In this episode of UMBC's Mic'd Up Podcast, we're joined by Irina Ramos, Ph.D. to discuss breaking boundaries and innovating in Biotechnology. In her role as Senior Manager at AstraZeneca and as a UMBC graduate faculty member, she works hard to create impactful change in the world.
About UMBC's Biotechnology Graduate Programs
UMBC’s Biotechnology master’s degree is designed to provide students with the skills sought by the biotechnology industry. The curriculum offers advanced instruction in the life sciences, along with coursework in regulatory affairs, leadership, management, commercialization and legal issues inherent to a life science-oriented business.
Dennise Cardona 0:00
Welcome to UMBC's Mic'd Up podcast. My name is Dennise Cardona from the Office of professional programs here at UMBC. Today we're joined by Dr. Irina Ramos of our biotechnology graduate programs. Welcome to UMBC's Mic'd Up podcast, Dr. Ramos. It's wonderful to have you join us today. Thank you so much. It's my pleasure. Can you tell us a little bit about your professional journey and how that led you to teach here at UMBC?
Irina Ramos, Ph.D. 0:28
Sure. So I am one of the fortunate international students that had the opportunity to come to UMBC as a senior in chemical engineering from Portugal. And in that exchange program, I really enjoy the spirit, the welcome the diversity of individuals, and also the strength of the life sciences education feels that UMBC, the chemical engineering department was very much focused on biotechnology. And that was something we didn't have the experience back in Portugal. So after a successful internship, I was invited to come back as PhD students. And I really liked the professor, Dr. Teresa good, who was welcoming, open arms to get us to not only understand the field, but also fitting in into these really diverse culture, not only in the Baltimore area, but the UMBC reflects him as part of the journey of becoming a professional in the science field.
Dennise Cardona 1:43
Oh, it sounds like you had an amazing time here at UMBC. And as a fellow retriever, I'm in a graduate program right now, and I've been a staff member for 14 years, I can wholeheartedly agree that UMBC is a great place to learn. It's a great place to empower ourselves to be able to bring really great things to the world. And it sounds like that is exactly what you're doing. And you found your path, your niche. When did you know that? Gosh, yes, I definitely want to be in this life sciences field.
Unknown Speaker 2:13
That was early on, I knew I was very good students in science. And I was not as a great student in other fields when I was, you know, middle school, right. So what I didn't know is I would end up in engineering, I don't think it's very clear at that time, when we are not 12 years old, what engineering is all about, except constructing bridges and making cars, right, which is not really what a chemical engineer ends up doing. So you just become, it's a series of happy little accidents in life, right? You know, you perhaps don't know exactly what you're applying for. But it kind of sounds nice, and you have good grades on chemistry and math and biology. And you keep going, I think the exchange program that I applied and got accepted to come to UMBC as not only international experience, but also these idea of the unknown. And having enough courage, just enough to to break those boundaries and get out of our comfort zone really taught me that I'm pretty good at these. Right. And, and embracing that ability to express ourselves through what we do. So by by doing, listen to ourselves through grades, and also being able to work with other people. I don't think we can survive in this field without working teams. I was good at that, too. I also embrace the fact that I didn't know things. So I was curious. And I wanted to learn more. So it wouldn't get boring, right? So if you don't like boring, this is a field for you. Right? And I ended up teaching it to UMBC because I always liked teaching. I actually wanted to go to the university when I was in high school that I could teach. I just didn't know exactly if it was go through medical school or through biology or through engineering at the time very much. But I ended up getting an opportunity through teaching when I was a TA in graduate studies, right. And I loved it. I actually loved the fact that I could count on the professor to guide me through the topic of discussions, but then I could interact directly with the students to provide them the help they needed. I really like that bridge opportunity, right. And then when I was close to graduating from my PhD, I knew I didn't want to be a full time professor. I did not want to write grants. I did not want to all that bureaucracy in my life. So I certainly wanted industry and a few years later Because I kept my network alive, right. And I learned about the opportunity. UMBC was putting a lot of effort in this biotechnology program. I thought with a colleague of mine, also an alumni from UMBC that was already teaching is that why don't we just joined forces, and not only I ended up teaching that initial class that he put together to help him. But I also with them, ended up bringing more work to us by building my own course, while he kept and refurbish and improved his course. So from one course, we made two. And we thought with our experience in industry, that was the best way the students could take from the biotechnology program in the field, that we teach the best, the best knowledge, the best understanding. And we, I believe we made the course and the program much better.
