Regenerative Medicine Cluster Initiative in BC

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Careers Column – An Interview with Keith Mewis (AbCellera Biologics)

Name: Keith Mewis
Job title: Scientist, Robotics and Automation
Company: AbCellera Biologics

Describe a typical day in your position? What are some of your day-to-day activities?
Our workflow is very high-throughput, so most of our molecular biology reactions are set up massively in parallel in 96W, 384W or 1536W plates. I’m in charge of the automation and labware robotics for the Molecular Biology team, so my day-to-day activities usually involve a combination of programming and testing new protocols on the robots, as well as using the robots for production of antibodies. I’m also responsible for training my colleagues to use the robots, and keeping informed of the latest developments and offerings for automation to expand our labs capabilities. Robots, robots, robots!

How did you arrive at your current position?
I was fortunate enough to build up a network of collaborators and friends during the course of my grad studies, and once I graduated I had some friends/former co-workers encourage me to apply to AbCellera. After a couple interviews and meetings, we managed to find a good fit for me at the company, and I started working here 2 months after my defense. Sometimes it’s more about who you know than what you know (although my skills were definitely relevant too)!

What are the work hours like? Are they mostly predictable?
Work hours are mostly (95%) predictable, and in the cases where a long day is required, there is always ample notice to plan around it. Since most of my days involve programming rather than molecular biology, it’s easier for me to pick up and leave instead of having to wait until my experiment is done. A regular day will be 8-9 hours, including lunch (arrive between 8:30 and 9am, leave between 5pm and 5:30pm)

How often do you travel for your job/ Do you attend any conferences?
AbCellera is very supportive of both continued learning as well as training opportunities. When we order new robots, they usually require some level of training for the primary operator/programmer (me). Sometimes this training is in our lab, but sometimes involves travelling to the company headquarters for training. I would say I travel for training once or twice per year.
Conferences are an important venue to both learn about advancements in the field, as well as get the word out about what AbCellera is doing and potentially foster collaborations. They try to send each employee to at least one conference per year in addition to the training that I do. I could probably travel more, but with a young family at home I like to stick around town as much as I can.

What skill or knowledge set have you obtained during your academic training that has been most helpful to you in your current position?
Being familiar with high-throughput approaches from my PhD was the biggest asset for me at my current job, in addition to my modest level of computer science training. Working in high-throughput requires a bit of a different mindset and approach than working with individual samples, so having thousands of samples to deal with is not something as overwhelming to me as it is to others. Properly tracking big data sets has also been a valuable skill for me.

Do you work largely alone or as part of a team?
Very much part of a team! Many of our experiments and client production runs take multiple days and upwards of 20 people to complete, things that wouldn’t be possible by someone working alone. While my programming work is mostly by myself, once it’s into testing, I need to get feedback from colleagues on user interfaces as well as training them on how to use it.

How similar or different is your work environment now to that of academia/grad-school?
Very different but in a good way. There is no ownership of projects like there is in grad school, so there is no need to ask for help from other people to work on “my project” – this is great to ensure that tasks can be completed quickly and effectively. For example, instead of encountering a problem that requires me to take 2 days/weeks/months to learn a new skill, I can find someone who is an expert in it to help in 2 minutes/hours instead. Things get completed so quickly!

Do you still publish?
While I don’t personally publish (much of my R&D is related to validation of my robot protocols – not really publishable), we do still collaborate with academia and help them to publish. It helps to make a name for AbCellera and showcase our abilities while still retaining confidentiality with our industry clients.

What advice would you give to trainees who are interested in working in your field or in a similar position?
In life sciences, it’s becoming increasingly important to have some aspect of data science or computer programming in your toolbox, especially as our ability to generate data continues to increase at an exponential rate. More generally, don’t sell yourself short in your capabilities, or feel trapped by the subject of your formal training. I have never taken an immunology course in my life, and my PhD was studying biomass degradation genes in beaver guts, yet here I am programming robots for the production of therapeutic antibodies for an immunology company. The real most important skill I learned in school was the ability to learn!

By Ido Refaeli
PhD Candidate (UBC)