Pharmaceutical industry faces some significant challenges and this is both daunting and exciting, but suffice to say, despite these challenges I wouldn’t want to work in any other industry. The impact the pharmaceutical industry has upon people’s lives and the innovation required to overcome the various technical challenges it faces, provides an incredibly rewarding career.