Taking problem-solving skills from the lab to the workplace

May 18, 2017

Kate Malachowski (PhD ’14) first started working at Northrup Grumman part-time while earning her doctorate. After graduating and another 18 months there full-time, she moved to vaccine producer Novavax, Inc. in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where she’s a Scientist II in the Manufacturing Science & Technology group. Her work supports manufacturing by troubleshooting issues that emerge during the scaling-up process.

The work reminds her of the challenges she focused on in her ChemBE lab. “Microfabrication is like a puzzle, with different materials and techniques to add and subtract layers of those materials,” Malachowski says. “In the lab, we knew what device we were trying to make and what characteristics it should have, but we had to figure out what materials to use, with what techniques and in what order. It’s the same at Novavax. We use a lot of the same problem-solving skills to figure out why a process isn’t performing as expected.”

Malachowski, who earned her BS in chemical engineering at Virginia Tech, came to Hopkins uncertain of which direction she was headed within chemical engineering, but looking forward to exploring her options in such an interdisciplinary setting. She spent her lab time in ChemBE developing microgrippers for biomedical and defense applications, collaborating with the U.S. Army Research Lab and JHMI. Her microgrippers could be used in the GI tract to capture tissue for biopsies and were scaled down to be able to grasp a single red blood cell. She also built grippers from porous, biodegradable polymers that can be loaded with drugs, allowing the device to grip onto the colon’s tissue and release drugs over time in order to keep the medication’s concentration high enough to treat gastrointestinal diseases.

While the specifics of her research have ranged over the years from microsurgical tools to radar to biologics, a common thread has been solving challenging problems, Malachowski says. That process requires certain skills that she’s picked up along the way: “Having an understanding of the method to solve a problem, and not being afraid of jumping in and trying to solve it,” she says.

While at ChemBE, she also learned to tell a story to communicate her research. “This has been tremendously beneficial for me,” she says. “I have to translate basic research and sell it to the people in manufacturing—show them that it will make production easier, faster, and more robust.”

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