It’s been four months now since I finished my co-op at Continuus Pharmaceuticals. My last day there as a co-op was January 2nd (the 16th when counting training days for the incoming co-ops) and having accepted a position for my final co-op, I’ve had some time to reflect on my time there: the good, the bad, and what it means.
When I first started interviewing back in March (I think), I was excited. My co-op adviser actually showed me them during sophomore year, but they wanted 2nd and 3rd rounds so I held back. But when the time came around, they were the first company I searched for. I’m not entirely certain what it was about their mission, but I saw something there. The classes where I was able to actually do things, such as the labs for Transport 1 and 2, always made sense. Using the pump skid or the thin-film evaporator or the heat exchanger was easy, it’s a matter of following the flow of liquids and you’re pretty much there. Being able to take that to a place where I can work with processes and help design, optimize, improve, and just make a difference in the application of machinery in a hands-on way sounded amazing. Also, the concept of improving the world of pharmaceuticals by revolutionizing it’s manufacture was enticing: how can I say no to pushing the industry in a new direction?
The ride out was quite the commute. I took the direct bus there (ended up missing a class to do so – not what I wanted but this was the chance I needed). Being an industrial park the sidewalks were not cleared of the snow; I walked on the roads and jumped into snowbanks as cars zoomed by. Honestly, I was concerned a few times I might not make the 20 minute hike from the bus stop. But I got there, wiping the snow off my suit and walked in. The building was unimposing: an austere building housing many businesses.
Walking in wasn’t much either. A small room with those half-wall cubicle-ish type desks along the walls of the room and table with dividers in the middle. It was surprising after interviewing at bigger pharma companies like Concerta and Moderna and seeing their sites, as I built Continuus up in my head. My first interview was with Bayan, the CBO and co-founder. He talked to me about the goals of the company and where it came from. I remember him stressing teamwork in the company and making sure that I ask questions and work out uncertainties with my supervisor. Then I interviewed with Stephen who took me through a tour of the lab. I have never admitted it to anyone in the company , but the continuous filtration unit was the coolest thing there. The operating principle seemed so obvious yet so elegant.
The final interview was with Sal, the CEO and co-founder. It was interesting, I remember him asking about how I’d get there and asking a technical question: how would I get fluids flowing without pumps. I was thinking about having tanks high above the process to use the gravitational potential energy, but you would need to have the tanks high up and it would be difficult to keep pressure and ultimately you would need pumps to add fluid to the tanks. As I was mulling over saying that, held back by thinking up all of these drawbacks, Sal suggests having tanks and using gravity. Being so worried about having the “right” answer held me back from saying exactly what he wanted. The answer being given, my only way to proceed was to expand on the idea. The tanks would have to be continuously replenished in order to maintain a consistent pressure, and the pressure fluctuation could be decreased by having larger tanks, but that would mean the fluid has more dead time in the tank. It goes to show that it’s important not to doubt yourself in the interviews. Even if there are drawbacks, if the idea is reasonable it should be said. During interviews they aren’t looking for the perfect answer, but one that can work. Show you can think critically and aren’t just spit-balling.
Despite my flub, they offered me the position and I was ecstatic, accepting right away. My time there has been marked with highs and lows. The people I have met are some of the smartest, most dedicated people I have ever met. You could tell they believe in the work they do and love it, and it’s been a pleasure to work with them.
Ultimately, I don’t want to dwell on every memory I have there. There are so many that I’ll never be able to consider this post finished. Instead, I want to focus on some of the good memories I have from Continuus.
1. The dryer
I suggested an infatuation with the continuous filter earlier, but I was assigned to the continuous dryer (let’s just assume continuous is prepended to any unit op stated). I assumed that my time on the (not continuous) spray dryer in Acorda led to that but hey, apparently they had me for something else at first before a last minute change. That dryer I helped change from inside out. My supervisor and I added PATs, new features, changed it from a manual operation to something ready for full automation. That machine became a source of pride and joy, even though it spent half the time fighting me and breaking down. I remember one time, a screw on the face plate broke and the system failed to pull vacuum mid-run. Instead of shutting it off and losing hours of work, I used ratchet tie downs to squeeze the plates enough to pull vacuum again and finish the experiment. Fortunately the experiment was not affected by this, allowing it to be completed. The dryer was almost unrecognizable after I was through with it, and all for the better.
2. The people
I loved the people I worked with. I do not know a more dedicated group than my coworkers at Continuus. And they stopped at nothing to help me learn and succeed in my position — offering advice, suggesting resources, and placing me in situations to leave my comfort zone and learn new skills. For example, my supervisor saw I didn’t like making calls; I would do anything but call the person I need to contact. One day he said “I need you to set up an appointment with this guy to test a flowmeter. Here’s his name and number.” I sat and prepared for half an hour and rehearsed what to say for a call that lasted 5 minutes. However, by putting me in this position, he helped me realize it’s nothing to worry about and I quickly became comfortable making calls. My coworkers helped me grow and pushed me to learn new skills.
3. Seeing a growing company
When I first joined Continuous, it was a company of less than ten people in an office that barely fit them. By the end, the company almost doubled in size (more than doubled if you count all eight new co-ops). The floor space also doubled with moving into a new office. New contracts were signed and new projects were in the works. The company was so close to finishing the pilot scale lab as I was heading out. Seeing the growth was impressive, and made me see how dedication from all of the people involved and the technological progress translates to successful business.
