A Industrial Microbiology Career: Bioprocess Engineering

April 3, 2020

Bioprocess engineering is a field that applies chemical engineering principles to microbial processes. Examples of bioprocess engineering include designing fermenters/bioreactors and developing microbial processes for the production of enzymes, biochemicals, biopharmaceuticals and fertilizers. It also includes genetic engineering approaches for increasing the yield and quality of microbial products. Bioprocess engineering is proving to be incredibly valuable to the modern world. 

We interviewed Dr. Nigel Mouncey, Director of the Joint Genome Institute, about his experiences working in bioprocess engineering. He currently leads a 300-person team dedicated to providing the scientific community with state-of-the-art genomics and expertise. 

Dr. Mouncey, what inspired you to become an industrial microbiologist? 

My father was a microbiologist and growing up, we had scientific journals scattered around the house. He never forced microbiology on me, I guess I became interested through osmosis, although I can’t rule out a hereditary trait! As I was advancing in my studies, microbiology easily became my chosen forté and I’ve been fortunate to continue working in this field for my entire career.

What is your current role at the Joint Genome Institute (JGI)? 

I am the Director of JGI, the Group Lead for JGI’s Secondary Metabolites project and the Deputy Lead for the new National Microbiome Data Collaborative (NMDC) project. In all these roles, it’s about bringing the best minds across JGI together to perform collaborative, team science. Our core mission is to provide the global research community with access to the most advanced integrative genome science tools. In the NMDC project, we are finding new ways to integrate, analyze and visualize the growing microbiome data so that it can be used to meet scientific needs. In the Secondary Metabolites project, my research group is discovering novel secondary metabolites and the molecular machinery that exists to synthesize them. We are interested in the role of these molecules in mediating microbe-microbe and microbe-plant interactions, nutrient acquisition and protection of host organisms.

Previously, you worked in biotechnology producing commercial products. What were some of the challenges you faced in developing these products?  

When developing any new product, you need to do a techno-economic analysis, which means you assess the cost involved in developing the product/process and the economical feasibility of the product as compared to similar products in the market. Then you do a market analysis to understand the demand for the new product/process in the market. Fortunately, I was able to partner with our business teams at Dow AgroSciences, DSM Natural Products and Roche Vitamins to learn the foundational information to make the most informed choices about product selection and performance, market for the product, scale and cost targets. This helped me and my research & development team to make better choices and develop the process models that drove our product development activities. 

What personal and professional qualities have enabled you to be successful in your profession?

This is a great question that I don’t often think about. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my career to develop and grow my strategic, team, scientific and operational leadership skills. Showing interest, asking questions and being able to converse in an informal manner has allowed me to build productive relationships. Also, it is essential to recognize and appreciate your team’s successes, but also learn from failures. My team and I had failures despite working incredibly hard. These have become learning experiences that have fed into other projects and allowed us to take more successful routes.

Why do you think young researchers should go into industrial microbiology?

This is an incredibly exciting time for industrial microbiology. The range of processes to produce products are unparalleled and the technologies that are accessible today are simply astonishing. We’re seeing tremendous investments being made by companies in this space and I firmly believe we’re on the cusp of a new industrial revolution powered by biology.

Students always ask us how they can get into industry - what advice do you have for them? 

My advice to students is to get exposure to industry early – go to open days, apply for internships and follow what companies are doing. Find where your passion is and pursue it. For students that are interested, please feel free to contact Susannah Tringe, JGI Deputy Director for Science Programs.

Author: Navanietha Rathinam, Ph.D.

Navanietha Rathinam, Ph.D.
Dr. Navanietha Rathinam is a research scientist in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.