The accidental biochemical engineer (Day 260)

The accidental biochemical engineer (Day 260)

11th February 2015

As you can guess from the title of this blog, this entry isn't about me. Today's guest blog is by a fellow panellist at last year's Chemical Engineers and the Media event, Dr. Tarit Mukhopadhyay, a lecturer at the department of biochemical engineering at University College London (UCL).

So enough from me, I'll let Tarit explain his route into the world of biochemical engineering.


Name: Dr. Tarit Mukhopadhyay

Job: Lecturer

Course: MEng, biochemical engineering, University College London

Graduated: 2002

Employer: Department of Biochemical Engineering, UCL

I didn't originally plan on becoming a biochemical engineer. The main bulk of my applications through UCAS were to study medicine - my dad was a GP and perhaps it was an expected route for me to take.

But one of my applications was to study biochemical engineering and to be honest, at that time, I didn't really know what it was. I chose biochemical over chemical engineering because I was more interested in the pharmaceutical aspect of the discipline.

At my UCAS interview, I felt as if I was being recruited. I don't recall being asked a lot of questions, but instead being drawn into a world of 'what if'. What if experimental procedures such as gene therapy or biofuels were successful? And how could I, as a biochemical engineer, be part of the solution?

It was a provocative question and I guess I stuck around to find out the answer.

So for part of my Masters undergraduate degree at UCL, I spent my final year studying abroad at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in America.

Studying abroad for me was a huge culture shock, mainly because of the environment being so different. I grew up in a city and went to university in a city. So, to then go on to study at a campus university in a small town was quite challenging.

My final year at Amherst proved to be such an important year for me personally, as well as academically. Effectively I was completing a separate one year Masters course in the US, even though I was working towards an integrated Masters in biochemical engineering in the UK. So the jump in educational standards was huge, and of course, I found it difficult to keep up.

Comparatively, at undergraduate level in the UK, our courses are at a higher level than those in the US. But I think this trend is reversed when you reach postgraduate level.

After completing my Masters in biochemical engineering, I went on to study for an EngD (Engineering Doctorate) back at UCL. An EngD requires an industrial sponsor, and mine was the Health Protection Agency (HPA). It involved looking at finding a better pathway to two vaccines of commercial interest: a novel Meningitis B vaccine; and a vaccine for Anthrax.

After finishing my EngD, my plan was to look for a job in industry. Were it not for the unfortunate timing of sorting out visas and such like, I would have started a job in the US working for a bio-pharmaceutical company.

It's strange how things work out, I didn't plan to go into academia, but I was offered a lecturer position at UCL and it seemed like too good to miss. Usually, after completing an EngD, the next step is to do post-doctoral research, so I guess I skipped that step.

Nowadays, I couldn't imagine not being an academic. My pre-conceived notions about academia were completely wrong. I thought you could roll in at 10 am, have a long lunch and then finish work at 3 pm. But there is a phenomenal amount of work to do; it's about getting the research and teaching right.

There is always a drive to publish research and contribute to the body of knowledge, especially as academia takes on a lot of the risk associated with early research as opposed to industry.

Another key aspect is public engagement. Sometimes it feels as if we're reaching a point at which science is becoming inaccessible to the general public. I find this a worrying trend and I think that more and more (bio)chemical engineers need to engage with the public to ensure that the excitement and promise in our research, is shared as widely as possible.

This is particularly important to me as a vaccine researcher as we have seen an increase in public opposition to vaccination. If left unchallenged, lives may be at risk.

A lot of my public engagement involves interactions with school pupils and getting them excited about engineering, but occasionally you get offered to do something different and 'off the wall'.

Over the course of the week's performances, I spoke with around 1,000 people about my research. It's a very different experience to undergraduate teaching, but thankfully, most walked away feeling encouraged by my research. A few, unfortunately, thought I was an actor!

Being a successful researcher in biochemical engineering involves having excellent communication and interpersonal skills because much of the work requires interaction with physicians on clinical trials. Knowing how to make friends is an important skill.

Getting chartered is definitely on my radar, but personally, I link a lot of my professional goals back to my research. Knowing that I work in vaccine development and when my research and research group reach a tangible output, I certainly feel a sense of pride in contributing to the field.

We get a lot of pressure when we are younger to study the right degree and find the right job. Trying to map out your future is difficult. It can be stressful and stress can lead to mistakes being made.  But from my point of view, despite the fact that I never planned my academic career, I'm very happy with the route I've taken.

If your plan doesn't work out, then that's fine. Just make sure to be malleable and adaptable to change, and most importantly enjoy what you do.  I know I do, and I definitely enjoy being a biochemical engineer.