|Member Profile: David Pechter|
Engineering a Career
A fascination for all aspects of science and a life-long practice of surveying the work landscape for new opportunities have served David Pechter well throughout his 30-plus-year-career. He quickly adapts his skills set to suit the prospect.
It was a shaky career launch says Pechter, MSME, a senior principal engineer at Merck Research Laboratories, NJ. After graduation in 1980, he showed up for the first day on his first job at a small wind energy company in Berkeley, CA. The plant was closed.
“I knocked on the door, and the owner, who lived over the factory, poked his head out of the window. ‘Oh, I forgot to call you,’ he says. Uh-oh,” Pechter relates. “He came down and explained to me that he was in a labor dispute, and all hiring was frozen until the labor dispute was resolved. Long story short, I was out of job.”
He observes that it is hard to pick an area and make that your career while still a student and even in the early years of work. “You can’t control events, just how you react to them,” Pechter says. “With that in mind, I would recommend continuously developing your skill set and taking a shot at whatever opportunities come your way.”
As a high school student, all aspects of science fascinated Pechter, who came from an encouraging, yet surprisingly non-science oriented family. His goal when planning for college was to keep many doors open to his various science interests. He attended Haverford College, Haverford, PA, intending to focus on astronomy, but instead majored in physics with a concentration in mathematics. “Along the way, I had the good fortune to take a biology course, as well as quantum chemistry and spectroscopy courses,” he notes. “Little did I know how well they would serve me over the years.”
“This was in the late 1970s, a time when the physics community warned of a big oversupply of new graduates. I concluded that I was going to end up in engineering. I spent some time considering what kind of engineering that would be,” Pechter explains. “This was the time of the energy crisis, and alternative energy and mechanical energy seemed like a calling.”
The switch from physics to engineering was more difficult than he anticipated and eventually led him to the University of California, Berkeley for an engineering science degree in mechanical engineering. “Berkeley is a very theoretical engineering department, and I think that is why there was a fit for someone coming from physics,” Pechter continues. His concentration was in thermal systems, and he assisted research with laser diagnostics of combustion.
“It’s a fine line. You should have to develop expertise when you are young. You need to have a bit of a specialty if you’re in technology,” he explains. When asked if he thinks today’s graduates have enough adaptability, he says yes. “I think kids coming out of school are adaptable. They have seen how problematic life is – the whole economic meltdown, parents who have been laid off who may have had trouble finding work – they see the wider situation. There is not an expectation that there is one simple path.”
Opening the Engineering Door in Lab Automation and Screening
After the near-miss employment incident at the wind energy plant, Pechter established a broad range of engineering experiences that included food equipment, energy, weighing scales, pressure sensors, semiconductor assembly and fiber optics.
In 1991, Pechter saw an ad for a mechanical engineer to work in laboratory automation at Schering-Plough in the research and development engineering department. “It sounded interesting, but I had no idea what that meant,” he admits. His first project was to build a large gantry system for the microbial products screening group. “One of our design constraints was to handle 13-inch square agar plates. My supervisor had purchased a large gantry robot for the job that was so under-designed for the task that we spent two years rebuilding it. That was painful, but a great learning experience.”
Schering-Plough, which would merge with Merck in November 2009, frequently turned to the engineering group with a variety of special projects that continually provided interesting challenges. “You’re supposed to know what you are doing at that point. It’s like they look to you and say: ‘You’re the engineer! You’re supposed to know everything!’” Pechter relates. “The company valued the engineering aspect of the relationship. It seemed like a good, long-term position in which I would have an opportunity to grow intellectually. I sensed that in 10 years, they would be using different tools, and I would have that opportunity to grow into those tools.”
The following years included more robotics and designing small machines for testing inhalers and spray dispensers as well as conducting image analysis for colony counting. He also began programming in Visual Basic, robot code and Basic Stamp microcontrollers. After 10 years in R&D engineering, he decided it was time for a change.
“Many engineering groups within pharmaceutical companies had almost completely disappeared,” Pechter notes. “Merck was one of the last standing. I credit them with having a good manager who had his eye on the big picture and kept the group focused.”
When an opportunity arose for him in microbial products, now called high-throughput screening (HTS), Pechter explored the position. “I thought this move would get me closer to the science and more into the knowledge domain of the company,” he says. “Sometimes in engineering, you are one step removed. You may not understand what it means for your colleagues to conduct their science on a daily basis and what it means to support that. I saw this move as a good place to be. I was willing to take that risk.”
