New Matter: Inside the Minds of SLAS Scientists

Career Trajectories | Adapting to Automation Kalpesh Gupta, M.S. (Sponsored by Benchling)

January 22, 2024 Kalpesh Gupta, M.S. Episode 166
New Matter: Inside the Minds of SLAS Scientists
Career Trajectories | Adapting to Automation Kalpesh Gupta, M.S. (Sponsored by Benchling)
Show Notes Transcript

Our guest for this Career Trajectories episode is Kalpesh Gupta, M.S., Associate Director of Research Automation at Moderna. Kalpesh shares his journey from a childhood shaped by traditional career expectations in India to becoming a key player in laboratory automation at one of the world's leading biotech companies.

Kalpesh recounts the early years of working at Moderna and the company's unprecedented growth.  He also shares some of the challenges and rewards of being part of a company with a mission to impact global health, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kalpesh offers valuable advice to those considering a career in laboratory automation, emphasizing the importance of initiative and proactive learning. His thoughts on success, focusing on impact, continuous learning, and personal fulfillment, provide a thoughtful perspective on career achievements.

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To learn more,  visit: Benchling.com

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Hannah Rosen: 

Hello everyone and welcome to New Matter, the SLAS podcast where we interview life science luminaries. I'm your host, Hannah Rosen, and today we will be continuing our series on career trajectories. Our guest today is Kalpesh Gupta, Associate Director of Research Automation at Moderna. Thank you for joining us. 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

Happy to be here. Thanks for inviting. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Ohh, our pleasure. So, to start us off, can you kind of tell us a little bit about, you know, when you were a kid, what did you think you wanted to be when you grew up? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

As most of the kids, I didn't know what I wanted to be, on a day-today basis it can change; sometimes I wanted to be a doctor, sometimes I wanted to be engineer, sometimes I wanted to be a sports person because we were playing cricket and I loved to do that. I remember my father was very particular about what he wanted me and my brother to be. He wanted one of them to be an accountant and the other one to be an engineer. As a kid, I was always fascinated with things and how they work, so I used to take them apart. Interestingly, at that time I didn't know that engineering has several different fields, but now looking back at it, it seems that with my father persuasiveness and me having interest with the mechanics, I became an engineer. 

Hannah Rosen: 

OK. How did you feel about that? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

As I was mentioning earlier, it's just upbringing. It was never like that OK, you have to question or it is something do I want to do? It was from, I say maybe 3rd or 4th grade like, after elementary it was that OK, I will be an engineer, so that was the thing I was supposed to do. 

Hannah Rosen: 

OK. Yeah. So, you just were like, alright, this is the career path, and we're gonna do it. That's awesome. So, you kind of answered this question already, but I was wondering, you know, if you had anybody who really kind of significantly guided you on your career journey. It sounds like your father really kind of not just guided you, but put you on the path. But did you have any other mentors when you were growing up? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

Over the course of my lifetime, I have several different mentors, which include some managers and some friends. In school, I listened to my friends a lot. I have a friend who was very good with me on taking things apart and he helped me to move more into engineering. While on my professional side, I have managers who help me a lot to think about how I can take ownership or how I can be better with the people and that helped me to reach to my current stage. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Well, that's awesome. So as a peer of yours, that actually really helped guide your career, that's really cool and unusual. So can you tell us a little bit about, you know, your experience with college and how did you choose what type of engineer you wanted to be? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

So that's a really interesting thought, or an interesting thing happened. Like, when I graduated my high school at that time for engineering track software engineering was the most booming in India. Like, everyone was doing that and the thought in my mind is that everyone is doing, so I'm not sure if we will have jobs and those things. And biotech was pretty new, especially in the part of India I was, but we are the first patch of biotechnology in bachelors degree. So, the thought was OK, let's take this. It's new, there will be a lot of more jobs and those things, not knowing what entails in biotechnology. But it was just something new and different, so that made me move to biotechnology. 

