From Bahrain to Tipperary, drug discovery and research have brought Caroline Poovelil on a career path and journey that is constantly evolving.
Travelling across the globe to follow her dream to study chemical engineering at Queen’s University Belfast, Caroline Poovelil discovered a passion for pharmaceutical manufacturing in MSD Ballydine during her internship there. She also fell in love with the small town of Clonmel in the process.
Working in her current position as a technical group engineer for over a year and a half, Poovelil has gained a strong appetite for learning and continuous development in this area and will shortly be rotating to a different department on-site.
Here, she talks about how her experience has laid the foundation for this next move.
‘The feeling of being one of the key people involved in converting a chemical compound at an industrial scale into a drug that helps to save and improve people’s lives is just surreal’
– CAROLINE POOVELIL
What first stirred your interest in a career in industrial chemical engineering?
Growing up, I always wanted to be a doctor to help people and save lives. But, when life presented different opportunities and I discovered chemical engineering and the possibility of working in the manufacturing of innovative medicines. Nothing sounded more meaningful or fulfilling! To this day, I still aspire to learn, grow and be challenged in my understanding and experience of active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) production.
What education led you to the role you now have?
In order to access the best education to support my chosen career path, I left my home in Bahrain and moved to Northern Ireland to study at Queen’s University Belfast, where I completed my IChemE-accredited degree in chemical engineering (MEng).
As part of my degree programme, I was offered a year-long internship with MSD Ballydine in the API innovative pharmaceutical technology (IPT) technical group. Although it was challenging trying to secure a placement as a foreign national, MSD was keen to ensure the transition process was as seamless as possible for me and that I had help every step of the way. Having had a positive and enriching experience with the company as a student, I was thrilled to then accept the offer to return to the Tipperary site and avail of their chemical engineering graduate development programme.
What were the biggest surprises or challenges you encountered on your career path?
The API manufacturing sector is fast-paced and constantly evolving. There is truly never a dull moment. Coming out of college, the learning curve was very steep, but the nature of the work we do here really pushes you to stay driven and motivated.
People in the Tipperary site, who work at all levels, are extremely supportive and helpful. There is no such thing as a silly question and it is never too early or late in the day to ask anyone for help or advice.
Was there any one person who was particularly influential as your career developed?
I can think of several people who were instrumental in accelerating the pace of my growth as an engineer.
Shortly after arriving on-site, I felt like I knew nearly everyone working at the company and vice-versa. Building a network across the different departments at MSD Ballydine was almost effortless. I now have several mentors within MSD and the MSD network who I feel I can confidently approach for technical or professional advice.
What do you enjoy about your job?
Working at the very heart of manufacturing medicines is a truly rewarding experience. No two days are the same and you learn something new every day. The feeling of being one of the key people involved in converting a chemical compound at an industrial scale into a drug that helps to save and improve people’s lives is just surreal. I feel privileged to contribute to this effort with MSD.
Another reason why working at MSD Ballydine is so special is the people. Every one of my colleagues is simply stellar. People work extremely hard, but also know how to have fun along the way. The workplace culture is fantastic.
As a student engineer arriving for the first time on-site, I was a bit nervous (as most people are on the first day of their first job), but I still remember how welcomed, reassured and confident I felt leaving home on that first day. It is part of the culture on-site to greet people with a genuine ‘hello’ or to ask others how they are getting on.
Since the start of the pandemic, I have mostly been working on-site, although I do sometimes also work from home. Either way, it’s a joy to witness the team supporting each other to keep spirits high and to celebrate success stories even in the current climate. The company is also putting in significant effort to ensure that everyone is being adequately supported during this time.
I have also fallen in love with the small town of Clonmel where I live, only a 15-minute commute to work every day. There is a local CrossFit gym in town that I regularly attend after work, or used to, before Covid-19, and I really love going there. There is a strong family and community feel to the place.
Tipperary is a great place to live if you enjoy being outdoors as there are lots of mountains, hills, and hidden walks. There is also the stunning Suir Blueway from Clonmel to Carrick-on-Suir that passes by the MSD site, so you can also cycle to work along the beautiful River Suir!
What aspects of your personality do you feel make you suited to this job?
It is essential to be able to build genuine and meaningful relationships with people, no matter what their role is in the organisation. I can think of numerous examples of how this has helped me during my time at MSD Ballydine.
Being a good observer and listener as well as maintaining an appetite for learning and continuous development is also critical, especially in the early stages of your career. When you are busy and working towards a fast-approaching deadline, it can be tempting to rely heavily on managers or more experienced colleagues to get instant answers. However, it is more rewarding in the long run to discover the answer yourself and then check in with your manager to verify it.
How did MSD Ballydine support you on your career path?
It is a great place to work if you are keen to grow and advance in your chosen career area, or even if you want to try something new. I have weekly meetings with my manager to discuss my learning objectives and career goals and we then work together to identify ways to meet them.
As part of my graduate development programme, I will shortly be rotating to a different department on-site where I could either be working in the new product development space or in a formulation facility. This will be a completely new experience and a real benefit of the programme. I’m looking forward to challenging the breadth of my knowledge and experience in a new part of the business.
What advice would you give to those considering a career in industrial chemical engineering, or just starting out in one?
Do not be afraid to dream big. Be confident in your own individual abilities and experiences. Be curious and willing to lean into discomfort if it means you will come out of it as a bigger and better version of yourself. Envision where you want to be in five or 10 years and chart a plan of how you want to get there. Then just work hard and never lose hope!
You will be successful and happy no matter what you choose to do if you believe in yourself and steer a lifelong journey of learning.