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May 26, 2024

Chemical engineer Jean Tom offers guidance for a successful career

By RITWIK RAJ | November 1, 2023


On Friday, Oct. 27, the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering hosted a seminar featuring Executive Director of Development Engineering and Chemistry Process Development at Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) Jean Tom, an accomplished chemical engineer with a distinguished career in the pharmaceutical industry. The seminar provided students with insights into entering the workforce and addressing challenges in their careers.

At BMS, Tom leads a team of chemical engineers developing chemical processes for small-molecule drug candidates. Her work focuses on engineering-targeted and accessible medicine. This involves focusing on materials, devices and delivery as well as understanding the microbiome for delivery. She has played a significant role in bringing 14 pharmaceutical products from Merck and BMS to the market.

In addition, she is known for her contributions to talent outreach, engagement and development.

The seminar began with a discussion of the journey a chemical and biomolecular engineer takes through their career. Tom said this begins with the chemical engineering fundamentals commonly taught in the undergraduate curriculum. The next stage of technical skill involves laboratory experiments, data analysis and modeling simulations. These experiences can be pursued through undergraduate or graduate research, unit operations lab, summer internships and — most importantly — on-the-job training. The last stage is industry-specific knowledge. This includes information on consumer products or pharmaceuticals and is acquired through technical electives and job-specific training.

She then discussed how to know what types of positions you should be looking for in the field. This involves understanding the type of work and its impact along with the company environment and opportunities for self-growth.

“There are no stupid questions. You’ve got to ask. It’s about you contributing to the company and building credibility,” she said. “You have to ask for feedback, look for opportunities in your current assignments and knock the ball out of the ballpark. When you knock things out of the ballpark, that opens up opportunities. Your first years [are] really about setting up long-term success.”

She emphasized that, oftentimes, entry into a company will open other doors. By excelling in one's role, individuals can often unlock additional opportunities and pathways, underscoring the value of dedication and a long-term perspective in one's career.

“Your first job is not your last job. That certainly was true in my case: I took a job, and a year later I was in a completely different industry. If this is an area or company you’re interested in, your entry into the company will open other doors,” she said.

Senior Evan Edelman, who attended the seminar, found the emphasis placed on being open to changing your career path particularly meaningful. 

“My favorite part was the way that [Tom] talked about different routes you can take. There’s not one specific way you can take to achieve something,” Edelman said in an interview with The News-Letter.

Tom went on to describe ideal candidates for positions. She also highlighted self-awareness, maturity and the ability to communicate effectively. She described great candidates as those who understand the mission of the organization, have diverse ideas and opinions and are supportive of learning, transparency, trust and excellence. Tom said they should be able to demonstrate technical strength and professional maturity.

She noted that this does not necessarily mean having a perfect GPA, but rather being able to explain concepts as they are applied to different problems.

The seminar then delved into effective technical leadership. While many people equate managers and leaders with technical excellence, there is also a lot of unseen leadership preparation. According to Tom, this leadership preparation bridges the gap between doing the science and driving the science. It involves setting expectations, understanding communication styles, thinking strategically and having self-awareness as well as emotional intelligence. 

Tom then explained the Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness (DiSC) model for leadership, which depicts four types of leadership/communication styles. Those who are more dominant and influential tend to be active, assertive and bold while those who are more conscientious and steady tend to be calm, thoughtful and reserved. She advised students to focus on these factors to effectively communicate their messages to different people. 

“You are going to work with people who have aspects of all these different communication styles,” Tom said. “Having self-awareness of your natural communication style really helps you learn how to use the other styles and makes you much more effective in your interactions and [when] providing feedback to others.”  

One aspect of Tom’s role as a public communicator at BMS is her involvement in Empowering Women in Chemical Engineering at BMS, which holds tours, seminars and panel discussions for female engineers and students. Through these efforts, Tom hopes to increase their exposure to chemical engineering in the pharmaceutical industry, in light of the underrepresentation of women in the field.

“We had a hypothesis that interaction with a large and diverse group of female professional chemical engineers could really impact students,” Tom said. “We wanted to foster a sense of belonging and pride [in being] a woman in [the] STEM field.”

The next topic of the talk was impostor syndrome. This phenomenon is common among high achievers, women, first-generation students and historically marginalized populations. 

“Impostor phenomenon is [when you believe] everyone else knows so much more than you, but the reality is different. It’s really about reframing your thought process,” she said.

To address this phenomenon, she advised recognizing impostor syndrome when it strikes, writing down your own strengths and accomplishments, building a support network and not being afraid of asking for help.

Tom left the group with closing remarks on succeeding in the working world. She stressed the importance of maintaining a high ethical standard to safeguard one's reputation. Other essential skills are continuously learning to stay current in your field, effective time management, asking for feedback and speaking up for your needs or wants. Along with that, she asked the audience to embrace new challenges and learn from everyone.

“Look for opportunities to learn. Be known for doing your best, no matter what the job is,” she concluded.

Tom is set to retire from the industry at the end of 2023 and will take on the role of distinguished visiting professor of chemical engineering at the University of Virginia in January 2024. She plans to focus on teaching technical leadership to senior engineering students, drawing from her extensive experience in mentoring engineers and scientists.

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