Hannah Rosen: 

That's interesting. Were you correct? Did you feel like you had a lot of job opportunities when you finished? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

So, that was very wrong because, as I was mentioning, it was new. It was funny because like, the last two years of the syllabus was designing when we were doing our studies. So, it was a little tough and especially at the end because it was so new, there were not a lot of jobs, and that was one of the reasons which motivated me to start looking for other things. Some of my friends did higher studies in India, but at the same time I thought, what are the chances that in next 3-4 years the opportunity will grow in India? So that's why I moved to US and did my masters here. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Ah, sounds smart. Did you get a lot of, you know, I'm not that familiar with the college programs in India, were they're like, internship opportunities or research opportunities? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

There were intern opportunities and actually I did two internships in India in two different universities. But it was a little bit different internships than here. Over there, it's mostly you go to a company and you are told that, OK, you do this. But first for one of my internship I just learned western blots for the whole time, not knowing what is Western blot, because at that time we were not taught Western blot, so it was funny it was like OK, this thing you do. So, we did that and that's where it was like, it was really interesting to see. Also the other thing was that there is also in India called B. Pharma, which is the degree which most of the people used to go to the pharma industry and there was nothing related to biotechnology. 

Hannah Rosen: 

OK. So, is that a different training program? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

Yes, it's a different measure. 

Hannah Rosen: 

So, what was it like then coming to the United States and doing your masters here? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

I think it was different and very unexpected, because before coming to here the only way I know US was through movies, which we know is not true. So, when I landed, and I went to Northeastern, and I went to North East and in the houses in the front of Northeastern was like, what happened? So that was a really big shock in that way, where it's like, OK, at that time you were young, so it's like, ohh, what's going on? On the same thing, it was a little bit shocking because over here the curriculum is very, very light compared to India. In India like, for my college I was in college from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM and we have like, 10 or 12 different courses. Meanwhile came here, I'm like, what's going on? Also, at the same time the cultural stuff where like, in that class you can eat, or you can sit like, those all things were very very new and very different because in India it's not like, yeah, you are in a college, you have to sit properly, you have to do... so all those things were very different. And also suddenly I have a lot of time on my hands because it was like, I was taking nine credit, which is 3 courses, versus in India it was 10 courses, so I had a lot of time. And as an immigrant, due to Visa rules you can only work 20 hours part time job. So I said OK, and let's do that because I have so much time on my hand. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Wow. So, what did you do for work while you're doing your masters? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

Actually I did several jobs like, one of the job I did librarian, where we were help desk. One of the other job was being guard at the dorms. So, it was interesting to do all these different kinds of job and seeing that completely different culture.  

Hannah Rosen: 

That's so interesting because I think that there's many, most people who were born and raised in the United States would not go to a masters program and say, oh so much free time. 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

That's true.  

Hannah Rosen: 

Yeah. That's so funny. So, when you finished grad school and you were looking for work, what were you looking for in an employer? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

When I was graduated, I'm not sure if I say luckily or unluckily, but I graduated in 2008, and we know it was the Great Recession. So, at that time my job, it was my first job, so my goal was not to look at an employer, my goal was to just get a job. So, I was looking for a company where I can learn a lot and do it. Luckily, when I was in Northeastern there is an internship program and I did that at EMD Serono. And my boss over there, he moved to a new smaller company called Adnexus, which later bought by BMS. So, there he moved and I asked him and he said, yeah, I have an opening. And he interviewed me and I got the job. So, I was really lucky to be, in a way, like, as I said, I know I was lucky. I was not lucky to be graduated in 2008, but it was good. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Well, I'm glad it worked out for you because yeah, I think most people would call that unlucky. So, was that what kind of got you into laboratory automation was just the necessity of, I need a job and that was the job you got?  

Kalpesh Gupta: 

Yes. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Did you end up enjoying it? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

Ohh yeah, I loved it. It was like, a small company, it was less than 200 people. And it was like, I joined a group which was the starting group. So, I got to do everything from molecular biology to protein characterization, so, doing molecular biology, cloning protein expression, potent E coli and then doing the protein purification. So, in my 3 years over there I've learned a lot, so I'm definitely grateful for the opportunity and the introduction to the world of science. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Yeah, that's great. It seems like, you know, a lot of people who are doing work in laboratory automation kind of make their start in life sciences, you know, doing life science research and then they kind of start moving over into automation. Do you have, like, what is your advice to people who are looking to make that transition, and what do they need to know before they can kind of make the transition into automation science? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

