Arun Tholudur received his PhD in 1998 under the direction of ChBE Professor Fred Ramirez, exploring advanced modeling and optimization techniques applied to bioprocesses. Specifically, he investigated artificial neural networks in combination with fundamental mass balance equations to model cell growth and protein production. These networks were coupled with dynamic programming algorithms to maximize protein production.
Now director of the Process Engineering Group at Amgen here in Colorado, Arun has remained active with ChBE as a member of the ChBE External Advisory Board and guest lecturer.
Arun recently shared these reflections on CU and his career.
What is your most vivid ChBE-related memory from your time as a graduate student?
My everlasting memory from graduate school has to be the support provided by my advisor, Professor Fred Ramirez. I had fallen in love with control systems when exposed to these concepts as part of my bachelor’s in chemical engineering in India. When I came to CU and started to work for Professor Ramirez, we were focused on deterministic modeling and optimization of those models. A chance conversation with a fellow graduate student from aerospace engineering introduced me to artificial neural networks. I looked into it and proposed that this may be a useful modeling tool. Fred, who had not worked on neural networks previously, was not only supportive, but very enthusiastic. Needless to say, we were both learning along the way. I would walk into Fred’s office with a pile of things I had tried the previous week and did not work, but would walk out of his office inspired with the new ideas and pointers for different approaches that fueled me to keep going. This was in the mid to late '90s, in the throes of the dot-com era, when the peer pressure to move into and be a part of the computer software technology revolution was huge. Fred, with his patience and years of multifaceted experience, provided incredible support that ultimately helped me persevere to the finish line for my PhD.
What advice would you give to current students?
I think there are three skills, in addition to technical competency which is obviously the minimum bar and an absolute expectation, that are critical whether one aspires to stay in academia or industry.
Whether you are an undergraduate or a graduate student, make the best use of the tremendous infrastructure that’s around you. Additionally, don’t forget the social aspects of interaction, especially around communication and networking. Technical competence coupled with drive and interpersonal skills are an ideal recipe for success. All of this takes work but nothing in life comes easy and it is well worth the effort.
You have stayed active with ChBE and are a member of the department’s External Advisory Board. How do you think the department has changed in the years since you were a graduate student?
The growth in the department has been phenomenal. It looks like there’s been a passing of the baton with more than half of the faculty having less than five to eight years in the department. The new building is truly impressive – I joked recently that my PhD timeline would be longer than expected if I were a graduate student today; the facilities rival or exceed many industry laboratories. I think the department has accomplished a lot in its history and is poised for exciting successes in the coming years.
What has life after graduate school entailed for you?
I was fortunate to collaborate with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) as part of my graduate work, specifically on developing models for and optimizing the production of cellulase usingTrichoderma reesei. I did post-doctoral research there for about a year after graduating. I then moved to North Carolina and worked at a biotechnology Contract Manufacturing Organization (CMO) called Diosynth, where I worked on upstream process development for biotherapeutic manufacturing. That was a fantastic and fast-paced introduction to this exciting industry. After a six-year stint there, I moved to Amgen in Colorado, where I currently head the Process Engineering department within the Process Development organization. The Process Engineering department is responsible for scale-up and implementation and continued support of manufacturing processes for Amgen’s late stage pipeline and commercial products. Personally, I am now married and have four kids: a nine-year old and seven-year-old triplets. My wife and I alternately revel in and get confused by the chaos this entails, but overall marvel at how unexpectedly eventful life can be.
Can you describe one particularly interesting project you have worked on in industry?
One project that stands out is a more recent one – the last project I led prior to taking on my current role. This involved the technology transfer and process characterization of a biotherapeutic that is currently in late-stage clinical trials. This required scale-up of a protein refold step to 20,000L, as well as the establishment of rigorous small-scale models for process characterization. There were numerous technical as well as logistical challenges. We used a wide variety of tools such as computational fluid dynamics modeling, experimental determination of mass transfer coefficients, and multiple small-scale models for process characterization to be successful on all fronts. Many CU and CSU graduates who now work at Amgen were part of this team. It was truly a privilege to lead and be a part of this high performing team.