BioBuilder Career Conversation: Jacqueline Fidanza Transcript

Natalie Kuldell (00:03):

Hi, Jackie, how are you?

Jacqueline Fidanza (00:05):

I’m good. How are you?

Natalie Kuldell (00:07):

I’m great. I’m really happy to have a chance to talk with you a little bit about the work you do, which I think is so interesting. Um, before I get ahead of myself, maybe you can introduce yourself and say where you work and a little bit about your job.

Jacqueline Fidanza (00:22):

Sure. Well, first I wanna thank you and your entire team for inviting me here today. This is really an exciting opportunity for me. Um, so my name is Jackie Fidanza. I am the VP of operations at Twist Bioscience. And for those of you that don’t know Twist Bioscience, we make DNA – in every format you can think of <laugh>

Natalie Kuldell (00:48):

It’s so great. And, something to make, right? Like, <laugh> it’s sort of a new idea that you can make DNA, right? People probably have heard about reading DNA, but the idea that you can actually write it and make it, and it’s a thing that you can produce, that’s I think where Twist really has upped the game. So, how long have you been at Twist?

Jacqueline Fidanza (01:09):

I’ve been here seven years. I joined pretty early on in the company’s organization. They were founded eight years ago. And, to the point that you just made, you know, we think about reading DNA and now that we have all of the sequencing information, there are a ton of applications that you could do if you could actually make DNA. And that’s really where our founders got together. They were talking about this, like, how can you, you know, create DNA for the mass, if you will. And they came up with this idea for this silicon-based platform for DNA synthesis. And we call the machines, our writers, because we are actually writing DNA one base at a time in a very high throughput, uh, parallel manner. And, it’s a pretty disruptive technology. And the goal is to, you know, industrialize the engineering of biology.

Natalie Kuldell (02:15):

Yeah. I mean, I think of it like the concrete in the construction business, right? Like it is so fundamental to everything you want to do in this field, the ability to have, de novo, what you want as DNA sequence, uh, at the ready. So, I think you guys are advancing the whole field in many, many ways. Now, your job though, do you, um, why don’t you say a little about your job and your role at Twist?

Jacqueline Fidanza (02:48):

We believe that DNA is the future of everything. And so, the focus of our company really is on the manufacturing of DNA and DNA-based products. We want to enable our customers to do whatever it is that they want to explore. And so if we can make those building blocks for them, that provides a great platform for them to do their job. So my job in operations is actually, it’s a fun job because I get to literally interact with everybody in the company. So under the umbrella of operations, I have all of the DNA manufacturing. And so some of that is both the upfront manufacturing of the DNA itself and then also the downstream products that we manufacture, such as Oligo pools, gene fragments, clonal genes, DNA libraries, DNA that we then transform into antibodies.

Jacqueline Fidanza (03:58):

So I have all of the manufacturing functions under me. I also have the supply chain. So in order to make all of these things, we have to really understand what materials do we need at scale? All the assets equipment. So my supply chain team handles everything that we need to make our products at scale. I’ve got the warehouse team who manages all of our inventory and delivers materials to the lab on a day-to-day basis. They actually deliver materials to both the manufacturing teams, as well as everyone in R&D. I have the order fulfillment team who, once we make all of this stuff, they work with the various production lines to package everything and ship it out to our customers. And I also have the quality functions, which are the QC team, which really looks at all the quality control of all the different steps in our production processes, as well as endpoint, you know, does this gene meet the specifications that we promised the customer, as well as the QA function.

Jacqueline Fidanza (05:15):

And we’ve just recently started to build out an operational excellence team. And their role is to really help us figure out how to do everything we do better. And so in order to figure out what to make, you know, we get our incoming orders from our customers. They send us literally an Excel file of DNA sequences. And then we take those sequences and put them on our writers and start the entire process, and then ultimately ship that material out the door. We get information from the sales team in terms of trends that they see coming out in the field when they’re talking to customers. And, members of my team are also on our core teams, where we are looking at new product introductions. So, we’re looking at applications that are sort of evolving out there in the world. Our sales teams are telling us, hey, we need to make a product like this to service this market. And the business development team figures out the priorities and then my team partners with the R&D teams and the tech transfer teams to figure out how do we get that idea into a product that we can sell to a customer?

Natalie Kuldell (06:34):

Oh my gosh. You know, I was thinking, I was going to ask you, what is your favorite part of your job, but with so many, I think that might be an impossible task. So maybe I’ll ask you, how do you keep it all straight? Like, how do you decide what to do first when you come in at the office?