Yeah. So, you brought is a really good point because half of my team currently are scientists, including me and most of the people, we've switched from science. The one thing, the biggest advice from my side for anyone who's looking to switch is to take initiative, because for most of the places where you are working as a scientist and you want to, you have to take initiative. In my example, I asked my manager one day what is this machine and why it's sitting? And he's like, I don't know, you want to figure it out? I'm like, sure. And then I start tinkering with it, I reach out to Hamilton, we have this machine, what we can do. And they were really helpful, they help me to learn the machine. I programmed it, and I think, from that day I touched the machine, in four months I gave my first method to my manager who pretty much, I made it to do all what I was doing, so that was really helpful and that was the start of my automation journey because after that it's like yeah, ohh it can do that and that. And so, I think the biggest take away will be, be proactive. Don't sigh, ask questions or ask can you put some more efforts? 

Hannah Rosen: 

Were you at all concerned, you said that you programmed it to basically do the job you were doing. Were you concerned that like, ohh, no, have I just, you know, engineered myself out of a job? Or were you trying to set yourself up for a different job? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

I was not worried because again, as I was mentioning I was the only person who programming, so I was like, OK, if anything happened... But yeah, I think if my goal was, by that time it was almost six years in the lab, and I realized that this is not the part which I want to do for my whole life. So, I was looking for a way where I can move out of the lab but stay connected and this, after doing first programming, it seems that this is the way and that's why I go. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Well, what are some of the biggest challenges that you faced in trying to essentially self-teach the laboratory automation? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

I think, biggest challenge is there is no resources out there other than the companies like, for software engineers you do slack or, not slack sorry, you do Google and you find answers like, half of my software engineers tools says that yeah, we can find answers on Google. There is nothing like that for automation engineer, anything for automation. You have to go to the vendor. You have like, luckily, there are vendors who are very helpful and happy to help, but then there are vendors who just don't help, and so it's really hard to learn because there is no resource out there nowadays. I know there are some people who are working on making it open source or putting more resources, but ten years ago there was no resources, so that was the biggest challenge we had. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Yeah, I mean that's pretty surprising because ten years ago, I feel like it wasn't that long ago. I would have expected there'd be something out there for you. So, what made you decide then to move on and start working at Moderna? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

At my previous company, once I start automating we quickly bought like, five or six different Hamiltons and we automated several processes. But after that, whenever next time I talk to people that we should buy more or automate more, it's like oh, we don't have resources or we don't have money to do it. So, it was very clear that my career trajectory was stalled around that area. So, my next move was to start looking outside and when I was looking outside, at that time Moderna was a pretty young company, but they proved that they believe in automation and automation is their fundamental. So that's where I talk to the people here and find out. And that's when I said, OK, it's time to move. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Was there a reason why you chose to work for a smaller company like Moderna versus a a much larger company that already was well established? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

Yes, the biggest reason is that my first job was with a smaller company and I really like the culture over there because you have a lot of growth opportunity. At the same time, you have time to learn more and grow more. At the same time, my biggest thing is that, in a large company, it's hard to find a time CEO or know who is CEO, C-Suite is. But in like, my previous, at Adnexus, we had a C-Suite who used to sit with us for lunch or used to meet with us, which was always interesting. So, when I interview, that's one of the reason I was looking for small startup. And luckily when I was interviewing at Moderna at that time, the CEO interviewed me. So, I was like, OK, if they are interviewing people at my level, and so they are definitely want good talent and there is a lot of opportunities. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Is that something that you would, you know, if there's somebody out there who's maybe, you know, recently graduated and they're trying to to make their job search and choose what sort of company to work for, you know, would you advise them to, what type of person would you advise to to look for a smaller company? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

