Learn about what it's like to work in certain scientific careers with our interviews with STEM professionals!
Camelia Stan is a Project Scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Advanced Light Source division. Her current role is to assist synchrotron users with Laue Microdiffraction experiments and develop new Laue techniques. Dr. Stan received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and a B.S. in Chemistry from Colorado State University with minors in mathematics and Eastern Asian Studies.
1. What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?
I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere if it weren’t for the encouragement of a few teachers and faculty members. As a child, I loved learning things, pretty much anything. I read voraciously through my mother’s extensive library of books. My parents were an engineer and a radiologist. I guess because of being around them, I always thought they expected me to become a scientist. I loved thumbing through my mother’s medical books and learning about the human body, and I loved Legos and building things. When I was in high school I took every science class that was available, and I liked all of them, although mostly I liked my chemistry class and the teacher, Mr. Gainley. When I got to college, I took chemistry. I got along well with my chemistry professor, David Myers. He was very down to earth and approachable, and chatting with him about class and life in general was very inspirational to me. I continued pursuing chemistry as a result. I think David’s influence had a lot to do with my ultimate career choice. Also, as I continued studying chemistry, I learned that I could incorporate a lot of different aspects of math and physics into it. I ended taking a lot of inorganic chemistry and there was a course offering for a crystallography class and a group theory class at my local university (Colorado State!), all of which I really enjoyed. I ended up becoming a crystallographer entirely because of the mentorship of these professors, and because I love patterns and I love physics and math as long as I can see them both being directly applied. And, although people don’t always like hearing this, chemistry was a practical choice for me. I really loved studying Chinese, so much so that I got a minor in the language, but it was difficult to see how I could parlay that into a career. Chemistry made sense because the classes were fun, and there seemed to actually be jobs that would hire chemists. I always thought this was a rather unsentimental approach, but it worked for me. I craved stability, and I knew that I could be a good scientist.
2. How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I am a beamline scientist at the Advanced Light Source (ALS), beamline 12.3.2 (microdiffraction). The ALS is a synchrotron facility, so we use a specific type of particle accelerator to generate high-energy X-rays that are applied to different experiments. In my case, I have a high-intensity, very small X-ray beam that I can use to do single or powder crystal diffraction, and typically we use our instrument to make 2D maps of crystals, crystal phase distributions, or strain (among other possible measurement types). Starting out in my studies, I had no idea this type of career even existed. Actually, I remember in my crystallography course in college, our professor specifically saying something like “a synchrotron is another device that generates X-rays, but we aren’t going to go into detail about it because you’ll probably never use one!" After college, I felt pretty burned out, and I worked in a toxicology lab analyzing drugs of abuse in human samples using GC-MS, GC-FID, and LC-MS/MS, for two years. I actually really liked working there. I liked the puzzle nature of work I was doing, and that there were different cases (literally, criminal cases) that I was tackling every day. I personally do not mind doing the same kind of task on a daily basis, as long as it’s being applied to different subjects. Once I joined grad school, I thought I was going to do more mass spectrometry, but instead after thinking more critically about my genuine interests, I ended up working for Tom Duffy, a geophysicist at Princeton University. The lab I was in used crystallography to analyze the physical and chemical changes in minerals at very high pressures and temperatures (up to 152 GPa and 2700 K in my case) using a device called a diamond anvil cell. These experiments can only really be performed at synchrotron facilities, so I ended up interacting with a lot of people who were beamline scientists at the time, and learning more about synchrotrons. I didn’t know if this was the kind of job that I wanted, but I applied anyway, on sort of a whim. It turned out that I was a really good fit where I work now!
3. What types of skills are required in your role?
As a beamline scientist in crystallography, I need to interact with people from a really wide variety of fields. I collaborate with geologists, engineers, materials scientists, chemists, and biologists on a variety of projects that ultimately all need the tool I have available. I have to be on the ball and able to adapt what we are doing based on the needs of each collaborator. I have to be able to talk confidently about what my instrument can and cannot do. I need to be able to conduct my own independent research when there is time available on the instrument. I also need to be able to troubleshoot hardware and software issues that come up. My job is definitely not wet chemistry; I am doing solid state chemistry at best, cowboy engineering at worst. It takes a lot of flexibility and you definitely have to be at least a little bit handy to do this job well.
4. What do you enjoy most about your job?
I LOVE how many different projects I get to work on and learn about! It’s so cool being able to interact with people from such a wide variety of fields. It’s like being at the forefront of many different science fields at the same time. I love that I am working on something different every week, and that I can learn new science all the time.