Dennise Cardona 6:01
See, that's what I love also about UMBC, the faculty, as industry practitioners, you are in the field, you are working in the field, you're working at AstraZeneca, doing amazing things. And you're able to take what you are doing there and understand in a way, because you've been a student, right? You understand the scope and the lens that the student is coming at you from when they're in the class, they want to they're thirsty to for that kind of knowledge. And you have that industry know how that industry experience, I'm assuming you can tell what is needed out in the field. And so you bring that to the classroom, and you'll help expand the minds of students in that way. And I just absolutely love how you put it. Earlier, you said happy accidents. And isn't that when you when you put yourself in that realm of being open and curious to the things around us and to just embrace things as they come so that you can really grow your passion. That's really what a happy accident is, is when that destiny meets up with that opportunity, and you just make it happen. So that's really fantastic that that gives a lot of people hope, for a brighter future for themselves. You know, I think about young people listening to this video, or listening to this podcast. And maybe they're unsure about what they want to do, maybe they're not sure if they could make it out in the STEM fields, in engineering in biotechnology in the life sciences, and you give them that hope I want you to set it's really a matter of having that curious mindset going out into the world and putting forth that effort and enjoying the process, because that's what it sounds like you're doing out there.
Unknown Speaker 7:36
Yeah, it is hard, right? The it's not supposed to be easy. I tell my students, if it was easy, we wouldn't be here. Any, any person with any background with any experience would be able to do it. So when it gets hard, just remember that it's supposed to be hard, because we are innovating, we are breaking boundaries, we are changing the world, ultimately, that's what really, really matters, right?
Dennise Cardona 8:03
That's really great advice for students. Because I think that's really important to, to put that out there that things don't come easy. And they shouldn't because if they're if they were easy, we're not expanding our own knowledge base. We're not seeing how far we can take things and growing beyond what the boundaries are, you have to get uncomfortable to get past that point. And to put things out into the world that are going to truly matter to the greater good of society, if you will, what can students expect out of the biotechnology graduate programs here at UMBC. So the biotechnology
Unknown Speaker 8:37
program, at UMBC has professionals from industry teaching topics that they are experts on it, they have at least 10 years of experience. They've been not only in one company, perhaps more than one, they had to thrive in ambiguous environment, highly competitive, not only among people that want to innovate, but also the science that never stops. Because otherwise you don't get that improvement on people's life. Ultimately, if you're working in biotechnology field, you are changing our quality of life, right? Through medicines, through devices through so many different ways of working right. I like to think you can actually take that to your own personal life, the fact that you are like that on your profession, you can actually make your life and relationships you have in your personal life better because you have that all these moving pieces on your professional as well. So that gives you the confidence that you are not only enrolling in the program that will give you hands on experience of what the industry is looking for, but he's not What the industry has been doing is what the wedding industry is going. Because those professionals, those professors are the breach.
Unknown Speaker 10:12
The other very obvious advantage of having professionals from industry teaching you those classes is they actually know what is necessary to know if you are looking for a job in the IT industry or in that field. Right. So what I found as an alumni from UMBC is UMBC today is much better than it was when I graduated 12 years ago, I think my resume is worth so much more today than it was at the time I graduated. Why? Because the innovation aspect, but those professional programs that benefiting from geographic location of UMBC, and those professionals that are so close to the field, and the fact that we are all evolving with these new startups, the larger pharma, those collaborations, we teach the students to be open to all of that. So no, you're not going to have a very random nine to five job afterwards. We want to teach you how to think. But I want to add that I my class in particular, is a class that focus on manufacturing processes. So yes, you have a molecule that will potentially save people's lives, right or improves people's life, but you need to produce that at a particular scale. How do you do that? So my class focus on the purification. So after is produced on a bioreactor needs to be purified, to then be a potentially filled into a device or a vial that goes to people. All those unit operations and details and regulatory insights to make it happen, are tried and tested in a lab setting. The class today does not have a lab setting, we are hoping to bring that to the program soon. But even though it doesn't, being in the classroom and the students and invite them to walk with me through a manufacturing suite, and try to make them imagine the size of those equipments, how they integrate what is a day in the life of a manufacturing operator? How do you develop that process to get through that particular skill? It's really inviting them to get out of the book, I should including add, we don't have a book for the class. And the reason is because one book does not cover it. Because what we want is an outline that reflects everything that impacts process development, scalability, go to the manufacturing floor, and make sure you can file a successful regulatory package on the on behalf of that process. So how do you manage to get a book that is covering all of that when science changes every quarter, right? So the class is structured in a way that yes, the basics, rely on a book to help the students be grounded. But as you build on those basics, we every year, have new review papers, review technology. And I invite three guest speakers across the 13 to 14 lectures to come and talk areas of expertise. They're not necessarily mine. And they have their own voice, that they focus on what they care about. And then I am a student in the class for those three classes. With my own students, these actually bring us together, we are a community that are not afraid of what we don't know, only afraid if we don't move forward. And we don't work as a team. Right? So that means that while I have these other experts in the room, and I show to my students, it's okay to not be the expert today. They hopefully learn with me that when they are not the expert, they will be humbled enough to absorb like a sponge. That knowledge that those experts around them, they bring these brings in teaches empathy in a respect, communication skills, in particular listening skills. And I believe it also teaches us to hear different types of voices. And that does not mean only the accents, but it means what really this colleague of mine cares about. So at the end, what I expect the students not only through my class, but through the other classes to understand is we need everyone in those cross functional teams to make it work. If we don't listen to each other, we actually lose a number 30 to do our job better, because our job will impact these other functions jobs, right. So if they understand they have to start listening, and then they can ask, and then they learn. And at the end, they're teaching others. That's how I see these sciences evolution continue from the basics, which is the beginning of the semester, all the way, we were ready to go into the manufacturing floor and run it.
