Path of purpose: Q&A with Dr. David Blum

Dr. David Blum, Bioexpression and Fermentation Facility Director, stands next to one of the bioreactor stations inside of the BFF building. Photo courtesy of Dr. David Blum

University of Georgia Bioexpression and Fermentation Facility Social Media Coordinator Maya Cornish: To start off, what do you do in your position as the Director of the BFF?

BFF Director Dr. David Blum: I have a wide range of duties, both from the financial side and from the scientific side. I have an overall managerial responsibility for all of the staff, and then I also have responsibility for ensuring that we bring in revenue so we can pay the staff and pay all (of) our bills and responsibilities. That would include what I would consider business development, (including) reaching out to other companies, providing work plans and quotes for them, and then I also work with our office (the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) to invoice and make sure we get paid after we do the projects. If we have issues scientifically, then I help with problem-solving.

MC: When did you first become the Director, and why?

DB: it’s almost 10 years now that I’ve been here. I actually never intended to come back to Athens after I graduated (from UGA). But the former Director (Dr. Tim Davies) had recommended me for this position, and I think I applied on the last day you could have applied for this job because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay (in my previous position) at Vanderbilt (University). But I applied, I think I had a compelling argument for why they should hire me, and I ended up here. I really didn’t know what to expect (when I started). I knew sort of what they did, but I didn’t know all of my job duties. And so, what I’ve done is make this more of (an) educational mission to the facility, and that brings me a lot of joy to help students and see them progress through their careers. I’ve seen at least two cohorts of students go all the way through all four or so years and multiple Master’s students. I’ve seen them grow in their careers and their lives, and that’s been very rewarding.

MC: Speaking of Vanderbilt, can you elaborate on what you were doing before accepting your position as the Director?

DB: I was at Vanderbilt specifically in the Vaccine Center, (and) I was a staff scientist. I worked in a virology lab, and what we did was we looked at the human immune response to viruses. I had two projects that I worked on. One was on H5N1, which is commonly known as bird flu, and then I also worked on vaccinia virus, which is a cousin to the smallpox virus. There’s only maybe two places in the world where they keep (smallpox virus) under lock and key. So, we looked at vaccine responses to those (related) viruses, and what I was able to do (was) isolate the B cells from patients and then (make) a cell line that produced antibodies that neutralized those viruses. We were able to find whole panels of antibodies, and now (Dr. James Crowe, the Director, he and his team) worked on coronavirus (and) they have antibodies against that that they’ve licensed to AstraZeneca. All that was part of the technology that I helped them develop.

“What I’ve done is make this more of (an) educational mission to the facility, and that brings me a lot of joy to help students and see them progress through their careers.”

— Dr. David Blum, Director of the Bioexpression and Fermentation Facility

MC: We both know STEM is a difficult field to journey upon, so what inspired you to go into the STEM field?

DB: I always liked science ever since I was a kid. I had a chemistry set and I just (enjoyed) the world around me. When I was little, I would look at my hand and (think), “How did my hand…? I’m moving my hand, how does that work?” Now we know the brain sends a signal, but I was always fascinated with how the world works. When I got to UGA, I started off as a pre-med (major) and then I realized that I wanted to go into research (and biotechnology), that was more of my passion. I did an internship in San Francisco and that’s where I got really interested in biotech, and so that’s carried me through my whole career up till now.

MC: Was there any particular inspiration for you to go into the biotechnology, biomanufacturing, and other related industry fields?

DB: My Ph.D. mentor, Lars Ljungdahl, was involved with synthetic biology (and biotechnology) type projects. He is retired now in Sweden, but he was a big inspiration to me. He did a lot of work in metabolic pathways and understanding (of) environmental microbiology and the biochemistry of that. He recommended me and got me (that) internship in San Francisco, really supported me and (was) very encouraging about my career.

UGA BFF Social Media Coordinator Maya Cornish talks with Dr. David Blum, Program Director and Graduate Coordinator of the UGA Master of Biomanufacturing/Bioprocessing program, about why he took on the position’s duties. Video by Maya Cornish

MC: Aside from being the Director of the BFF, you’re also the Program Director and Graduate Coordinator of the Master of Biomanufacturing/Bioprocessing program. How long have you been in that role, and can you also describe to me what that position entails?

DB: I’ve been Director since 2018 or 2019, and my position here is to recruit students to the program and provide them guidance to them in their career path, and then help them move through the program, their internship, (and) getting jobs. I also teach a class that is a requirement of the program.

MC: Why did you decide to add that role to your repertoire?

DB: I’m really interested in education and helping students, and that was part of what I wanted to do as (my goal as the) Director of the BFF is (to) really enhance our educational mission, and so tying (the MBB program) with a biomanufacturing center just made a lot of sense to me.

MC: Do you remember when the MBB program first came around?

DB: The MBB program got started around 2010 with my predecessors, Dr. Tim Davies and Dr. Joy Peterson. They got a grant from the National Science Foundation, which helped them jumpstart their starting up (of) the program. Shortly after that, Dr. Davies got another job and Dr. Peterson basically asked if I would continue on their mission, and I was happy to help her. When she retired and left UGA, I became Director.

MC: Do you remember why and how it became a Double Dawg program, as those are two separate things?

DB: I saw a lot of students (who) were interested in this program, and I felt like the Double Dawg would be a good way to get more people involved with the program. I talked with other people that were interested in Double Dawgs, (such as) my colleagues in (the School of Chemical, Material & Biomedical Engineering). It takes quite a while to get these set up–there’s a process and a lot of approvals that have to get into place–and (after) we did that, this year (is) when we (will) officially set it up for (students).

“We have a lot of professors here that have experience in a ton of areas and being at UGA exposes you to their experience (so) you can ask questions, explore a variety of areas, and learn a lot of new things.”

— Dr. David Blum, Director of the Bioexpression and Fermentation Facility

MC: And for those who are interested in this particular field and this degree program, why do you suggest that they pursue it?

DB: As a lot of people know, vaccines are really important now. Cancer therapies, gene therapies, (and so on) have a big impact on people’s lives. We need highly trained people to manufacture those drugs, and so having this program (gives) people and advantage as far as getting jobs and helps them move into a career that pays well and is rewarding.

MC: July 13 is “Embrace Your Geekness Day,” so what advice do you have for those who are interested both in STEM overall as well as for those who are interested in biomanufacturing and bioprocessing, specifically?

DB: What I think a lot of people don’t realize when they go to college is that you take these classes, you get this degree, and then you can move into a job. Well, a lot of what the college experience is supposed to be is really to give you opportunities to expand your knowledge and learn new things. I think exploring your geekiness would be, maybe do something you’re not comfortable with. Like learn how to 3D print, or find a paper in an area that you’re not familiar with and read about that. We have a lot of professors here that have experience in a ton of areas and being at UGA exposes you to their experience (so) you can ask questions, explore a variety of areas, and learn a lot of new things.

MC: Is there anything else you’d like to add, related to what we talked about today?

DB: The bottom line is that our mission here is to expand biotechnology, both for corporate America, for our UGA customers, and then for our students. I really feel like having this program allows us to help students help basically everybody in the biomanufacturing area, so I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to do.