His HTS colleagues were considering buying an Aurora ultra-high-throughput system (UHTS), which Pechter describes as a large-scale effort using factory-scale automation, the ultra-miniaturized 3456-well microplate and innovative biology to create an ultra-high-throughput screening system. He knew that there was a significant engineering component to Aurora and wanted to be part of it. “In anticipation of bringing in Aurora, I transferred over to the HTS group. As it turned out, we never bought the Aurora system. I was the first, last and only Aurora employee at Schering,” he says.
In spite of this, he was glad he made the move. When the Aurora door closed, he began work with fluorescent imaging plate readers (FLIPR). “That opened up a whole new area to me: cell culture, cell based assays and detection. I brought Twister II robots into the department for plate loading and developed a custom interface for them. This got me closer to the data side,” Pechter comments. From that first involvement with Twisters, he became steadily more involved with data formatting, using XML, data analysis and visualization. This led him into more sophisticated programming for high content screening, UHTS data monitoring, Pipeline Pilot scripting and, most recently, Spotfire analyses.
“Right now, my role is as an individual contributor supporting the in vitro pharmacology group in Kenilworth with ad hoc programming, data analysis tools, mechanical design, logistics and project management,” Pechter continues. “As far as overcoming obstacles, I think that I have moved into new environments and kept developing my skills. I learned programming, robotics, mechanical design and data handling on the job.”
He notes that a few years later the engineering group he was previously a part of was closed. Because he made his move earlier, he had better controlled the direction of his career. “I didn’t want to get to the point in which there were no possibilities. You have to visualize the time ahead and ask yourself ‘Am I still connected to the flow of events here?’ You want to be close to the beating heart of the company,” Pechter continues. His early career lesson taught him to move before the wave could catch him off his feet.
“The challenge is: You make these decisions and you have to make them work,” he explains. “Being here has helped me. Schering/Merck is an intellectual environment. I have found that the company values my contribution.”
After Hours Pursuits
Like many parents with absorbing, full-time work, Pechter found that his three children’s formative years nicely filled his free time. While he and his wife always found time to enjoy each other’s company by taking walks and traveling, it wasn’t until the nest began to empty that he had time for other pursuits.
“With my kids growing up, I started to look outside for activities. About eight years ago I started to work with the Laboratory Robotics Interest Group (LRIG) Mid Atlantic Chapter,” he says. “It is a good way to stay connected to my regional automation community. Like many things, it takes on a life of its own, but I would say that feeling of being connected has persisted. There is also a sense of accomplishment in collaborating with LRIG colleagues to organize our annual events.”
Pechter recently coordinated the group’s 18th annual technology exhibition and meeting held this year in May in New Brunswick, NJ. The event hosted more than 400 participants who benefitted from more than 20 podium presentations, 60 exhibitor booths and a student poster competition.
"I find that coordinating this type of event is tapping into a side of me that I wasn’t sure was there,” comments Pechter, who notes that his fist venture into event planning occurred several years ago when he worked on his parents 50th wedding anniversary celebration. “This is something that I have been growing into in my personal life.”
Pechter finds SLAS and LRIG memberships complement one another. “For me, LRIG is an organizational outlet that keeps me connected locally and regionally. My involvement in SLAS is on the journal side, so it is more about writing, communicating and ideas,” he says.
He became involved with the Journal of Laboratory Automation (JALA), and that led to an invitation to serve on the editorial board for the past six years. “I took this on as a new challenge, and it has been a learning experience,” he notes. “It stretches some capabilities that I don’t use that often in my work.” One of Pechter’s earliest contributions to JALA was to serve as guest editor for a special issue on biosafety and biosecurity.
“Scholarly publishing is not a specialty of mine,” Pechter explains. “I thought that I was going to team with someone else in this role and learn the ropes, but it turned out that person couldn’t do it. So I ended up as the sole editor, and that was also a good opportunity to do something different.”
Pechter recently accepted an opportunity to serve as JALA podcast editor, a new initiative that will feature six podcasts, one per issue, each about 10 minutes in length, at JALA Online. Each podcast features an informal Q&A/conversation between Pechter and the author of each issue’s cover feature story. The first JALA podcast, featuring the authors of Automation of Cell-Based Drug Absorption Assays in 96-Well Format Using Permeable Support Systems, was posted in early June. Pechter encourages SLAS members to look for the next JALA podcast installation in August.
