A Booster for the Covid Vaccine Rollout

Article by Adam Duckett

Geraldine Curtis

Ranna Eardley-Patel discusses her career path through consumer goods, nanotechnology, biopharmaceuticals – and most recently, vaccine development for Covid-19

IN THIS series, we speak to chemical engineers working outside of the fossil fuel sectors to highlight the breadth of opportunities open to those just starting their careers or seeking to change sectors.

Ranna Eardley-Patel is a bioprocess engineering consultant with a career path that has wound through consumer goods, nanotechnology, biopharmaceuticals – and most recently vaccine development for Covid-19.  

“I’m currently one of ten technical specialists seconded from industry to the UK Government supporting deployment of Covid-19 vaccines. I’m working as the overall lead and technical lead for a multimillion-pound investment project that involves establishing vaccine manufacturing in the UK. This also includes development of variant vaccines and representing the UK Vaccine Taskforce in exploring partnerships with other international government bodies.”

What is the most rewarding element of your role?

“Being part of a highly capable, diverse and multi-disciplinary team that is supporting the UK Government to bring technological advances in vaccines manufacture to the public during a time of great need. It has been amazing to carry on the work I did to bring the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine from technology transfer to commercialisation and leverage that experience to other vaccines and infrastructure investments. I am now seeing life slowly return to something closer to normal, and I feel proud and privileged to know that I played a part in making that possible via the vaccination efforts.”

What aspects of chemical engineering do you apply in your everyday role?

“I explain the principles and concepts needed for global-scale manufacture and distribution of vaccines. This can be to other engineers, scientific leaders, politicians, lawyers and financiers. It involves tasks such as defining constraints for site selection, evaluation of facility design proposals, budget cost assurance, overseeing of international process technology transfer, qualification, and manufacturing strategies to inform advanced purchasing deals.”

You gained a Bachelor's degree in chemical and bioprocess engineering from the University of Bath and an Engineering Doctorate in biochemical engineering and leadership from University College London. What skills have you developed since that you think have been key in helping you achieve your career aims?

“The main skill I continue to develop is being able to communicate complex scientific and engineering concepts to different audiences. For example, architects need all the detail, but in a language that they can understand. Others need only the high-level consequences of any decisions they may need to make without the background, but not losing any nuances of the key contributing factors.

“Schools outreach has helped me hone my communication skills. I started at university and still do this today. If you can explain what you do to school pupils and their parents, then you can apply those same phrases to politicians and multi-billionaire-dollar investors. I was asked to join the Vaccines Taskforce because of my reputation as a communicator as well as my technical experiences in vaccine manufacture.”

What are the key challenges in your sector that chemical and process engineers are well equipped to help address?

“All new technologies for vaccines have to overcome the hurdles of scaleup and/or scaleout. If it cannot be made in time, in the quantities needed, or at an acceptable cost to roll out globally, then it does not matter how efficacious the vaccine candidate is. The materials needed for vaccine manufacture are often scarce and/or costly. Also there is a need to produce at different scales for supply to clinical trials and then commercially, whilst still maintaining comparability to the original process.

“Chemical engineers are generally the go-to people for all the engineering disciplines involved in specification and design. Our overall technical view makes us valuable advisors to senior leaders.”

What chemical and process engineering skills are in demand in your sector?

“Process layout and segregation, evaluation of flammable solvent use at scale, cost of goods estimation, and manufacturing scheduling for often complex and variable biological processes are all examples of where a chemical engineering skillset is essential. They are crucial for biopharmaceuticals, vaccines, and cell and gene therapies. People who can link and test manufacturing elements to its need – qualification – are often in short supply, and the process engineering skillset is ideal for these CQV roles too.”

Do you expect the need will grow in your sector for people with chemical engineering skills?

“Absolutely. We live in a global economy with international travel as the norm, so epidemics will quickly become pandemics. Chemical engineering skills are needed to lead the technical teams, input into public health and government investment strategy, as well as be a key part of the manufacturing efforts for the vaccines and therapies needed to respond to them.”

What advice would you give to a recent graduate or early careers chemical engineer who wants to work in your sector?

“Please do – we need more talented people like you to join us so we’re 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, including those making semiconductors, working with volatile solvents, or in the nuclear sector. These are core to working with vaccines too, so experience from other sectors is valuable.” 

Geraldine Curtis
Ranna Eardley-Patel: 'We need more talented people to join us so we’re ready for future pandemics!'

What advice would you give to an engineer considering moving into your sector from a different sector?

“The biopharmaceutical industry has some specific terminology and concepts that take some time getting used to, as well as a necessarily onerous regulatory compliance landscape. Good practice and baseline guides from ISPE (International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering) provide a great overview of these along with practical examples of where they are used. Always keep the customer (ie the patient) in mind in whatever you design, specify, build, or validate. There are lots of resources out there to help you upskill, including from IChemE and the Advanced Therapies Skills Training Network.”

How does your role contribute to helping solve society’s grand challenges?

“Goal three of The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is for good health and wellbeing. It usually takes 3–12 years to launch a new vaccine or biopharmaceutical product, due to the complexity and evolving regulatory landscape. The time from the release of the SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequence to the submission of Pfizer/BioNTech Phase 3 clinical trial data for regulatory review was a record-breaking 314 days, with my colleagues at AstraZeneca following a few weeks later. The next goal is to consolidate the work that has been done to be ready to reduce this even further to achieve a 100-day target.

“Goal nine is to boost industry, innovation and infrastructure. I supported a project to implement a novel serological assay to test new vaccines undergoing clinical trials. It became the global benchmark test, and my team scrutinised investment proposals for Public Health England’s new testing facilities, including high containment labs, training and recruitment needed to cope with the thousands of tests needed per week.”

What do you know now career-wise that would have been handy at the start of your career?

"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, such as living away from home for long periods of time. This is still not typical for many females, so it is good to know the coping strategies with regards to downtime when being the only woman contractor on site. For example, taking a book with you to a restaurant if you do not want any unwanted attention, or attending a group event at work or by a local branch of IChemE, IMechE, IET, ISPE etc to get to know others. Admin staff are almost always female and often have good advice of where it is safe to explore in the evenings alone. 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.

“Also, mentorship can be found in many guises; from formal workplace buddy systems and schemes such as the Women's Engineering Society's MentorSET,  and your own social or professional network. There’s always a handy life-hack to learn from colleagues as well as friends. One tip that has made a real difference to me is using my smartphone for certain MS Teams meetings. This has enabled me to increase my physical movement and vary my working location whilst working remotely, plus switch between accounts more easily. Physical and mental wellbeing is fundamental to being the best engineer you can be.”

To read more articles in this series visit https://www.thechemicalengineer.com/tags/career-paths/

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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