CENTENARY BLOG: Spotlight on Health

Every month throughout our centenary year, we will be asking an IChemE member to write a blog about each of the centenary themes. The themes have been selected to highlight and celebrate the enormous contribution that chemical engineering has made to society over the last century.

IChemE member Elizabeth Cheeseman, who was part of the editorial panel looking at health, picks out her choices of elements to celebrate, communicate and inspire.

Name: Elizabeth Cheeseman

Job title and organisation: Process engineer, Norbrook Laboratories Limited

IChemE role: Member of the ChemEng Evolution Health Panel

Bio: Process engineer familiar with stem cell processes and traditional pharmaceutical dose forms. Living and working in Northern Ireland, producing veterinary pharmaceuticals. Part-time farmer.

Without chemical engineering facilitating the mass production of pharmaceuticals, millions of us would have died from simple infections. Since the early 20th Century, chemical engineers have been behind the success of many large pharmaceutical companies and continue to push boundaries through biochemical engineering.

The roles of future chemical engineers in advancing healthcare are many and varied, from ensuring safe, efficient and sustainable methods of production, to working with researchers on the new frontiers of personalised medicine. Problem solving at the interface of biology, chemistry and engineering offers exciting and inspired opportunities for young engineers to meet the challenges of global healthcare over the coming decades.

I have been asked to select three elements from within the theme to celebrate, communicate and inspire – here are my highlights:

Celebrate

  • The contribution of chemical engineers to the health and wealth of nations. From the golden age of the 1900’s in the development of the pharmaceutical industry to the current industry advancements leading to a rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic, chemical engineers have improved efficiency, reduced cost and developed safe pharmaceutical manufacturing methods with minimal environmental impact.
  • Widespread availability of mass-produced drugs like paracetamol and penicillin thanks to chemical engineers. When penicillin was first discovered, it wasn’t possible to produce enough drugs to treat a single patient. Today, there are billions of daily doses of antibiotics per year.
  • Varied career opportunities for graduate chemical engineers in the UK, Ireland and worldwide.

Communicate

  • The potential for modular facilities for more flexible approaches to pharmaceutical production. This has the potential to reduce manufacturing footprints and ultimately cost.
  • Chemical engineering skills are applicable to tackling broad health issues in unexpected ways, working in cross-functional teams such as for alcohol and drug responses.
  • In times of warfare, stemming the spread of disease through drug availability was as critical as planning for battles. An example of this was Australia’s victory at the Battle of Kokoda.

Inspire

  • The developments of medical gases helping patients to breathe (inspire) which has been indispensable in the recent COVID 19 pandemic. Prior to the availability of medical gasses, doctors had very few options to treat patients who struggled to breathe.
  • Chemical engineers will enable widespread availability of the next generation of pharmaceuticals, for example stem cell therapies and biologics. Availability of these advanced products are limited currently due to high costs, and chemical engineers will no doubt be critical to advancing their supply by the development of scaled-up processes.
  • Holistic approaches, “systems thinking” and understanding people may be as important to leading improvements as understanding the production processes.

Thank you for reading my highlights. I encourage you to visit the health section of the ChemEng Evolution website to find out more.


Get involved in the health debate and register for our webinar panel discussion to be held on 14 September at 08:30 BST entitled ‘Future health – the chemical engineer’s role’. We welcome curiosity, debate and conversation – everyone is invited to participate. Register now to reserve your place. If you are unable to join live, a recording will be available via the ChemEng Evolution website after the event.  

For more information on IChemE’s centenary, visit www.chemengevolution.org or follow #ChemEngEvolution on social media.  

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