“Discussing the articles is intellectually stimulating. In my role as podcast editor, I read articles that I may not have read otherwise, and I definitely read them from a new perspective. It is a different mindset than I use for critiquing them as an editorial board member. I am not looking for what is in it for me, but what I should bring out and explore to get other people interested,” he says.
Pechter notes that engineering’s evolving role in laboratory automation reflects how the profession fits into SLAS membership. For an engineer trying to stay current in a time of rapid change, SLAS offers a valuable forum to present original work and explore the work of colleagues across a range of disciplines.
“The engineering of lab automation is founded on engineering fundamentals, but also is very much informed and motivated by the modern methods of biological science,” Pechter observes.
Pechter notes that engineering involvement in laboratory automation has changed a lot in 20 years. “When I started in lab automation, the big pharmaceutical companies had large internal engineering departments. Those internal engineers, working alongside scientists, had opportunities to work as investigators on specific technical challenges that were, at the time, front and center in lab automation,” he continues. This involvement, in turn, engaged engineers in professional publications and societies.
As in-house engineering departments began to dissolve, the work once done there continued within product companies. “There are so many things that used to be custom-engineered that are now products,” Pechter explains. “In my mind, this change is a sign of the technical maturation of labware, software, robotics, liquid handling and detection technologies.”
Pechter believes also that the revolution in communications and informatics makes outsourcing of custom projects much more feasible than in the days of faxes and blueprints. This also can tend to separate the engineers from the scientists.
“Clearly, today's scientists have very technically sophisticated tools in their hands,” Pechter says. “Approaching the issue from another vantage point, that sophistication may mean that the challenges facing engineers developing next-generation mass-specs, liquid handlers, PCR readers and so on have become somewhat abstracted from the issues of laboratory science.”
While he doesn’t think this trend is good or bad, he does think that the product managers and application scientists at those product companies need to keep the big picture in mind and bring new requirements back to engineering to guide further development. “It may be that, besides the changes in the pharmaceutical industry and outsourcing, technical maturity itself has resulted in a new layer or two separating much of the intense engineering from the execution of the science,” Pechter continues. “There are new developing areas such as point-of-care testing, 3D cell culture, microfluidics, etc., where engineers are shoulder-to-shoulder with scientists. Engineers doing this type of work are closer to the scientific initiative, and it makes sense that we will see their work in the journals.”
Pechter compares the transformation of laboratory automation to the transition from mainframe computers to smart phones. “The underlying technology may not be that different for smartphones and mainframes, but how, where and by whom that technology is developed, supported and applied is different," he notes.
Shaping the Future
Pechter takes an active role in shaping future engineers. Even though his own children have long graduated from Ewing (NJ) High School, Pechter continues to mentor students there through For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), a nonprofit organization that inspires young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. Ewing’s FIRST club established a combined robotics team between Ewing High School and the Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf. Pechter has served as a technology mentor for FIRST for five years, showing kids the basics of engineering, beginning with design.
“Kids don’t understand that you have to design things to make them,” he says. “They understand putting something together, but they didn’t understand design. By seeing it done and being involved, each student takes on what they can,” he says.
Pechter logs numerous hours during the seasons, which run from January through April, as well as in the off-seasons. “Last year I built a computer numerical control (CNC) router for our team and last summer collaborated with a nearby team to run a summer camp for computer aided design (CAD) and CNC,” he shares.
He is inspired by young people interested in science, and, in particular, by one student, A.J. Ryan, from the Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf. To work around the student’s hearing disability, Pechter learned a few American Sign Language (ASL) symbols: “I can count and learned to say ‘careful!’ in ASL,” he says with a chuckle.
He concedes that there are communication issues, no matter who the student is. “What is important is to create many levels in which many students can plug into the project. You can’t have only the ‘Star Level’ for the kid who is going to Stanford. That’s not everybody.”
Before A.J. got involved, Pechter remembers that there was a student with multiple physical disabilities in the program. “He had limited hearing and speech, was in a wheelchair – several things were going on. I didn’t understand what was happening with this student or how the program was impacting him. I heard later that his father gave an emotional account of how this program transformed his son. Now his son has plans to go to law school. It was such a lesson! In regard to every one of our students, we don’t know what’s going on under the hood. They don’t tell us. They are teenagers. You can’t judge them by what’s going on externally. We have to put the program out there and model our profession.”