Helen Wheeler

Microbiology Manager at Church and Dwight
Meet Helen Wheeler, Microbiology Manager for Church and Dwight, an International company which develops and manufactures its own portfolio of personal care products.
What is your job title and what are the main characteristics of your day-to-day work?

My Job title is Microbiology Manager and my day-to-day work involves the testing and release of raw materials [ingredients], bulk product and finished products (mainly toothpaste and oral hygiene products). We also manufacture a nasal spray, some beauty products and dry shampoo. The site has undergone a major investment in the update of equipment and processes over the past 5 years, all of which require microbiological validation [validation means checking that a process/piece of equipment does what it should]. I am required to devise and execute validation protocols for microbiological testing and cleaning, which includes the selection of suitable sanitising agents. I am responsible for the ordering of all laboratory consumables, and the regular calibration and service of laboratory equipment. I need to keep track of any industry changes in test methods and practices, both within and outside of EU regulation, and refer to the EU Pharmacopoeia for guidance.

Do you use any area of science in your current job?
Yes, and not just microbiology. Calculations regarding concentration of detergents and sanitising agents also require use of maths. There are daily calculations to be made for the test results regarding determination of CFU levels (colony forming units) of microorganisms, and the use of pH meters and balances for weighing volumes.
What other department/professions do you work with?

In particular I work daily with engineering. We are a busy factory with manufacturing vessels to clean and filling lines to run with a large variety of products. The micro laboratory works closely with engineering on new projects to ensure that what is installed can be cleaned easily and effectively and is hygienically designed to minimise risk of contamination. The micro department also works closely with the Quality Control (QC) department performing the chemical analysis, and in the past year we have embarked on a programme of skill swapping to train staff in both disciplines (micro and QC).

The company decided to invest in me and allow me to obtain a degree and subsequent job title of manager.
How would you summarise your career path so far?

I started work in the civil service and have moved around an awful lot doing a wide variety of jobs before settling at Church and Dwight 20 years ago. I was fortunate in that the company decided to invest in me and allow me to obtain a degree and subsequent job title of manager.

What are the best things about your job?

It’s a bit of a cliché, but the job is 50% routine microbiological (traditional plate method, swabs, sampling etc) and 50% thinking on your feet about problems as they arise. I particularly enjoy investigating contamination issues and it’s very rewarding providing the root cause can be identified!

Are there any specific skills essential to the job you do?

Well you have to understand the basics of microbiology, but anyone can be taught that. I am lucky in that my team is amazing, with a lot of knowledge between them, so I can call on their opinion and expertise. Three heads are better than one! Apart from that it is crucial that you can explain issues and findings simply and accurately without confusing people who do not work in a micro laboratory. They often just want a quick solution, and to move on!

Which of your qualifications do you find useful in your job?
I have a science degree, but I would have liked to have studied microbiology specifically more. Unfortunately there was not a part-time course available at the time of my studies.
Is there anything you wished you’d studied or experienced when younger that would be useful now?

I would like to have moved around different micro laboratories (especially hospitals) to see a greater variety of microorganisms. I always see the same ones!

Click here to find out more about following a career in this industry