Engineering alum connects classroom learning to solid careers

FIU’s annual Panther Alumni Week in February reinforced for students that their years of attending classes can have a wonderful ending: getting the very job for which your degree prepared you.

More than 250 alumni in a variety of fields and industries spoke individually to classes and during panel sessions to drive home that what students learn day in and day out can have a direct translation to the work they will eventually do.

That message came through loud and clear during a visit by Gustavo Diaz ’00, MS ’05 to a graduate engineering management class. The pharmaceutical technology specialist spoke to more than 30 men and women enrolled in the Total Quality Management course.

“This is an opportunity not just to give back to the school but to stress how important this class really is in the grand scheme of things,” said Diaz, who himself took the same course more than a decade ago and says he still owns the textbook. “I’ve learned how applicable the class has been in my industry. You can literally make a career out of what you learn in this class.”

Diaz provides technical support for the manufacture of time-release medication at a South Florida plant owned by global pharmaceutical giant Actavis. With that location producing 2.8 billion capsules and tablets annually, Diaz explained, “it is critically important to stay focused everyday.”

Gustavo Diaz

Gustavo Diaz – alum Diaz, standing at center, met with graduate students in the Total Quality Management course.

Diaz’s daily responsibilities include safeguarding against and responding to potential problems including everything from equipment failures and power outages to potential mistakes in the precision weighing of raw pharmaceutical materials prior to production. In addition, he works to prevent production-line errors that could send a product into the wrong packaging.

In class Diaz talked about how he regularly runs analyses to makes sure the company is meeting its manufacturing goals and maintaining standards.

“Always graph your data,” he stressed to the students when explaining how he helps keep efficiency and quality at their highest. Graphing the data—something he learned in the TQM class —gives him a clear visual as he works to make adjustments as needed, and he showed the students ways to get there.

To reinforce what they had already covered, Professor Karen Schmahl broke in during Diaz’s lecture to ask them, “Do you recognize this as what you just did today?”

Schmahl had met Diaz weeks earlier during a meeting of the American Society for Quality, of which the two are members, and seized the chance to invite him to speak.

“Bringing in an industry professional that has direct experience in a class subject can really motivate students,” she said. “We had just learned an analysis technique that he incorporated in his example. It let the students know where we are actually headed in learning to solve industry problems.”

Diaz earned an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from FIU and went straight into a quality assurance position at a local generic-drug manufacturer. His job was to review production supervisors’ written documentation and look for any irregularities that might indicate a departure from established processes. While he understood the critical importance of his job with regard to customer safety, Diaz says, he often found the work tedious and monotonous. To keep things interesting, he took advantage of the opportunity to learn whatever he could and within a year broke into the companies Technical Services Department.

“I was fresh in the industry. I was hungry,” Diaz recalls. And so he started reading about statistical analysis as a way to grasp and deal with problems in various manufacturing environments, something he had learned about at FIU—in this very class—but that pharma had yet to fully embrace.

Soon he started asking around at work, “Why aren’t we applying these concepts? We have a new way of looking at data.” Eventually his boss recognized that Diaz was onto something and that the “reams and reams” of data sitting unused should be put to work.

Within two years, Diaz took a job as a quality engineer at Actavis, which insisted that he complete Six Sigma Black Belt training—a program that teaches participants to master a set of techniques and tools for process improvement—and paid for his return to FIU for a master’s.

Diaz says the value of his graduate degree was in preparing him to do critical analysis and to deal with issues and concerns that arise.

“More than anything, it’s the way that I think,” he says of what his company wants from him. “I think [the degree] prepared me in that I provided a fresh perspective. I might be able to see things or ask questions that other people working there for years didn’t ask.

“The best is being able to fix problems. That’s really what engineering is all about.”

Student Sashidhar Chintalapati, a mechanical engineer from India, appreciated Diaz’s words. Hearing that the Total Quality Management course alone could provide the basis for a career inspired Chintalapati, currently in the first semester of the master’s program.

“I learned we can get a job out of what we experience [here],” he said enthusiastically. “I have a pretty good future.”


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