Alumni Spotlight: Mike Chan, '98, '02

Mike Chan graduated from the UC Davis Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in biological systems engineering in 1998 and 2002, respectively. Now a senior manager at Genentech, a leading biotechnology in South San Francisco, Mike leads a team of more than 20 engineers and managers that directly support the manufacturing of biologics, which includes a wide variety of products derived from human, animal or microorganisms. Mike has been actively involved with the Department for several years, most recently as chair of the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering’s Leadership Board.

Mike holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Biological Systems Engineering from UC Davis. He began his career at General Mills and joined a program that rotated entry-level engineers into various positions. After two years in that role, Mike joined Genentech as an automation engineer and worked on programmable logic controller systems. From there, he held various roles as a project manager and as a process engineer. His strong ability to solve technical problems and lead teams and people eventually led him to roles in management.

What degrees did you earn, and when? 

I graduated from the College of Engineering in 1998. My major was specifically agricultural engineering. I immediately started my master’s in food engineering and graduated in 2002. I knew early on I had a passion for mechanical and control systems, but wasn’t sure what kind of jobs would be ideal for me.   

How was your time at UC Davis?

My college days at UC Davis were truly incredible because it was a tremendous time of personal growth and self-discovery. Experiencing UC Davis and all that university life had to offer tested my self-dependence, self-motivation and, most importantly, my ability to bounce back from failure. It’s not easy to recognize when you’re in the moment as a student, but you are gaining valuable life lessons every single day. The question for students is: how are you going to make the most of each day at UC Davis? Make no mistake, some days are going to be boring, some exciting, some extremely gratifying, some days frustrating and other days you may feel like nothing is going right. But those are the exact situations that will make you the mentally stronger and wiser person tomorrow. I look back today and point back to my experience at UC Davis as one of the few pivotal stepping stones that has enabled me to be successful in my career today.

Which professors were you close to or you felt were mentors to you?

Professors John Miles and John Krochta were particularly memorable. During our design project, Dr. Miles pointed out that the initial failures in our design and our process for learning from them was a huge part of engineering and ultimately developing a successful product. Dr. Krochta built on that during my master’s program and he really stayed hands-off as my advisor and let me run with my project, only offering coaching and mentoring. I felt he often knew the answers or could have easily directed my next steps, but he didn’t and that was key in letting me learn from my own trial and error. I believe this helped make me a better engineer today.

Tell us about what you are doing now, and how UC Davis prepared you for that?

I am currently a senior manager at Genentech in the South San Francisco HQ campus. I can sum up how Davis prepared me for my career in two words: problem solving. The transition from high school to college and living on my own was itself a problem that needed to be solved. How? As I mentioned before, I needed to learn how to be independent and motivate myself in a very new and distracting environment. My first year living in the dorms was a mess. I found myself overly procrastinating on my academics and staying up late (and falling asleep in class). I needed to solve this problem. My first terrible solution was drinking caffeine and staying up. I quickly learned that was not sustainable and eventually figured out what worked to motivate myself. We all have examples of “life” challenges that you need to solve. 

Then there is the UC Davis curriculum that is uniquely and effectively designed to make you think and solve academic problems. I remember my brain hurting from unsuccessfully solving physics equations – even with the answer given to us in the back of the book! The late nights of head-scratching and getting several wrong answers before getting it right is all part of the journey. But the genius of this is that we all need to go through the motions of being challenged and UC Davis – and BAE – prepares you for this. We need to solve these kinds of difficult and seemingly unsolvable problems in real life. My entire career has been all about solving one problem after another.

How you give back to UC Davis and why do you do it?

I am currently the chair of the leadership board for the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering. The leadership board is comprised of industry advisors as well as staff and faculty. The board’s existence and goals are centered around the students. Together, we help ensure the department stays connected to current world problems and ensure students are developing the relevant skills needed for today’s workforce. For example, in addition to solving technical problems, we want graduate students to be good communicators and team collaborators who are capable of leading teams.

What would you like students who are considering UC Davis and BAE to know?

I am one of many examples of people who have been lucky enough to go a university and program that successfully prepare students for the real world. I feel fortunate to have been able to take my experience and translate it into a successful career. I have the same confidence in the BAE students today. I have been impressed with the caliber of students that have graduated from the BAE program and truly believe that the culture, environment and curriculum are great for ensuring the students will be provided opportunities to be wildly successful. The rest is up to students in what they do with this tremendous opportunity!

Building upon a long-standing tradition of public service, the UC Davis College of Engineering has a visionary plan for the future in which innovative research and quality education will make life better for everyone. Do you have a story to share? Let us know.

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