Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Tightrope Walker

A scene from my childhood that I will never forget was a tightrope walker performing his piece in a circus. I was just about twelve years old and that was the first time that I ever saw such a performance. I was really impressed with the artist’s ability to move his body in the open space with only a tightrope under his feet and an open umbrella used to keep his balance. I was excited but fearful that he could miss his step and fall. Somehow he kept moving right along until he finally made it to safety. The audience applauded him very enthusiastically. I was excited but also relieved. I look back and review that moment at the circus as I try to define the meaning of “learning”. As a kid I was really impressed to see that performance but never thought of what it took for the artist to reach such a level of excellence. I realize now that no matter how talented someone is, it takes years of practice to be able to perform such skill, let alone doing it in front of an audience. Learning in that case is very intense. Considering that learning is a very subjective matter, I can only express how it applies to me. Learning is a process that evolves from motivation or necessity. In either case, I need to be willing to sacrifice myself in exchange for some kind of compensation later which may be professional recognition, or simple pleasure. Some important factors of learning are motivation, repetition, concentration, discipline and hard work.

Motivation is the driving force in the process of learning. Just having the desire to learn something does not do much for me. I must be convinced that I will benefit somehow from the experience. I must ask myself the following questions several times before engaging in the learning process: Why is it important? What are the benefits? What I am accomplishing with that experience? Where is it going to take me? Once I answer some of these questions satisfactorily it becomes the fuel for me to move along with the plan. I then willingly accept the commitment of working towards the desired goal. Motivation could also be based on others experiences or influenced by someone else’s opinion.

Learning is a continuous thing in my day-to-day life on the job. In order to perform my work in a satisfactory manner, I need to be as consistent as possible. Consistency comes from repetition which plays a very important role in giving me the confidence required to deliver the results that the company wants; however, because clients are constantly changing, so are the projects and processes. Just when I get comfortable in doing things a particular way, it is time for me to move on to something else. Learning for me is a gradual thing. I only become better at something when I am continuously exposed to the job at hand. Initially, I learn to get a grasp on it and eventually I am comfortable enough to focus on the details. In other words, learning never really stops and repetition is one key element of it.

When it comes to concentration, I draw a parallel with the scene of the artist who performed the tightrope act in the circus. Similarly to him, I also walk a fine line under the attentive eyes of an audience. When performing my experiments, there is no room for distractions, as for the tightrope walker performing in front of the crowd. His shaky and timed step on the rope resembles the careful considerations I have to take before moving on to the next process step. Each detail is important and I need to focus just like him. Experience gives me an edge but it is not a guarantee of absolute success. There is always a discomfort I have to deal with associated with learning a new process from scratch. That feeling comes from the fear of messing things up and causing downtime and spending valuable company resources. For that reason I need to concentrate twice as hard when performing new tasks until it becomes second nature.

Discipline and hard work are both important factors. The expression: “no pain, no gain” literally applies for just about anything I do in life. It implies that if I am not willing to go through the discomforts associated with learning, I would never be able to reach a satisfactorily level in terms of knowledge and skill. When learning, I need to plan accordingly and be able to track my progress over time. As a kid I marveled at the artist’s great performance. I never really thought of what it took for him to reach his level of success. No doubt, his performance was the finished product of his hard work, commitment and self-determination.

I clearly understand that, in a broad sense, learning has always been the natural path for human survival. Despite technological advancements and how they have made my life easier, ultimately, learning rests with my mind’s ability to process and assimilate the information presented to me. In order for me to learn my brain needs to be stimulated and motivated. At work, I am constantly engaged in learning new processes and ways to improve existing ones. Learning is the only way for me to succeed not only as a professional but also as an individual. Perhaps my understanding and thirst for learning will enable me to someday walk the tightrope of my own life as graciously as the gentleman from the circus that I saw so long ago.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Workplace

It is close to eight thirty when I pull in to the company parking lot. I walk out of my brown Toyota Camry carrying my backpack and holding a still warm cup of hazelnut coffee in my left hand. I am not in a hurry. I approach the glass building’s main entrance at a slow but continuous pace. I think of the things I must do today. I need to get to my desk, finish my coffee and check my email for any instructions from my supervisor before I can go to the lab area. I reach for my security card inside my pants pocket. I swipe it through the reader, hold the tempered glass door firmly with my right hand and, in one stroke, pull it hard to get it open. I step into the foyer, a rectangle literally made of glass. I swipe the card again to open a second door and to gain access to the premises. I hear two consecutive clicks as I go in. Both doors lock behind me one after another. I am inside the forty five thousand square foot, partial glass building located at ninety nine South Street in Hopkinton. This is the installation of Lonza, a Swiss based biopharmaceutical contract manufacturing company which it commonly referred to as Lonza Biologics Inc. This is the place I have spent a good part of my life over the past two years. The outside of the building looks anything but unusual. In fact, it may go unnoticed by many commuters who drive by South Street on a daily basis. For me it has significance. I depend on it and its resources to generate income for supporting my personal needs. The company depends on me to produce and deliver quality work. We are partners as long as we have a common understanding and a contract in force. This is also the place where I have the opportunity to come across many talented individuals from different departments.

