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Kathrine Parga’s Team Wins ISPE Hackathon

Kathrine Parga and her team took “thinking outside the box” to a whole new level at the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering (ISPE) Hackathon. This approach, combined with solid teamwork, led to their Hackathon win. 

Parga, a Master of Engineering in Biopharmaceutical Processing (MEng) candidate at Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), attended the Hackathon in Las Vegas, NV the weekend of October 26 along with fellow KGI students and ISPE members Maria Rivera, Jitha Sridhar, and Yazmin Estrada. Once they arrived, they were placed on separate teams.

In the challenge, students are given a real-world case study and have roughly 12 hours to come up with a solution, which they present to the judges. For this Hackathon, the challenge was to design a manufacturing plant that would be flexible enough to adapt to any future drug technology.

Comprising these teams were students and young professionals from around the world. Part of the challenge for Parga was working with people she had never met before, but it was a challenge she embraced as it offered diverse perspectives. Parga, whose specialty is development, was interested to hear the viewpoint of those whose primary focus is prescribing drugs to the end user. They kept the rest of the team in check by posing this critical question: “How are we going to actually get the drug in the hands of the person who needs it?”

This practical mindset contributed to their team’s win, but so did their creativity. They reinterpreted the challenge by designing a “mini plant,” or “pod.” The “pod” would be a shipping container containing all the necessary ingredients needed to assemble a medication, which they would then ship to the patient. A representative would teach the patient how to use the product. 

“Instead of shipping the product to the patient,” said Parga, “we ship the process to the patient.” 

According to Parga, this process would be more efficient than manufacturing medications the conventional way—in a lab—because it would reduce storage and utility costs, ultimately allowing them to extend their reach by distributing the medication to more people.

It was not until hours into the competition that Parga’s team decided to change course and pursue the idea of the “mini plants.” It can be difficult to abandon your hard work and go back to the drawing board, especially under a strict deadline, but Parga says this is all part of the process.

Additionally, the team’s collaborative spirit and diplomatic approach enabled them to work through obstacles. 

“When someone had a difference of opinion, the others would give that person a chance to defend his or her position,” said Parga. “Everyone felt like they could throw out ideas.”

This environment where everyone could freely express ideas enabled the team to come up with an innovative solution to the challenge. 

Parga’s experience at the Hackathon mirrors her experience at KGI, where she says that teamwork is emphasized above all else. 

“The moral of KGI is that you can’t do anything by yourself,” Parga said. “You have to work as a team.” 

Parga describes students and faculty as warm and welcoming, and she credits their support with helping her maintain a healthy work/life balance. 

“She’s a really committed student, active, engaged, and excited to learn about the biopharmaceutical industry,” George B. and Joy Rathmann Professor in Bioprocessing and Director of the Amgen Bioprocessing Center Sue Behrens said of Parga. 

Parga initially wanted to become a doctor but changed her mind when she saw that the medical field is mostly “reactionary” in its approach. She shifted her focus to biopharmaceuticals, which she believes emphasizes disease prevention above all else.

Upon graduation, Parga plans to work for a startup.

“I want to see all the aspects of what makes a company run,” she said. “I love learning and expanding my horizons.”

Parga sees biopharmaceuticals as the wave of the future and believes that new possibilities for preventing chronic diseases will continue to unfold. 

“I want to be part of the solution,” she said.