5. What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
I think the most challenging thing for me is time management. I have to juggle a ton of different projects at the same time. It can be tough to remember to always meet the deadlines with every project. Different collaborators require different things, as well, in terms of my level of involvement in their data collection and results. I have a lot of to-do lists going on simultaneously.
6. What advice would you give to students trying to pursue a career in this area?
I would advise students to be open to opportunities that come their way. I got this job because I networked with a lot of beamline scientists as a result of my grad work, and so when the job posting came up, one of the beamline scientists told me to go for it. I maybe would have independently done that before, but the advice and support of potential future peers was invaluable. I think talking to people that worked at the ALS gave me a really good idea of the work and expectations for the job. It can be very difficult. You might work all the time because the instrument runs all the time. But you are also involved in so many things as a result! It’s a position that requires a lot of energy, and a lot of mental flexibility and puzzle solving. I would also say that this career path is not particularly suitable to people who intend to become academic PIs, simply because it is a different skill set, and because it doesn’t leave a lot of time for personal research. In my case, I prefer doing experiments and analyzing data much more than I enjoy writing proposals or papers, so this position is a great personal fit!
Valerie George is currently the Senior Director of Research & Development of Hair Color at John Paul Mitchell Systems. She graduated from Kent State University with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry before continuing graduate work in Chemistry at Marshall University. Ms. George began her cosmetic chemistry career in makeup in 2010 and has been an active member of the California Society of Cosmetic Chemists (SCC) since 2011. She served as the 2016 Chair of the California SCC, was elected to serve again as the 2018 Chair, and was recently appointed to the National SCC's Committee on Scientific Affairs.
1. What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?
I had a natural affinity to science as a child. I was always interested in how things worked, or where things came from. My parents bought me a microscope when I was in 3rd grade. I was hooked! I put everything I could under there. A few years later, they got me an environmental chemistry set. I knew I was destined for a life in science.
2. What led you to the cosmetics industry?
I had an obsession with perfumes and homemade cosmetic goods when I was in college. As a consumer, it never occurred to me that chemists are behind our everyday beauty products. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2010 after graduate school, and was looking for a job, I noticed all these companies hiring for cosmetic chemists. My mind was blown! I thought to myself, “You mean I can get paid to make lipstick for a living?”
3. How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I started out in skincare. I really enjoyed it, but I wasn’t hooked. I saw an opportunity at Paul Mitchell to work in hair care, and I took the leap. I enjoyed it much more than skincare – when your hair looks good, you feel great. I enjoy all colors of the visible light spectrum, and wanted to learn how to formulate hair color, which requires a vast knowledge of chemistry and hair biology. I have spent the last 2 years and counting with two mentors that live on the other side of the world, learning how to formulate reactive hair color and bleaches. I have found my true calling in life – I love being a hair color chemist! To get to this spot, I had to work hard to learn as much as I could about hair color science - it’s one of the few areas in cosmetic chemistry you still need to learn from another person, and the training is intense.
4. What types of skills are required in your role?
To be a cosmetic chemist, a background in chemistry is a must. I personally believe that it is valuable to have biology courses as well, so the basic principles of skin and hair physiology can be understood. It also helps to have a good grasp on mathematics. The rest of the equipment and testing can be learned on the job, but it’s good to have a solid foundation in science.
Networking is a huge part of our industry, and it’s common for chemists to interact with marketing and ingredient salespeople – so I would say people skills are extremely beneficial.
While I’m behind the color tube at Paul Mitchell, I also am responsible for leading an amazing team of chemists who formulate hair care at JPMS. Leading a team is not just about being able to direct chemists with cosmetic science; it requires the ability to mentor people and foster an innovation environment focusing on education. I credit the year I spent teaching high school chemistry with that leadership skill!
5. What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job?
The most enjoyable part of my job is when a fellow chemist on our team gets a formula approval from our testing salon. Formulating is a lot of work and it’s so rewarding to see the success spread across their face in a huge smile!
6. What is the most challenging feature of your work?
The biggest challenge of being a cosmetic chemist is all of the regulations. It can be very frustrating to reformulate products that you already worked so hard on because a regulation has changed. I try to tell myself it is job security!
7. What advice would you give to students trying to pursue a career in the cosmetic industry? Are there any resources you would recommend?
Network, network, network! It’s very challenging to get your foot in the door at a great company. It’s that old cliché – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. I highly recommend to join the Society of Cosmetic Chemists as a student member. They have 19 chapters all over the United States. Their mission is to advance the field of cosmetic science, which is done by meetings and events. It’s a great place to network!
If you’re also interested in seeing what the life of a cosmetic chemist is like, you can follow @cosmetic_chemist on Instagram!