The rectangular shaped building has one of its short sides facing the street and the adjacent long side facing the shipping and receiving area which also has an independent driveway. The main entrance is on the opposite side of the building, facing the parking lot, about forty feet from the corner which is conveniently accessible from the parking lot. As I go in the main entrance I am faced with large black letters on the wall which when put together read: Lonza. They are positioned about five to six feet high from the floor. The walls are painted with a semi-gloss, off-white finish. To my left I view the long hallway which separates the offices and cubes, along the glass wall facing the parking lot, from the laboratories. There are twelve rectangular, fashionable fluorescent lights each hanging from two metal rods which extend about one foot below the white drop down ceiling tiles. They all seem to be perfectly aligned. At the end of the hall there is a door which gives access to the cafeteria. To my right, the hallway continues for about twenty to thirty feet and then turns at a ninety degree angle following the path of more offices and cubes all along the front of the building. As I start walking to the right headed for my desk, I am facing the largest office on the corner. That is the office of our research and development manager, Dr. Chris Dale. I walk by it as I make a turn going left. This side of the building is facing the street. I keep walking and pass by more offices and cubes on my right. There are three offices starting from the corner and a cluster of six gray cubes. They are all conveniently arranged in a way that three people sit facing each other with a partition between them. The cubes are positioned back to back in a space between sets of two offices. There are four clusters of cubes following the same arrangement and nine offices on the front side of the building. All of the offices are occupied by senior position employees.

On my left there are four glass windows, each one of them with a view to the inside of the lab areas. There is a large conference room also on the left, close to the door which is the main access to the labs. In the space between the windows, I see four file cabinets and several shelves filled with documents. I also see a color printer, two copiers, a water cooler and three recycle bins lined up along the wall which divides the office area from the labs. My desk is in the last cluster of cubes located along the hallway. I sit in the middle cube with my back turned to the wall facing the shipping and receiving area. As I reach my desk, I put my backpack away, turn my computer on and read my email as I sip my almost cold coffee. With my email read and my coffee gone, I am finally prepared to go to the lab.

I enter the door by the conference room to gain access to the lab area. There is a small hall of about fourteen by five feet and another door at the other end of it. Once I open the second door there is a rest room and a shower on the left hand side. I pass through a doorway and I am in the locker room and changing area. The walls are a light green color with trim painted a darker shade of green. I open my locker and grab my personal protection equipment including a lab coat, safety glasses, shoe covers and gloves. I put them on, walk towards the door and swipe my security card on the reader to access the hallway that connects the locker room with the entire lab area. As I come out of the locker room, I see two double doors at both ends of the hall. They can not be accessed from the outside and can only be used in case of emergency. All of the labs have the same finish, an off-white tone of green on the walls and a darker shade of green on the doors and trim. I follow the main hallway toward the dock area. I pass by lab 142, the protein purification lab on the right. Then I reach the fermentation lab, room 143, the lab where I work most often.

It is a huge lab space and measures approximately fifty feet long by twenty feet wide. The room has all of the equipment necessary to carry on the fermentation process. The biggest piece of equipment is a stainless steel biological flow hood which is an environment I use to manipulate items which must be kept from getting any kind of contamination. There is an incubator shaker, a bulky piece of equipment which looks like a horizontal commercial freezer. It is used to grow the first and second stage culture of cells until it they reache a population necessary to inoculate the fermenter vessel. There is also a white minus eighty centigrade freezer used for storing retain samples and a four degree deli box used to keep solutions cold. The flow hood, shaker and freezer are all positioned against the right wall by the sink. The double glass door, four degree centigrade deli box is slightly bigger than a refrigerator and it is placed at the end of the long bench on the left side. On top of that bench are other smaller pieces of equipment such as: a pH and conductivity meter; a vortex, an piece of equipment used to mix samples; an Eppendorf micro centrifuge, used to separate cells from supernatant, the liquid portion of the broth; and an analytical scale, used to measure the weight of cell paste. There is also a spectrophotometer, which measure the intensity of light that goes through a sample and translates it into a number giving me the concentration of cell mass in the culture. Another piece of equipment on the bench is a YSI Chemistry Analyzer which I use to measure the concentration of residual methanol in the culture. The culture of yeast metabolizes carbon from two different sources: Glycerol and Methanol in order to synthesize our protein of interest.
The two main pieces of equipment in that lab are fermenters model SF-116 made by New Brunswick which are located side by side right in the center of the room. They are sitting on top of two stainless steel benches which are parallel to the side walls. These vessels have the capacity of a ten liter volume and are made of a stainless steel. They have been used to produce the Botulinum toxin protein in yeast cells which will be utilized in the manufacturing of a vaccine. In the ceiling, above the equipment, there are some stainless steel drop down feed lines hooked up to the fermenters with clean air, clean steam and potable water (pure grade water). In the back there are cylindrical canisters with Nitrogen and an Oxygen gases. They are used for calibrating the probe that measures the mixture of oxygen and air concentration during the run. A rectangular glass window on the front of the vessel allows the operator to visually see the culture during the process with the help of a halogen light attached to the back of the fermenter. Some of the parameters which control the fermentation process are, agitation, pH, temperature, and dissolved oxygen concentration. The growth of cells and equipment behavior are closely monitored throughout the process. Two computer screens are used to track the profiles of the fermentation. It is the operator’s responsibility to observe and troubleshoot any abnormality that may occur during the run. The whole process takes about seventy two hours. The combination of pipe connections, gauges and wires connected to the reactor give an impression of a very complex operation, but in short, it is quite simple. All of these items are in place to provide the right environment and to monitor the growth of the culture which ultimately will produce the desired material and help me to secure my job for the time being.

In order to produce and deliver the product desired, I do not just rely on equipment optimum performance and my individual expertise to operate them. I need to comply with a series of regulations and company policies. Above all, I need to demonstrate the ability to work together with other scientists and learn from their experience. My contribution is just a small portion of the entire process. I have to ensure that things go smoothly on my end in order to guarantee the success of the entire group and ultimately for the company. On many occasions I have had the opportunity to work in collaboration with different departments and learn about the many different processes we carry out in the research and development department. The more I learn the better I am able to perform my job. That gives me an edge in securing my position until it is time for me to move on to a different professional endeavor. Considering I am not planning to go anywhere soon, I have to treat the place like my own home.

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