BioBuzz by Workforce Genetics

5 Questions with Elyse Vlahos, Director of Process Engineering at Genesis AEC

“5 Questions With…” is a weekly BioBuzz series where we reach out to interesting people to share a little about themselves, their work, and maybe something completely unrelated. This week we welcome Elyse Vlahos, Director of Process Engineering at Genesis AEC, an award-winning consulting, architecture, engineering, and construction management firm that has partnered with life sciences companies for more than 25 years.

Elyse offers more than 14 years of professional experience as a lead process engineer within the pharmaceutical industry. She began her career with Jacobs Engineering and advanced to Senior Process Engineer.

Elyse has been involved during various project phases in the design of retrofitted, brownfield, and greenfield sites. Her experience includes cell and gene therapies, vaccines, monoclonal antibodies (mABs), creams and ointments, final formulations, and Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API), with a primary focus in biotech projects.

1) Please introduce yourself to our audience by looking back at your education, training, and career.

I obtained my BS/MS degrees in Chemical Engineering from Drexel University as part of 5-year dual degree program. I graduated with my ChemE fundamentals and several co-ops under my belt but was relatively uncertain of my career ambitions or goals. My co-ops were R&D focused in support of my thesis development, but that didn’t feel like the right career path for me.

I happened to meet my future employer at a college career fair. Intrigued by the idea of consulting and working on many different types of projects, I joined a large A/E firm in the Life Sciences realm and found a great fit for myself as a Process Engineer.

With the diversity of the project work, there’s always something new to learn and every day is different from the next. I enjoy engaging with the clients and understanding how we as a design team can add value to their projects. Getting a detailed understanding of the process and coordinating with the other disciplines to develop the facility design is as interesting as it is exciting.

Progressing through my career, the most gratifying experience has been seeing designs go from a concept on paper to physically standing in a cleanroom and looking around at the equipment and functional facility design. Working with many different clients provides exposure to how similar objectives are accomplished differently and encourages the brain to think in a creative way. Given a project’s drivers, we can pull from this experience and adapt our approach to provide designs that are intentional and functional.

2) Tell us more about your day-to-day in your current engineering role at Genesis, as well as how you progressed from Senior Process Engineer to Director of Process Engineering.

I was hired for my biotech background, with that planned as my primary project focus and how the department was being developed at the time. About a year and a half into this role at Genesis, my then boss moved on to pursue a new endeavor. I was asked to lead the Process Engineering Department on an interim basis while a successor could be identified. I happily took on the challenge and was vocal with management that I knew I’d have a steep learning curve but, honestly, felt I had nothing to lose. It was interim, they knew I was not as experienced as who I was stepping in for, and all I could do was try to fill the gap and keep the team going. Ten months into the interim position, I was offered the formal role of Director of Process Engineering. One year into the role, I have added five talented individuals to the department at varying levels as well as formed partnerships with outside talent to supplement our discipline. This has proven to be an effective stop gap as senior level talent is increasingly hard to secure.

In my current role, I manage the team of Process Engineers, providing each of them the support they need to perform effectively through training and development, while encouraging them to take on new challenges. I balance the workload among the team providing assignments for project work and department initiatives. I’m often involved in developing and presenting proposals to clients for new project opportunities which is another rewarding part of the role.

Most importantly, I remain technically engaged and I’m excited by all the developments in ATMPs and what the future holds for this industry. On a current project we are fitting out a recently leased facility with additional suites to produce clinical cell therapies. It is always interesting to work on the front end of projects with the researchers and tech transfer teams to understand what they are seeing in the pipeline. The variability and unique requirements of any given process challenges us to provide flexible and adaptable facility designs that meet the owner’s needs for years to come.

3) You’ve worked at both large and small firms – can you speak a bit about the different experiences you had at large vs. small companies, and what made you decide to join a smaller firm?

I’ve learned most of what I do through experience and collaboration with great individuals and teams, which can be found at firms of all sizes. Over many years with the larger firm, I received challenging assignments, met lifelong friends, worked with great mentors, and had lots of exciting opportunities. I was comfortable – I knew the right people to talk to for help, I had a strong reputation – but I felt I wasn’t pushing myself.

After some thoughtful reflection, I joined a much smaller firm and broke out of my comfort zone. It turned out to be a great decision for me. I confirmed I could stand on my own two feet without the backing of those I’d previously defer to when stuck. I found new individuals to support me and provide insight to challenges. I quickly built a reputation with a new team – something I thought would take me as many years to build as it originally did.

At a smaller firm I can have more tangible impact. I’m working with the senior leadership of the company on a regular basis. I have a lot of freedom to make things happen quickly. With bigger companies come deeper org charts and more rigid structure and policies. Even within the project work, we can be nimble in how we respond to our clients’ needs thanks to how we operate as a smaller firm. Projects, just like clients, aren’t one size fits all. We can be creative in our execution strategies to deliver what is needed while not necessarily following a traditional design path.

4) You’ve recently stepped into this new role where you’re managing a team. What advice do you have for other folks who are also just starting off in a management position?

Aim to communicate authentically, both in motivating team members and resolving conflicts. Value your role as mentor and challenge each member of your team to break out of their own comfort zone so they can strengthen their capabilities and take their own career growth to the next level. Recognize your team’s individual strengths and listen to their needs.

Most importantly, have fun and enjoy the learning process. Try new things to see what works for your style and engage with your team in a way that doesn’t feel forced. I’m still figuring out the best ways to approach management of individuals across multiple projects, ensuring they are supported and utilized, and have the resources, tools, and background they need to complete their assignments successfully. I have a lot to accomplish, but this provides me a lot of ambition and excitement for the road ahead. I encourage anyone in a similar position to believe in yourself and how you got there. While every day may not be perfect, you need to recognize your own strengths and what you bring to the table to display the confidence needed to be an effective leader.

5) What are some hobbies or activities that you like to do outside of work?

I like to disconnect from work on weekends (and weeknights) and enjoy focusing on the important things in life. I enjoy my time outside of work both outdoors and in – gardening, hiking, cooking, home improvements. I love hosting and planning gatherings, family time, and road trips.  I value my work, but I value my personal time just as much.