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Talk with David Catalán-Tatjer (PhD Researcher)

This week we introduce you to David Catalán-Tatjer, a PhD researcher at Novo Nordisk. He is originally from Spain and is currently living in Denmark. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Biotechnology with specialisation in Biotechnology of Processes from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (Spain) in 2018. Later, he has done his Master of Science in Engineering in Chemical and Biochemical Engineering from the Technical University of Denmark (Denmark). Bachelor in 2018, Master in 2021. Currently, he has started his PhD tenure at DTU Biosustain from March 2021.

As mentioned, David is pursuing his PhD and his research is focused on producing recombinant Adeno Associate Virus (rAAV) in ways to reduce the production cost. His PhD is with DTU Biosustain and in collaboration with Novo Nordisk Foundation. He has started his PhD in March 2021 and is employed therefore for 3 years.

During his degrees, David has kept himself busy as well by working as Intern and later as a Student Assistant at Novo Nordisk. Undoubtedly, David has both the practical and theoretical knowledge, and him doing his PhD, he has further cemented his skills in Process Development. He not only has in-depth knowledge in chemical engineering, but also has a robust knowledge in biotechnology.

We were lucky to get a talk with him to learn more about his education and PhD tenure. Read his answers below to learn more about him.


What motivated you to study Chemical Engineering?

After finishing the bachelor I realized that I wanted to improve my understanding in bioprocesses and the Master in Chemical Engineering gave me the opportunity to do so.

What line did you choose to focus on during your degree? Why that in particular?

I did not choose any focus during my master, I took the wonderful opportunity to participate in special courses to broaden my knowledge in specific topics.

ChemE is considered to be a tough degree? How was the workload in your opinion and what did you spend a lot of time on?

The difficulty of the degree, at least in MSc level, depends on the courses you choose as there are plenty options available. If, for example, you register in a course about a new topic for you, it will become way more challenging than if you take a course on something you already know a lot about.

For me, the project-based courses were the ones that I had to spend more time with as you have to hand-in reports almost weekly.

Many people believe that ChemE and Chemistry are the same. During your degree, was there a lot of chemistry? How does it actually link with Chemical Engineering?

I did not choose any course with hard chemistry, I was more focused on process development. Again, it really depends on what do you want to do as there are several options.

As said, ChemE can be broad degree, and it covers a range of topics. What topics did you find the most difficult and most easiest to understand and learn?

Considering my bachelor in biotechnology, all courses related with topics that I had already covered were easier than courses focused on technical details and with a higher level of maths.

Was there a lot of programming involved within ChemE? What programs did you have to learn?

Each course is different in terms of programming requirements. You can get the Master’s degree without almost any programming skills but I do not recommend that. I learnt Comsol (CFD software) and MATLAB.

Did you get your degree from your home country or did you go abroad? If so where and how did it help your career? How was the study experience and cultural experience.

My Bachelor is from Spain whereas my Master is from Denmark. I really enjoyed the challenge of getting used to a different way of life and meeting new people. The way to teach in the university is completely different in Spain (exam-based) and in Denmark (report-based) and I learnt the ups and downs of both systems.

Did you already know that you wanted to do a PhD right after graduation? If so, how did you expand and polish your research skills? Did you take part in external extra projects etc?

After finishing my studies I realised that I did not have enough knowledge to design or develop a process from scratch. One of the best ways to learnt that was to be part of a PhD, as it is one of the best environments to keep improving and be challenged with your own project. I did several special courses as well as my master thesis with the same group I am doing the PhD in which was really helpful as I already knew all the equipment, people, goals of the group and so on.

PhD Experience

How long is your PhD? How long has passed? Who are you doing you PhD with?

The PhD in Denmark is 3 years long and I have just started (on March 2021). I am doing my PhD in DTU Biosustain under the supervision of Prof. Lars K. Nielsen.

What research area are you working with in your PhD? Could you summarize a little?

Long story short, I am trying to produce recombinant Adeno Associated Virus (rAAV) with a different platform to reduce the cost. rAAV are used in gene therapy and there are some products approved by the FDA and EMA that can potentially treat thousands of patients as well as several clinical trials.

How is your typical work week like? What are your typical tasks?

Each week I write a to-do list with everything that should be done and when fits best (experiments, prepare presentations, read some literature, analyse data…). Lab always has priority as it is more time-dependant and I do the other tasks around it.

