By Ethan Chung, MEng ’23 (BioE)This life in tech interview is part of a series from E295: Communications for Engineering Leaders. In this course, Master of Engineering students were tasked with conducting an informational interview to learn more about working in tech. They then submitted a written account of the interview, edited and organized to create a clear, compelling narrative. “Take your career into your own hands; be proactive in your own development,” Peter Walters firmly told me as I typed down frantic notes behind a computer screen. The advice itself appeared so simple, so obvious. However, hearing these words from such a well-respected engineer in my field with such an inspiring career story felt incredibly reassuring to me and incredibly important to share with every fellow young engineer I can reach. For those unfamiliar, Peter Walters is a 19 year veteran of the biopharmaceutical industry and the current Director of Advanced Therapies at CRB, a biotech engineering design and construction consulting firm. Over his almost two-decades-long professional life, Walters’ journey from a process engineering intern to the present leadership role he helped create exemplifies his own advice of
“setting your own goals to recognize the opportunities that can propel you forward.”As a fresh UC Davis graduate in 2004, Peter defined his early engineering career with the aim of solo designing a biochemical equipment train robust enough to be commissioned to produce pharmaceutical drugs. This goal, while simple on the surface, was something that only senior engineers with about ten years of experience were entrusted to do and therefore felt incredibly out of reach to a young Walters. Amazingly, this far-off objective did not deter him and instead acted as a compass to help him identify the best opportunities that could bridge this large expertise gap. For instance, Peter chose to first work at a young company knowing that the smaller environment would allow him to tackle more important tasks and responsibilities on design projects early on and thus accelerate his growth faster than a more established company could. This intuition proved fruitful as he began to climb the ranks and establish himself in the large molecule drug industry at a breakneck pace. This growing prominence created a positive feedback loop that allowed Walters to assume larger engineering roles with each passing project which, in turn, gave him more experience and an even better reputation. Soon enough, Peter found himself achieving his professional milestone four years ahead of schedule when he created his first fully integrated stainless steel liposome-based drug equipment train in 2010. For many design engineers, reaching this kind of feat in such a short amount of time would be enough of an accomplishment to solidify their position in their company for the rest of their careers. However, to Peter, this was only the beginning and he instead set his sights on a new objective to further guide his professional endeavors. This new goal is what brought him to where he is today and to the next chapter of his storied career: to become a leader in the ever growing biotech landscape. While less concrete than his last professional benchmark, it was enough to help Walters realize that he would only be treading well-traversed ground in large-molecule drug production if he stayed in his current position. Therefore in order to truly become a leader in this field, Peter acknowledged the need to shift gears and join a more established company so that he can learn from already established leaders in the industry and expose himself to new types of clientele and projects. In 2012, Peter joined CRB as the lead for the San Diego Process Design team and by chance happened to be the only engineer on staff who had the experience and confidence to work on the company’s first large-scale cell therapy project. However, unlike his previous stainless-steel equipment trains, this process was incredibly novel and an early manufacturing plant example of what we now know as single-use disposable equipment. Fascinated by the efficiency and flexibility now possible with these new manufacturing technologies, Peter dedicated the next few years to digging further into this new phenomenon. It was during this research that he began to notice a shift in the industry as he saw more and more clients requesting this new equipment for their increasingly complicated cell and gene therapeutic products. With his updated professional goal lingering in the back of his mind, Walters saw an opportunity he could not ignore. Organizing an online board meeting in 2020, Peter gathered his supervisors to advocate for the creation of a new position dedicated to identifying these innovative technologies and products within the emerging gene therapy field. Furthermore, given his experience and dedication to the topic, he should be the person considered to fill that role. After all, Peter was one of the first engineer in the company to embrace these new kinds of projects and the first one to show these promising trends to the board. The CRB leadership agreed with his sentiments and awarded Walters the position that would soon be known as the Director of Advanced Therapies. Peter Walters’ career is one that many of us young engineers (both inside and outside the biomedical industry) can draw inspiration from and hope to emulate. During my interview with Peter and throughout the retelling of his professional journey, his path to success had tangible steps we could all try for ourselves. According to Walters, the first step in proactive professional growth is to create and codify in writing a goal that you want to achieve. Next, you need to identify every step required to reach that goal. Ideally, you want to plan out these steps so that you can complete at least one of them every month. With these objectives in mind, opportunities will become a lot more identifiable when they appear. As Peter noted: “find out whether an opportunity will distract or help propel yourself towards your goal. If it helps you move forward, take it and do not hesitate.” Considering how well this mantra has worked for him, I am excited for my chance to move forward in my career, and with his advice in hand, I know I will be ready for it when it comes my way. Connect with Ethan Chung. Edited by Mary Tran
Life in Tech: Engineering in the biopharmaceutical industry was originally published in Berkeley Master of Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.