Ensuring Medical Device and Pharmaceutical Safety: An Interview With an Industrial Microbiologist

Jan. 3, 2018

Justin Tettenborn is a Sterilization Specialist for a global medical device company that develops and markets products for orthopedic, surgical and critical care use. Since obtaining his B.S. in Microbiology from Arizona State University, Mr. Tettenborn has devoted several years to ensuring medical device and pharmaceutical safety in his dynamic role as an industrial microbiologist. In this Q&A, he describes the scope of his work and provides insights to those considering a career in this growing field. 

Q: What tasks and responsibilities are involved in your daily job activities?

From a microbiological perspective, I ensure that all of our products are safe for use. I find myself working on a wide range of activities throughout the production environment, as I accompany products through their initial design, assembly, and final sterilization. Ultimately, I attempt to eliminate risk up front and perform technical evaluations when processes change. Changes in product design and raw materials affect final product sterility, so I have to constantly evaluate and integrate those changes into our processes, while ensuring business needs are still met efficiently. I am constantly communicating and collaborating with external sterilization vendors  to ensure our products remain safe.

Q: What skills, abilities, and education are required for a successful career in your area of microbiology? 

Above all, organization and patience are the skills I look for. Organization is required because every day presents competing objectives and priorities. If you're unable to keep them all organized, you'll quickly become overwhelmed by the workload. When people fail in our field, it's usually not because they aren't working hard enough, but that they didn't keep things organized appropriately. Because of the critical nature of our products, the medical device industry is highly regulated and controlled. For that reason, even seemingly insignificant changes and updates can take a long time to successfully implement, often weeks or months. A methodological approach is the only way to effectively drive change in this environment.

As far as education is concerned, a Bachelor's degree is usually sufficient. While advanced degrees are appreciated in industry, they certainly are not required in most positions. In fact, the majority of industrial microbiologist roles, even top-level positions, can be obtained with a Bachelor's degree.

Q: What do you find most rewarding about your work? 

I enjoy the appreciation I receive for my contribution. As a technical expert in the field, my opinion is valued when I'm brought in to help with a project. Very few people I interact with understand microbiological control. When I can help them eliminate a potential risk or address an issue, they are genuinely grateful for the advice.

I also enjoy the freedom I'm given in my work and how I manage it. As a microbiologist, instead of receiving explicit objectives, I'm treated more like an advisor. In that capacity, I can help set the goals and objectives of the organization and then work to meet those objectives in my own way.

Q: What practical advice would you offer to those interested in pursuing a career in industrial microbiology?

Like many new graduates, obtaining my first position out of college was challenging. My expectations of merging seamlessly into a prestigious position were dashed when confronted with the experience requirements listed in many "entry-level" jobs. My redeeming asset was the related work experiences I gained while attending college. Job experience of any type, even if it's unrelated to your target position, will serve as evidence of your work ethic and ability to function as part of a team. Related work experience is even better. One of the most challenging aspects facing new hires is adapting to industry norms. There is a lot of  jargon and acronyms to know, so being able to speak the same language as your potential employers will help you hit the ground running.

In industrial microbiology, especially when starting out, you significantly increase your chances for landing a job if you're open to relocating. There is a high need for skilled microbiologists, but it is not as evenly distributed geographically as other fields, and the number of microbiology jobs in a specific city or region may be limited. Broadening your search radius can help your chances significantly.

Q: What is the outlook of microbiology job opportunities in your field? 

Microbiology is a fantastic field to be in, and demand for our expertise is certain to grow with advances in technology. Industrial microbiology is no different; as medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnologies converge, the need for comprehensive technical evaluation will grow very quickly.

Author: Justin Tettenborn

Justin Tettenborn
Justin Tettenborn is a microbiologist with broad experience in medical device manufacturing throughout the product life cycle; including product invention, initial and ongoing quality testing, and sterilization. His passion is leading teams across diverse disciplines to support organizations in building a reputation of quality and trust.