4. “If nothing is going right, you’re headed in the right direction”
I have to admit, when my boss first said this I was annoyed. The phrase seemed on par with “it’s always in the last place you look.” But it’s true. One lesson I never learned in school is that things don’t always work. You are given a two hour time period to complete a project that has completed by hundreds of others, alongside some classmates all working on the same tasks, with the support of TAs and a professor who know the ins and out of the project — the project will be finished one way or another. In reality, that’s not always the case. The problems faced are ones hundreds of people might not have dealt with yet, with no all-knowing resources to reach out to, and you still need to achieve them. Sure failures are disappointing, but a failure shows you where the answer is not. A failure shouldn’t leave you banging your head on the wall wondering why something doesn’t work, but thinking what to try next since what you just did was not successful.
5. Data storage
Something I am very proud of in my time at Continuus was creating an awesome data storage scheme. The data generated by the previous co-op and I weren’t exactly intuitively stored. He had his way of doing things, and I was slowly turning it into my own way, which someone would probably revamp in their own way and so on. Find data was a time-sink: I would sometimes spend an hour just trying to find a certain excel file that had the experiment I needed that I thought was in this folder but now I don’t see it so where could it be? It got to a point where my supervisor asked me to set aside time and revamp it. She started something in Excel where it lists the experiment date and the parameters but wanted columns that said whether a certain analytical test was run. I started by reworking the data structure by analytical tool, then by date. So if you need GC results, you go to the GC results folder, then inside you can choose by date like “Dryer Run DDMMMYY”. Then I populated the excel sheet with the experimental parameters. But I took it a step further. Instead of just doing Y/N for the tests, I used hyperlinks in the document to link directly to the results folders. So instead of trolling through and eventually finding the right folder, this document acted as a master, you don’t need to search anything but this Excel document to find what you’re looking for. Oh, you need the original particle size analysis of the slurry used in this experiment? Just click on the slurry cell in the experiment row. I then also added README text files that gave insight into the results. “This experiment was documented in notebook XXX on page YYY. It was an extension of….” or “a rerun of …..” and so on. It’s almost silly when you consider how it’s got nothing to do with ChemE stuff, but the amount of time it started saving us was a godsend.
There is one aspect I learned does not work for me and I want to avoid going forward, and that is the feeling the company has to become your life. The company culture at Continuus is one where it’s basically expected you give up all your time for the company. After seeing and hearing my supervisor respond to “What did you do this weekend” with “worked on X” or “came in to the lab” every week, I started to take on that idea too and began working more and more alongside her. A lot of it was I also felt bad if I did not help, because if I could not complete all of the tasks it sets my supervisor behind and makes their time harder as well. Doing so took a toll on everything else in my life: my relationship, my friends, my role as president of NUTRS. I would get home so late I would only eat, sleep, and head to work.
It came to a head when preparing for a GC run. The previous week, we completed a dryer run and I was able to get all of the particle size measurement tests performed. However, it was not possible to get the GC results that week — it takes about a full work day to get all of the preparations done, another for the GC to complete the tests, and then a few hours to transfer the data into my notebook, into an Excel document and analyze. The following week was already all planned out to only work on the pilot plant, so I would not be able to get results then either. Knowing the value of getting these results as soon as possible (the longer you wait, the more possible errors there could be involved with vapor pulled in from the air or degradation or whatever), I decided to come in early and do it in piecemeal. I was getting up at 4:30 AM, getting on the earliest bus to Woburn, the first one at 6:15 AM, and waste no time to start making the standard solutions, preparing the samples, doing everything needed. Thursday I was able to put everything into the GC and start the run. It’s a finnicky machine prone to breaking down, so there is a healthy amount of paranoia needed whenever working with it. There’s a phrase in Polish that amount so “The devil is happier the more you rush.” A few hours in, I saw the GC was not communicating data with the computer. Grateful it did not get past the calibration vials, I shut down the machine but it was too late, the data will not appear for Friday’s meeting. The day of the meeting, higher ups were obviously frustrated with me for not having the results. My supervisor understood the time I spent trying to make it happen, but I felt terrible. Worse, it felt like my time was wasted. Despite the fact GC run was never planned for this week, and the fact I will save time later since the samples are already made and don’t degrade in the GC vials, my initiative seemed unwelcome and I could have done nothing for the same response. I spoke with my supervisor about this and she said it’s not my role as a co-op to feel like I have to spend the time other employees do and to adhere to the calendar we make. Things got better as we worked on our timelines, but the experience marred my time there.
Telling this make no sense if I didn’t learn something from it, and that is a good leader should recognize the efforts made by the people they supervise and I took this lesson to my role as president of Northeastern Tabletop Roleplaying Society (NUTRS). As we planned for event, and people accomplished their tasks, I made sure they knew their efforts were appreciated. If someone did the majority of the effort on something, I made sure to say so. If they could not complete a task in the time because of something out of their control, I don’t chastise them, instead I let them know I appreciated their efforts and would like them to try again as soon as possible. After experiencing first hand how demotivating it is for someone’s efforts or initiative to be punished or unrecognized, I revamped my efforts to make sure people are given credit when credit is due. In my opinion, this has helped E-board morale. We are all working together to make NUTRS a fun experience, but by having efforts explicitly appreciated my fellow E-board have been trying more and more.
I learned a lot at Continuus and am grateful for my time there.I’m looking forward to taking the skills and tools I gained there into my next co-op and beyond when entering the industry.