Cindy Gerhardt, Diet Food Research at UnileverCindy Gerhardt is working on a novel diet food that could provide additional health benefits compared with existing products. She has been at Unilever for over 3 years.

When Unilever contacted me, I felt rather negative at first. As a medical biologist, I was not interested in working in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector, although I must admit that I was not familiar with the kind of work you could find in that sector.

I initially gave myself 1 year in industry with the objective to gain extra experience compared to what I had done before. The first 4 months were pretty much of a shock. Compared to academic research, the working culture was very different. I was not used to working in large teams, and I did not expect to be attending so many meetings!

I feel that the biggest advantage of working in industry is that you benefit from the knowledge and experience of many different scientists working together in project teams. The whole social aspect differs significantly from what I experienced as an academic scientist, and Unilever puts a lot of effort into optimising the way colleagues work together. Since joining the company, I have extended my knowledge from pure medical biology to areas such as food technology, analytical chemistry, consumer science, and food legislation.


Cindy Gerhardt

I was soon impressed by the level of scientific research and by the relative freedom I have as a scientist working for Unilever. I really appreciate the culture in which I am encouraged to file for patents while carrying on publishing in the scientific literature.

My perception of industrial research has changed. Before, when I went to the supermarket, I had no idea that so much research went into everyday products such as the diet products I am currently working on.

But what differs most from my previous work in academia is that there is a clear purpose and a clear business goal in what I do. All in all, I find it especially challenging having to combine high-quality science with commercial applicability. Now, when I attend scientific conferences I find that I adopt a sort of 'so what' attitude. Since I always have to justify the expense when I am spending time and money on research, I am more interested in focusing the research on clear goals.

The downside of this is that industrial research sometimes means making concessions. For example, when you come across an unexpected discovery in academic research, you usually have the freedom to pursue it. In industry, this is clearly more difficult. Since experiments are designed with a clear purpose, there is little time to pursue fundamental scientific avenues. That's the only drawback.

There is always room to progress within the company. The annual assessment gives a chance to evaluate where people want to go in their career--for example, I chose to become a project manager within 3 years of joining the company, my third job within the company. The speed at which you progress from job to job is much more important than it is for academic scientists.

At the moment, I do not wish to go back to academia. When I see friends hopping from postdoc to postdoc or being stuck in one position at the university, I am not envious.

Sandrine Decoster, Head of a Hair Cosmetic Research Laboratory at L'OréalSandrine Decoster has been at L'Oréal for the past 12 years. Her experience is a good example of how it is possible to build a career in the FMCG sector around one main topic of research.

I joined L'Oréal after a 3-year stint at 3M working on sandpaper, which itself followed the completion of my chemical engineering degree in Lille, France. I soon realised that I was not suited to the sandpaper industry. I wanted to work in a field in which I had an affinity for the products I would be working on, and cosmetics were more attractive to me. Yet, this initial industry experience at 3M made me more confident when I decided to apply to L'Oréal.


L'Oréal's patented molecule Ceramide R mimics the ceramide naturally present in hair.

There has been continuity in the focus of my research since I joined the company. The goal then was to create new forms of shampoo that would wash off more quickly and easily. Later, I moved to conditioners and the hair care laboratory to develop my knowledge of formulation. Now that I am back to working with shampoos as a team manager, the main difference is that I have 17 people to look after. My job has evolved in several aspects: I am more involved in innovation and creation of new formulae, while I have to manage and help members of my team develop their own careers.

If you ask me to describe a typical day as a researcher for L'Oréal, I would find it difficult. Two days are never the same. My job as the head of the shampoo development laboratory is very rich because I work alongside other researchers such as chemists, physicists, biologists, and marketing specialists. At the moment, one of my special projects is to develop a new generation of shampoo for children that does not irritate their eyes. It is a difficult, yet interesting field. The brief is to combine the no-tears properties with new cosmetic performances such as two-in-one, or ease of detangling. The main challenge is to build a special washing base resulting from the selection of appropriate molecules and surfactants in order to meet all the constraints at the same time.

As part of that process I have to follow, each day, the step-by-step progression of different projects within my team. This involves answering questions, proposing solutions, and evaluating the results of new shampoos on hair.

And, as the company becomes more international, we have to customise our products to our new customers. For example, to make sure they work on Japanese and Brazilian hair. It is a constant challenge and a steady learning curve.

If I were to give advice to newcomers to this field, it would be to say that it is important to be passionate about the work you do. Every day, I still enjoy creating new products, even after 12 years. And many more ways of applying cosmetics to hair remain to be discovered. Before joining L'Oréal, I could not imagine that hair care products such as shampoos were so sophisticated. Nor that they required an in-depth knowledge of several fields, such as hair biology and physical chemistry, combined with a more sensory approach.

Sabine Louët is a freelance writer based in Dublin.