I say that for that, for anyone who is choosing, there are a lot of different factors to consider. First of all, I say that, like, you have to consider the culture of the company because there are places where you can learn a lot, but it will be hectic, but there are concerns where you can work and enjoy work life balance. Similarly, there is what type of work you are doing, because to me, the type of work is more important than the size of the company. At the same time, job security, because one, when you start looking, smaller companies, there is always a risk of not getting enough funding. And so I say it's a combination of some of these factors, and everyone should try to do their research. The other important thing is that it's always a good idea to try to talk to someone who is working in that industry or in that company, because even in bigger companies I know that there are some smaller groups which are really well organized or really well communicated. So, in that scenario, maybe you are going to a bigger company, but then you have a culture of a small startup or a small company within that. So, it's always a good idea to try to talk to someone who's working in that company. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Yeah, that's some great advice. So, obviously Moderna has gone through some explosive growth as a company over the past four years. And so, I was wondering if you could speak a little bit, you know, what has that been like as an employee to be a part of this company that has really just blown up so much over such a short period of time. 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

So, it has been rewarding to be a part of the company which works on the mission to impact so many people possible with mRNA medicine. With COVID we were able to save so many lives, so definitely it's rewarding. I say, in my opinion the biggest challenge in exploding is hiring. As you guys know that we hired more than 3000 people in less than three years. So, it's like, hiring 1000 people per year is a big task. And while doing that, making sure that we are completing that task needed. So, in my opinion, that was the biggest challenge to accommodate. Also, when you are hiring for a good culture, you want to be sure the people you are hiring are smart so, doing more interviews and finding right people is always tough. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Did that change the company culture at all? Do you feel like, you know, having so many new people all of a sudden added into the workforce? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

Actually, Moderna put a lot of effort on that part and making sure that the culture stays the same. We have a lot of different steps put in place to make sure that the culture don't change, and I'm happy to say that it didn't change it. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Well, that's very impressive. I would give a big hand to Moderna for putting in that effort cause I could imagine that that's not a small feat at all. 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

Definitely took a lot of effort, yeah. 

Hannah Rosen: 

So, what are some of the things that you enjoy most about your day-to-day work? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

My like, the biggest thing which I enjoyed or I am proud of is I can like, a lot of time people heard that, OK, we released medicine so quickly, but people don't realize what it takes in the back, and that's where I'm proud that I can proudly say that a medicine which came out, indirectly I have a hand in there, because we have the whole automation system was in place before COVID. So, when it happened, we used our automation system and, somewhere indirectly I help the company, so that's what I'm very proud of. In day-to-day, it's always great when you look at the scientist and you can automate this, and this can save me this much hours of my hand, that's always rewarding because a lot of time people think ohh, as you were mentioning, that by automating I'm replacing their job. And that's one thing I tell, automation never replaces your job, it makes your life easier to do better things. Actually, we were having a discussion about this one time that all these scientists and people who took that work, and then they come and they start doing pipetting, that's what not they paid for and that's not what they want to do. So, once we start automating, then they're like ohh, I can do more, and then they also feel appreciated and they can feel that, oh, I have more things other than just, like, an example of ELIZA, like, people are pipetting daily, that's not what you graduated to do for, so that's always rewarding. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Yeah, I think that's such a good point, because I feel like it's common among, you know, scientists, where we go to school and you think, you have a vision of what being a scientist, the lab scientist will be like, and then you graduate and you realize, ohh, it's a lot of repetitive tasks like pipetting. And now it almost seems like with automation we are getting people closer to the vision of what they thought being a scientist would really be like. 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

Yes, definitely. And that's where it's rewarding because like, you are helping others achieving their goals. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Yeah, that's really fantastic. So, speaking of which, you know, I'd love to hear a little bit about your perspective on what does success look like for you? You know, how will you know that you are being successful in your job or in your career? 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

So I say, again, there are several factors to say what is success. In my opinion, the first one is impact. Are you impacting or how you are impacting the world with your job, which is to me very important. The other thing is continuous learning. Are you learning anything new? Because if not, then you are the smartest person, and do you want to be smartest? It's always a good idea to learn. And then on top of that, it's personal fulfillment. Like, do you feel that you achieve something in your life or in your day? So, to me, those are at least three points where I count as success and I'm happy to say that I am doing all of those. 

Hannah Rosen: 

Ohh, wonderful. I love to hear that, that's so great. Well Kalpesh, it's been really fun having you on the podcast, I feel like I've learned so much about your journey and about what it's like to be a lab automation engineer. And so I really appreciate you coming on and sharing your story with us, and can't wait to see you at future SLAS events. 

Kalpesh Gupta: 

Thanks a lot for inviting, and it was a really nice experience talking to you. 

 

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