Jacqueline Fidanza (06:53):

Well, actually, that’s a great question. I run our daily operations meetings. So as you can imagine, we are, let me take a step back. We’re a 24/7 operation. So, it truly never stops: nights, weekends, holidays. We have team members that are here making products for our customers and in part, because the market is so competitive, that we know we have to deliver product to the customers quickly. And also as, you know, a lot of the biological processes take a long time, you know, you’re cloning a gene, you have to wait for those growth cycles. And so you can’t stop and wait until tomorrow, if it’s done growing at three o’clock in the morning, someone’s gotta be there to take it to the next step. So every morning at eight o’clock, I run an operations meeting, which has all of my team, so all the team functional groups that I’ve mentioned, plus customer support, technical support, sometimes some of the sales team join the meeting, some of the software bioinformatics and the team that runs our manufacturing execution system.

Jacqueline Fidanza (08:19):

Which is how we keep track of everything. We have a morning meeting from eight to nine and we discuss what happened since we last met, you know, are there customer complaints, did something happen? Uh, did the internet go down? Whatever the issues are, we cover them. And, then we kind of just kind of go through all the different teams and make sure is there anything that’s not on track? And if something has fallen off track, if a customer has complained about something, or if there’s an issue, and production had to pause, what is the downstream impact for customers? We kind of work through all these challenges and discussions sort of in open, no one takes notes. It’s just round table. We go around the room and everybody talks about their functionality. And then we determine, okay, everything’s on track, we’ll see you tomorrow.

Natalie Kuldell (09:17):

Let’s get to work. So as I’m listening to you, I mean, you have to be incredibly organized. You have to manage people. Uh, you have to understand the science, you understand the engineering process. Which part of this did you like, did, you know, early on that you had all these skills and you could just step into a huge operational role like this at such a big company, or, I’m guessing you learn a lot along the way?

Jacqueline Fidanza (09:48):

It’s, you know, you’re learning along the way. And you know, a lot of times, you don’t know what you do and don’t know until you’re thrown into the situation. And so the great thing is, I have an amazing team. One of the things at Twist, we have a pretty big interview process. And when we bring people on, it’s not just about their technical skills, it’s about teamwork and it’s about, um, sort of flexibility and being comfortable also with the unknown, because in this kind of a job, you we all work together every single day. And so for me, it’s having teammates that I trust and we’re all a hundred percent open and honest and transparent with one another, because we all succeed or we all fail.

Jacqueline Fidanza (10:41):

And so, you know, it’s one of those things and you learn from one another. There is a lot of stuff that I had no idea, but when, once I got into this role, I then sat with some folks for instance, that are building out manufacturing execution system that helps us – it’s like a limb system – it helps us keep track of everything as it moves through the pipeline. They taught me a lot about that and I taught them some biology. And so it really is about people come in with their areas of expertise. And at the end, we all know a little bit about what everybody else does. And so that really makes it fun.

Natalie Kuldell (11:24):

It’s so fun. And you know who to ask, right? Like when you reach a roadblock, it’s not that you have to know all the answers. You have to know the person to be able to ask. Who’s like, can you address this? Can you explain this to me again? Can we work together to fix this? Knowing where to go, instead of having to think about everything being independent. No single person could do everything that you just described, even though you’re amazing.

Jacqueline Fidanza (11:51):

And I don’t claim, I mean, I’m just kind of the facilitator. And I said, you really do wind up learning a little bit about everything, but I think you bring up a really valid point. It’s knowing what you don’t know and saying, Hey, I can’t answer this. Or, if I had unlimited time, I could answer it, but this person over here, I’m just gonna have a conversation with them and they’re gonna help me solve the problem. And that’s really the foundation of our company is, we’re moving really fast and we need to completely rely on everybody else. It takes a village. I know that’s kind of a corny saying, but, it really does take all of those people every day to get any product out the door. It’s truly teamwork and nobody could have all of those skills in one person. It’s just about knowing who to ask and not being afraid to reach out to people to say, Hey, can you help me solve this problem?

Natalie Kuldell (13:00):


Jacqueline Fidanza (13:00):

I think that’s, did that answer your question? <laugh>

Natalie Kuldell (13:02):

It did. It did. And I was thinking, as you were explaining, that happens in academics too, but I wonder if it happens more in industry that the speed with which industry is working, your first thought is who can I ask to help me move this along faster? Right. And keep things going. Industry is different than working in an academic setting. And, I think that there’s great things about both. What do you like about industry,? You’re in an incredibly exciting field, you have a great team, I’m sure. Are there a couple of things that attract you and want to keep you in industry?