Dennise Cardona 15:31
That sounds like the beauty of what a professional master's program is all about. It's marrying that science technology aspect, the applied aspect with the business side, because that business side those soft skills, no matter what industry you're in, you need those soft skills in order to be able to work together collaboratively with other people, and to be able to have those crossover teams to be able to work together. Because without that, then there's a communication breakdown and really valuable things can get lost in the pipe. That's right. Yeah, that's really great. And it sounds like the program is highly applied, which is another benefit of the professional master's program. And that you're taking the student out of the theoretical book, and bringing them to what real life is going to be like when they actually get out into the real world. And they're solving real world issues, and providing solutions to those issues, which the sooner students can learn to think in that capacity, the better suited they're going to be when they do hit the floor running.
Unknown Speaker 16:37
That's right. So they should build skills being inquisitive, be good investigators, be great problem solvers, resourceful. Look for the tools that allow you to resolve what you need to resolve? Are those tools people, or those tools? Or materials, or these tools, just resources? From a time perspective? How do you frame your hypothesis? And now do you really go and be a go getter, right? At the same time, even if you have the greatest idea in the world, and you cannot communicate it, you're not going to be successful? That idea, we're gonna be in your drawer forever, right? So one thing I learned, because we get better, too, as we are teaching, right? One thing I learned across the years is, if they have a final project at the end of the semester, where they have to give a final presentation to the peers, and to myself, why not making it a higher success, for that public speaking, by teaching them to present some of the homeworks during the semester in the same fashion. And three or four years in a row, the back the back or feedback I received from the students is, I didn't even feel it was this final project that was worth, you know, a percentage, a significant percentage of my grade, I just felt it was an extent of homework. And bs tells me a lot, they are comfortable in their skin, speaking up, be critical thinkers criticize people's work in a respectful way, right? Because you're not supposed to just present to me work that someone else has published, you're supposed to understand it, and think, to be able to do better. Are you are you excited about it or disappointed? So you should be a critical thinker. And that's what I hope that they get out of this program.
Dennise Cardona 18:42
That is so well stated. Can you talk about the nature of the biotech field and why biotech is so important to the world at large?
Unknown Speaker 18:52
As you learn more about biotech of because I don't think even at school, you you get the exposure to the broad field of biotech, right? biotech touches the core of life sciences, and has the practicality to it. So it's not only about ideas is how do we make those ideas into something that impacts people's lives? We can test something in a lab. Yeah, great, the fundamentals work. But if we don't make a device if we don't make a drug, if we don't make some change and improvement that will impact human beings. It's not enough. That's what I think biotechnology comes because incorporates both feeds into that proof of concept, but requires that you bring that proof of concept to life, through scale, through large, large supply I guess, and also through This, this understanding where we right. So selling a product is not enough. biotech includes the supply chain, but also includes let's continue the vigilance on the product impacts into people. And let's continue to innovate upon that product. Right? It's like you're producing your potatoes and the potatoes are great, why would you change them, there's not really a lot of reason to change, unless you're optimizing a process to get there, the same great taste with optimizing your time or your cost or everything that goes around it. So think about biotech to be in for the raw science to the engineering application. And after the product is is out there, you're actually interested in understanding, does that continue to be impactful? Or it's no longer that interested process and product anymore. So it's very, very vast, right goes for food industry, to the drug industry, to the fuel biofuel, in particular industry, you get so much out of the biotechnology that I also hope that my students feel that is not only about the farmer, it's about the process. Even if we bring case studies from farmer, which are a little bit more detailed than other industries, and are a little bit more demanding. from a regulatory perspective. It's their mind their their thought process is developing in a way that they will be great in fitting any any biotech industry.
