Insights from a Fermentation Engineer: A Fermentation Engineer’s Impact

Lexin Ann Morales     

Lexin recently spoke to Magda Costa, a Fermentation Engineer at Holiferm. With a PhD in beer fermentation, her role revolves around fermentation and downstream engineering. Magda shared the importance of understanding the projects not just on a technical level, but also on a business level.

Fermentation may seem like a mysterious and age-old process, but in today's world, it's far from a simple craft. Behind the scenes, there's a science known as fermentation engineering, and it's the unsung hero responsible for bringing us some of our favourite things, from beer and wine to cheese and bread. In this blog, we interviewed Magda Costa, a fermentation engineer at Holiferm, a biotechnology research firm located in Manchester. Magda generously shared her invaluable insights on the pivotal role of fermentation engineering and the key lessons for achieving success in this dynamic field.

Finding solutions: What fermentation engineering is all about

The beauty of being a fermentation engineer is we invent solutions.

Fermentation engineers are essentially problem solvers. We face challenges related to optimizing production processes, ensuring product consistency, and minimizing waste. Whether it's adjusting the pH levels, optimizing nutrient supply, or controlling temperature, we constantly seek innovative solutions to make the fermentation process more efficient and sustainable--making this role really exciting and fun.

A secret skill in fermentation engineering: Understand the projects at all levels

If there's one thing that you need as a fermentation engineer, you need a deeper understanding of the projects you're doing--not just on a technical level, but on a business level as well.

I find the most enjoyment in my projects when I delve into both their technical and business aspects. It's about understanding the business requirements that underpin a project and recognizing what drives the business forward in that particular context. To me, this understanding is crucial.

It's not just about the technicalities; it's about how the end product can significantly impact the company. This leads us to a vital question: How can we develop a process that takes us from initial iterations to a well-optimized solution?

In a project, it's not solely about the scientific elements; it's also about planning for the future. We must be realistic about our approach because idealism doesn't always align with the practical future implications of our work. It's about positioning our current work in a way that contributes to the future success of the company.

One of the role's biggest challenges: Producing and growing microorganisms

The most significant challenge in fermentation engineering is getting the desired output. Achieving your goals in this field can be a daunting task. It's like a puzzle where you're trying to figure out how to get those cells producing as efficiently as possible. But here's the kicker – it's not just about production; it's also about finding ways to ensure the process is consistent and reproducible, reducing any room for error or variability.

It helps to remember that not everything is under your control. On some days, there are results, on some days, not at all--you just have to keep trying!

Communication and being open: Key skills for success

As a fermentation engineer, you're not alone in the lab--you have to collaborate deeply. Sometimes just talking, and debating ideas with your colleagues [even if they're not a fermentation engineer and from other departments], can be terms of finding solutions.

Teamwork is like a treasure trove in engineering because it brings together diverse perspectives and problem-solving approaches. When you're part of a team, these differences are invaluable.

To enhance my communication skills, I prioritize clear and supportive interactions. I ensure that my team comprehends my point of view, and together, we tackle challenges. What's crucial is that they grasp the intersection of science and business. However, it's not always a smooth ride when the scientific path and the business requirements don’t match. Getting your team to adapt and be open to change can be quite the challenge.

So, every day, I work on honing my communication skills, striving to bridge the gap between our technical ideas and the business objectives. It's an ongoing journey.

On not being afraid to ask questions

Two things I would like to advise aspiring fermentation engineers: One, do not be afraid to ask questions. Do not be intimidated by internal discussions--you will never know if you're right. And if you're wrong, you will learn. Some may say the left turn is the way to go, while others argue it's the right turn. You may never be certain who's correct. So it's important to remember: that people are not going to be upset if you're wrong. Be curious. Ask.

A fermentation engineer must have: Know a little bit about everything

Here's my top advice: don't feel the need to obsess over becoming an expert in just one thing. It's perfectly fine to explore what you like. Not everyone has to be a master of a single domain. In fact, it can be a big advantage, especially in a startup, to have a broad skill set. Being a jack of all trades, particularly in a startup, is valuable. The key is to stay flexible and embrace change. It's all about adaptability.

The advancement of biotech: Something to look forward to

I'm really excited about the biotech field because it keeps changing and getting better. It's amazing to see how different it is from when I first started years ago. What's even more exciting is that more and more people are becoming interested in becoming fermentation engineers. There are so many possibilities for new ideas and discoveries in biotechnology, and I'm thrilled to be a part of it.

Magda Costa is a Fermentation Engineer from Holiferm, a biotechnology research company based in Manchester, England. Holiferm is hiring! Visit their career page for vacancies.