Jacqueline Fidanza (13:43):

Yeah, it’s interesting because I think early on, while many of my friends, especially when I was in graduate school were pursuing academia. Um, industry was, as much as I liked teaching when I was in graduate school, industry, was something that I was always drawn to. I wanted to make things and liked that fast pace. And so, I think that is one of the differences. I’m not saying that academia is not fast paced, but the speed at which we move requires collaborations across many, many different fields. Whereas, at least when I was in academia, you didn’t have all of those connections. And so what I really love, and I guess really my first job, quite some years ago now at Torrent, um, what I really loved was, my background was really in DNA chemistry, and I got to learn a lot about fields that had I stayed in academia, I would never have put all of those pieces together.

Jacqueline Fidanza (14:53):

Because to build, in this case we were building gene chips, you needed semiconductor processing, you needed chemistry, biology, engineering, physics, and having all of those of people work together every single day to solve problems and to build equipment and build products, at a fast pace to actually ship that product out the door within some reasonable timeframe, you move very fast and you have to learn really fast. And so for me, industry, has that speed. And it’s a whole different set of challenges, but I really, really love it.

Natalie Kuldell (15:38):

Yeah. There is so much to love about it and I can totally imagine somebody listening to this and thinking that is amazing – this is exactly right. That’s me. Right. That’s what I want to do. So I guess maybe last question or one of the few last questions is, for a person like that, do you have any recommendations for how they could get ready, how they could either study or move towards an exciting, fast-paced job in industry like yours?

Jacqueline Fidanza (16:09):

Yeah, absolutely. One great way is for individuals, for students – regardless of where you are in your career – there are always opportunities for internships, looking around locally to see what organizations hire interns. Some schools have, you can take a semester off and do some internship like that. So, that’s what I would recommend is seeing if you can, apply for an internship also, um, reach out to, if you’ve got friends whose parents are scientists, or myself – reach out and say, Hey, what does your day-to-day job look like? You know, what kind of skills do you need? And really, depending on the role, you do or you don’t need a lot of skills.

Jacqueline Fidanza (17:12):

So, on my team, I’ve got people with PhDs and I have people with high school education. We do such rigorous training that we provide people with the tools that they need. So it really depends on level of education and what their interests are, or if you’re not sure what you wanna do, maybe take a year off between high school and going to college, talking to people, getting a job and sort of seeing what does it really look like out there? Because it’s really hard to know without ever doing it.

Natalie Kuldell (17:51):

Right. I mean, work-based learning is just such a quick way to get up to speed about the things that matter and how well you like that position. It’s really sometimes hard to know from the outside whether it’s a good fit, but a little bit of work-based learning and you’re like right away, this plays to my strengths, this feels like play, not work or the other of, yeah, this is not for me. And that’s a really good learning too. That’s not a failure. That’s a huge success to learn quickly.

Jacqueline Fidanza (18:29):

Yeah, exactly. It’s all about just trying to figure out, as you navigate that path. Which are good fits and things that are a good fit for somebody today may not be a good fit in 10 years. And so it’s constantly evolving. I didn’t start in manufacturing. I wound up here. But you know, I love it. And now I wouldn’t go back to R&D. It has very different challenges, but for me, it’s like a puzzle. And it kind of plays to what I think that my skills are.

Natalie Kuldell (19:10):

Yes, yep. And having a great team and then bringing out the best in each other, that’s just, that’s good work. That’s a good, good day at the office.

Jacqueline Fidanza (19:20):

It is, and I think the people are the most important. You can have great technology but if you don’t have good people, that all kind of are aligned and are open and honest and wanna learn and are enthusiastic. If you don’t have the right people that can totally make or break an organization.

Natalie Kuldell (19:39):

Totally. I totally agree. And I think that’s true across the board. So, wow. Well, I am inspired by all that you are doing, it’s incredibly exciting and incredibly important work. It just advances the whole field in ways, that in some ways it’s hard to imagine, right? Like you’re at the starting gate and you’re just letting all these opportunities, all these materials out to help people do their work in a faster and more efficient way.

Jacqueline Fidanza (20:14):

Exactly. And I think as the field evolves, as synthetic biology evolves, it will only become, there will be more and more opportunities and, you know, we’re making building blocks. Right. And our customers are doing the really cool things with them.

Natalie Kuldell (20:33):

Exactly. Well, again, more teamwork, right?

Jacqueline Fidanza (20:37):

Yes, yes, yes.

Natalie Kuldell (20:39):

Jackie, I am so grateful. We are on a team together working on some projects and that you’ve taken some time to talk about your work. It’s exciting and I’m just really delighted to have had some time with you today. Thank you.

Jacqueline Fidanza (20:54):

Thank you. And thank you for inviting me. And I hope that we can continue to collaborate and I can maybe tell your students a little bit more about some of the work that we’re doing. Because I think it really aligns very well with a lot of the work that you are doing.

Natalie Kuldell (21:10):

Yes. Well, it’s a date. I heard you say it so it’s a promise now.