An Unexpected Path from Electrical Engineering to Biotech
Having a strong mentor is one of the things that is important for students to remember throughout their careers.
Sung Chang never dreamed he would end up in the biotech industry. “If I look back, it was a fortunate set of events that happened, but I never imagined it,” he says.
Now a Principal Systems Engineer at Amgen, Chang is working in the center of biotech innovation, developing new mechanisms for delivering life-improving drugs to patients. We spoke with Chang about this work, his unexpected path from electrical engineering, and advice he has for students interested in the field.
How did you end up working in biotechnology?
I was actually trained in electrical engineering and right after my bachelor’s degree, I worked in an electronics company designing circuits for telecommunication networks for 2.5 years. I would be at my desk programming all day to make circuits work, and it was a good experience, but I wanted to do something more directly that would help people’s lives.
While I had interest in working toward something related to medicine, I thought I needed more education, so I was looking for a post-graduate opportunity. There was an electrical engineering lab at the University of Texas, Austin, which was designing equipment to diagnose cancer based on light. It was fascinating, so I applied for graduate degree there and got it! That opened me up to a completely new field that I was unaware of but had interest in.
Toward the end of my degree, the lab hired a biologist to help the engineers do more work, and I was actually shocked when the biologist asked me how many cells I needed for an experiment. I never knew anybody could count the number of cells and give me the exact or approximate number that I needed! It was eye opening!
So what was your path like from there to Amgen?
After my graduate degree, I went to do more post-graduate work at Harvard – purposely selecting a lab that focused on chemistry and biology but they needed someone with an engineering background. They needed an engineer to look at cells and animal models. It fit the skill set that I had, but also there was an opportunity for me to learn more about biology and chemistry.
A lot of my colleagues were in biology, and I noted that they were applying for jobs in the pharmaceutical industry, but I had been interested in an academic career. I began thinking about all the good, solid research that happens in academia but then gets stuck when trying to carry it forward I was beginning to see that the pharmaceutical industry specifically develops products that directly help people. So, I began to look into industry positions.
Electrical engineering doesn’t really fit into the pharma industry, so I had to narrow down positions that I could apply for to those that use imaging systems to look at cells and animal models or living systems. I applied to those positions and then I got an offer from Amgen.
In another turn of events, I got into a field within Amgen where they use imaging technologies (e.g. CT scanners, X-rays) to see the effects of clinical trial drugs on the disease and the patients. I wasn’t directly applying my electrical engineering knowledge in that position; it was more of a managing role of the different radiology labs. But then, the company became interested in expanding its role into drug delivery systems, such as autoinjectors. That triggered my interest because it was directly relevant to my engineering background. So, I applied for the position and was fortunate enough to get that position, and that is the job that I am in right now!
Other than your direct educational training in engineering, what do you think helped prepare you for this position?
One of the qualities that helped me was being diligent. It was a quality that my mother trained me in. I also liked to break things – and I tried to put them back together but wasn’t always able to. That curiosity was important.
What do you find most challenging or difficult about your work?
Managing time and managing priorities are my biggest challenges. There is a wide variety of technical work on any given project, but there is also work that has to go on with manufacturing, project planning, financial management, etc. I have to divide the time I have appropriately and work with what I have.
Did you have any mentors who helped? Who were they?
In college, I had a couple of professors who were very strong mentors. There was one professor who was very passionate about teaching and making sure his students understood the subject matter. That was very impressive for me at that time. Then, in grad school, my supervising professor made sure that I had the full support to complete my work. At Amgen, I also have a manager who is very supportive of my work, and I am grateful for that. Throughout my career and education, I have always had someone who supported me. Having a strong mentor is one of the things that is important for students to remember throughout their careers.
What do you think is the future of engineering in the biopharmaceutical industry as it relates to job prospects?
There are always new technologies in development, for example, emerging technologies around needleless injections that can sprinkle directly in skin and it will absorb into your body. In addition, there is a need for people who can integrate different technologies together. When we make these devices, there is a lot of technology – syringe, the drug product, the plastic casing, outer packaging – and the company needs someone who can understand broadly what all those fields are and can integrate them into a single product.
What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in process development?
Students should open their eyes to the areas they are learning about in biotechnology but also be prepared for the unexpected. You never know -- I was vaguely interested in the medical field, but there were changes that would occur throughout my career path.