Dennise Cardona 21:52
Because you speak so passionately about this industry. And I'm so grateful that we've had this conversation today. Before we close out, is there anything that I have not asked you that you feel would lend value to this conversation for someone listening in who maybe is considering a biotechnology career or Life Sciences career? Or maybe it's on the fence about that? And maybe there's something that you that I haven't asked you that you could say to somebody who has that who's coming at this with that kind of lens?
Unknown Speaker 22:25
Yes, there is something I think is important for someone that is not completely sure if this is for them. There are two things to consider being part of biotechnology field is not working in the lab all the time. There is a lot of different professions that do not require to touch any lab related equipment. So if they see something that scares you, or is something you don't feel, at a current stage of your life for so many different reasons, right? That is not something you want to go into it. That should not be deterrent from you applying or at least talk to some of us as sort of a coaching or mentorship session to understand what other areas I could fit in, or I could learn more. And those could be areas, they are as important as the lab areas or the manufacturing areas. The same about having a PhD versus a masters or versus whatever undergrad degree that took you were right now it being on the fence or almost sure, if you want these as a as a graduate program, it almost doesn't matter. If you think you would like to do something, right. It doesn't matter that you have a math background to a certain degree, it matters that you like to study for the rest of your life. And there's different levels of studying and different ways of studying. It does matter that you are curious, though, right? While some things are less important, and can be more ambiguous, and you can actually build a career that doesn't exist today. You never know. Right? Five years from now. 10 years from now, you could be a pioneer of a career, a job description, a role that today does not exist. You never know that. But he does matter that you are curious, in matters that you're hard worker in the matters that you know how to build trust. So if you know how to build trust with your dear friends, learn how to build trust with people that you might not know very much to be your friends, but you know you need to be able to work with them. And you are you brand, don't let anyone define what your brand looks like your name, your persona, your competency will build your brain.
Dennise Cardona 25:12
Wow, this is such an important conversation to have today, Dr. Ramos, it really was. And I feel completely inspired by what you said. And I know that others will as well. It's really important because I think that in the everyday we forget how our actions are so important in the world. Even the small actions, we take the small decisions and the choices that we make with whatever we do in our life, they matter. And they matter. If you highlight that in your own life, and you realize that what you are doing, if you bring passion and love to what you're doing, then that passion and love will follow. I know that sounds very philosophical, but it really this is what this conversation reminded me up today is that what we put out there into the world, is really important. If we take care of how we nurture that, then we can truly make the world a better place. And whether that's through biotechnology or another field, this conversation was so on par with putting ourselves out there professionally in whatever capacity that might be. So I really want to thank you for being here with us today and sharing all of those amazing insights.
Unknown Speaker 26:22
Oh, it was my pleasure. I feel. I'm also the just giving back in a forward way, right? I feel we is the universe, give us those opportunities. And there's no way we could just keep it to ourselves. So I feel we are a risk reflect of that luck of that hard work. But in particular, the environment that we live in you NBC has been a big part of my life, to provide me that opportunity that what we call luck. But everyone that knows what I'm talking about being lucky is Yeah, luck comes with hard work. But I always I also would like to thank you for the initiative for bringing us together through these conversations. Because we have all so much more in common that sometimes we think, and also would like to finish with an important highlight, which is being part of STEM overall, is also embrace the responsibility. And after a year, like 2020, I couldn't I couldn't finish without saying that. Understanding the news, because we have the appropriate background in science. And bring common sense to our lives, also requires and demands the responsibility of having that knowledge, right? To our family and friends that might not have that field educational field, to give them peace of mind, you know, to bring hope to tell them that science speaks louder. But it's people that make it real at the end of the day. So I'd like just to give you, you and your audience a big virtual hug after these really hard year, almost year and a half. And let's together walk the scientific path to improve our lives and understand that we can all make a difference, because we believe in that path.
Dennise Cardona 28:36
Thank you so much for that. So well stated. This was just a really great conversation about life, professionalism, and what you put out into the world. So thank you for all of that was such a pleasure to meet you as well. Good rest of your day. You too. Bye now. Thank you for tuning in to mbcs miked up podcast. If you'd like to learn more about UMBC's graduate programs in biotechnology, please visit us at professional programs.umbc.edu/biotechnology