Is your PhD more hand-on (laboratory, experimental) or more theoretical (simulations, modelling)?

It has both parts. I have started with the wet-lab part to design some cell lines and test some processes and, if everything goes as planned, I will jump into modelling as soon as I have some interesting results.

What hard and soft skills are important within your PhD?

Good communication is key, as you will have to present your research to various people who will have different degree of understanding of what you are doing (conferences, colleagues, supervisor…).

Being well organised is as necessary. Several projects are going to be in your hands and you will need to be able to manage and keep track of everything.

Curiosity is a nice soft-skill to have. The deeper you get into a topic the more you realised that you do not know enough.

Regarding hard-skills, everything you have learnt is going to be necessary. You have to remind that you will participate in courses and learn new things all time. Do not get frustrated if you do not know something.

PhD is of course a very technical tenure. So what core engineering topics do you have to use from your engineering degree?

As the project is focused on process development, I am usually designing ways to test the performance of different modes of operation (batch, fed-batch and continuous) with my case study.

You may already foresee that a several fundamental equations are involved in that (how to get the consumption/production rates in each set-up, how to challenge it, how to improve it…) and, even though you might be used to some of these equations I can assure you that the complexity level can increase a lot!

Apart from the core engineering topics, what non-engineering come in handy, which you learned during your engineering degree?

Basically, what I call the “engineer mind-set”: challenging everything, troubleshooting all problems and get efficient solutions with innovative ideas.

Why did you choose to take PhD instead of going directly into the industry?

After the MSc I felt like I did not know enough to have a position with responsibility in the industry and I believed that the best way to get the knowledge and experience was the PhD. I strongly think that a PhD is one of the best opportunities to learn, be challenged, improve your network and if lucky, do something meaningful for the society.

How did you get the PhD position? Did you apply for externally or did you get it internally through your research projects? Did you use any specific platform?

I just looked in DTU’s webpage and I found a vacant position that was interesting for me. Truth to be told, I did my master thesis in the same group so I already knew what they were looking for and which kind of projects they wanted to developed. After applying there was an interview in which technical questions were asked with focus on process development and optimisation.

Going for a PhD is a big decision after graduation. Many graduates tend to be reluctant going into the PhD, thinking that it will limit them just for professor jobs. In your opinion and experience, what are the main opportunities after PhD within ChemE?

It is commonly assumed that a PhD is the best way to become a professor and that is completely true.

However, the industry lacks specialised scientists because a master degree does not give you such detailed knowledge. A PhD is a really wonderful opportunity for this. You have to consider that during your PhD you will probably have talks and collaborate with companies, and most of the projects from ChemE are focused on the applicability of the research so the chances that a company is interested in what you are doing are high.

There is no limitation whatsoever in options you have available after your PhD.

What is your future plan? Have you thought about what you want to do after your PhD?

As mentioned before, I see myself in a company, applying everything I learnt during my PhD, possibly optimising and developing process for drug production.

If someone wishes to pursue a PhD, what should the MS Students be doing special? How do you think they can prepare and brush themselves up to be a competent PhD researcher like yourself?

Enrol in courses you find interesting and challenging and never stop learning.

Take some rest when you can and push hard when you have to. A balanced student-life is very important to not get bored of anything and keep your eagerness to learn alive.

ChemE is such a broad degree and PhD is a very narrow road. How can student recognise what topics they should do the research in?

The most important thing is to identify what you like as you will have to spend 3 years reading, writing, presenting and thinking about it.

A PhD is narrow but the topic may vary depending on your interests and results so you can have some flexibility in that.

How can the students improve their research skills during university years?

It is nice to get some basics of programming as it can make everything easier and is quite a polyvalent tool.

Generally, what skills should students be focusing on during university years?

Whatever they like. It is important that you enjoy and find your research interesting or you will not last long.

Some people believe that it is better to get some industrial experience before starting a PhD, so that they can perform better research, which is also applicable within the "real world". What is your opinion on that? Did you take a gap or did you start your PhD right after graduation?”

I started my PhD right after graduation. However, I have always had a huge interest in industrial processes. For that reason, I always ask myself whether what I am doing is relevant for future processes and, if not, how can I adapt it to an industrial context. Although it might be nice, you do not need to have any experience to understand the challenges the industry is facing and how you could contribute to that.
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