Embracing New Challenges on a Path to Biotech Manufacturing
I like being able to apply the science I’ve learned to real problems, and biotechnology is a new and budding field where I get to explore exactly that.
Kevin Braza has never hesitated to try new things. From middle school science fair projects, to swim team and theater in high school, to university lab research and work in education, Braza has continuously embraced new challenges to grow and develop. Since graduating from college at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has similarly jumped into a variety of roles, including teaching high school math, before working as a manufacturing associate at Amgen.
“I graduated in March 2020, the start of the pandemic in the United States,” Braza says. “It was an interesting time to be looking for work.”
That summer, Braza tutored calculus for a new initiative called Schoolhouse.world, created by Sal Khan, who founded Khan Academy. That turned into volunteer work at the startup, which involved brainstorming on maintaining safety and privacy on the site. From there, Braza learned about a teaching opportunity, and “all of a sudden, I was a high school math teacher.” He continued to pursue a variety of opportunities after that, including raising puppies, before getting his current position at Amgen. “While all these activities derailed what were my intended plans at the time, I have no regrets,” he says.
Since he was a child growing up in Oxnard, CA, Braza has enjoyed participating in a variety of activities. He remembers how his love of disassembling toys and collecting random “junk to tinker with” translated into several science fair projects, including on metal corrosion and water supply. In high school, he would stay on campus until late, while his father worked, and help his chemistry teacher set up glassware and equipment.
In his junior year of high school, he stumbled on the Q&A site Socratic.org (now read-only archived), and started writing answers and edits on the site and then beta-testing their app, which is now Socratic by Google. The following summer, he did an intensive chemistry program at Stanford, and the following year would pursue chemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
In college, Braza took part in independent research and a science outreach program where he helped to design a new high school biology module focused on ripening avocados and other processes where structural composition changes over time. “College is full of plenty of things I never knew I could be interested in until I got there,” he says. While working at a local high school, he discovered a love of mentorship.
“I realized that I didn’t just enjoy science, but I also enjoyed sharing it with people and hearing about the things they are interested in and helping them reach their goals,” Braza says. “A friend once told me that, once you get that eureka moment, you have that forever; but as a teacher, you get to relive that excitement again and again with each student you help have that moment. I am thankful for the people in my life who have given me the experience I have now. So, I try to pay it forward.”
Braza credits many mentors with his own success. That includes his former manager Zain Ahmed as Braza took his first industry role; his colleague Carlos Rodriguez, who welcomed him to the team with open arms and has driven him to the bus stop on multiple occasions; and his senior technician Joel Vite, who is like “a sensei” to Braza, teaching him the ins-and-outs of various machines.
In his current work at Amgen, Braza disassembles and sanitizes different manufacturing machines that get drug powder run through them, then puts them back together again. “My job right now is pretty physical,” he explains. “I think about the job of dentist with the suction in one hand and the toothbrush in the other, cleaning plaque off of teeth and hoping the kids don’t bite their fingers. In my job, I’ve got the vacuum in one hand and a pipe brush in the other, cleaning drug powder off of machines and hoping the tablet press doesn’t bite my fingers—it’s the same energy.”
One of the things he likes about the job is that even though it’s not the typical benchtop science, he works with all the synthetic science groups who need the equipment, learning along the way about the different projects taking place. “I like being able to apply the science I’ve learned to real problems, and biotechnology is a new and budding field where I get to explore exactly that,” he says.
To ABE students, he says this: “If you’re still unsure about what you want to do, don’t dismay. I ended up becoming interested in opportunities I never knew existed when I was in high school. My path wasn’t a straight line; I let curiosity lead and find the things that were a bit interesting, not knowing then how important they would become to me later. So keep at it; there will be some really weird times, and the first several times trying something always feels a bit mind-numbing, but your experiences lead the way to who you are today.”