Ask people how they ended up in their current job, and you'll often get the impression that for most of us it was something of a happy accident. Not so for Monica Dias. Since her undergraduate days she has been interested in the study of human skin, and her story shows that a little planning and investment in your career can take you a long way.

When it comes to career choices, Dias's philosophy has always been to test the water before diving in. So while she was doing her degree in pharmacy at the University of Lisbon in her native Portugal, she decided to work part-time in a lab. "One does not do that much lab work [as part of the degree], and I thought maybe I wanted to do research, so I should become familiar with it," she explains. She wasn't paid for her work, but on top of giving her experience and more insight into research, it also provided her with the opportunity to attend a conference on skin permeation in Montpellier, France.

"I thought it was fascinating," she recalls. "Skin is so complex, and not much work has been done on [skin permeation]. It is all very new and very exciting." By then Dias had decided to do a PhD. That it would be on skin permeation was now a given, but the question of where remained. "You have to choose carefully where to do your PhD," she warns, and so she set about searching for experts in this area of research. "I chose my supervisor because I knew he was one of the world's most recognised scientists in this field, so I knew that I would learn a lot from him," she says.

So after graduating in Lisbon in 1995, it was off to Welsh School of Pharmacy in Cardiff with the Erasmus student exchange programme--which confirmed to her this was the place for her PhD. However, although 3 years may seem like a long time, Dias was thinking about what she would do next even as she began her research.

"I knew after my PhD I could work in either the pharmaceutical or cosmetics industry," she says. She had 3 months on her hands while her PhD funding was being arranged in Portugal, so she took this opportunity to experience what working for the cosmetics industry was like. With the help of a friend who was already employed there, she arranged a 3-month training placement at Natura, a cosmetics company based in Brazil. "I was working alongside other people and going to meetings to understand the process of starting a new product," she explains.

Back in Cardiff, Dias started her PhD at the Skin Research Centre under the supervision of Jonathan Hadgraft, now at Medway Sciences, University of Greenwich. "There are different [inert] components in a formulation," explains Monica, who was investigating "how they affect the permeation of actives through the skin." She was also "looking into novel techniques to evaluate skin hydration," she says, more specifically analysing human skin samples with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a particularly promising technique.

Having gone as far as Brazil to sample the cosmetics industry, perhaps it was no surprise that as soon as her PhD was finished, Dias went to Australia to spend another 3 months with a pharmaceutical company, Acrux in Melbourne. There, she did some research on a novel drug delivery device and some skin enhancers, more specifically on a "spray device for topical and transdermal drug delivery."

Soonafter, in October 2000, Monica joined Disperse Technologies, a company that looks into developing and commercialising new technologies for the production of creams and lotions at the Surrey Research Park in Guildford, UK. Now a senior scientist, Dias is right where she has wanted to be all along--at the interface between cosmetics and pharmaceutical research. In the end she couldn't quite choose between the two, and took the opportunity to work for Disperse Technologies because "in this company I am able to do both," she says. Her job is to bridge the gap between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, as she applies cosmetics knowledge to topical skin care products so that they are "much better for patients," she explains.

Monica got to know Disperse Technologies while she was doing her PhD. Her supervisor was a consultant to the company, and she had even done some work for it herself. Now she keeps in contact with her old university, co-supervising another PhD student doing a project on MRI skin studies.

At Disperse Technologies "I spend about 20% to 30% of my time in the lab," she says. "I have a scientist working with me, and I supervise her, managing the project and making sure it goes well." The rest of the time she is involved with the business side of things, both within the company and beyond, liaising with customers from the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries to license her company's technologies. It would have been entirely possible for her to stay closer to the bench, but she opted for her current position. "I had the skills already, and it is easy to network," she says. "The company used my skills in the best possible way." She feels it allows her to stay in touch with the lab but also be part of the bigger picture.

Still, to any job there are downsides, and Monica wishes she were spending "just a little bit more time in the lab, but it is not possible, and it will be less and less possible," she realises. She admits to finding "intellectual property very boring and quite difficult." Although the company has a patent attorney, she sometimes has to write patents. "It is not like writing a scientific paper," she explains, and you have to be extremely careful as "one word can change the whole meaning." She also warns that working in an industrial environment is very demanding and can put pressure on your personal life. Expect to be working late and sometimes during weekends, when you need to contact people all over the world or meet deadlines in the lab. "In academia, it is a lot easier to balance work and life," she says. "It took me a year and a half to find the right balance" in industry.

So what will be the next move for Dias? "It depends on what I am able to do in this company," she says. "I want to be a managing director," but it is not so much the position that matters to her as being able to see "the products go into the market." The greatest reward for Dias is to know that what she has been working on is going to be used and beneficial, allowing people to feel and look better.

Dias is now at a stage in her career when she can see the benefits from trying to get as much work experience as she could early on. "I did a lot of unpaid work; I invested in my career, and now I am seeing that it was very useful," she asserts. "You have to like what you do to do it well," she says. "That is why I wanted to find out exactly what I wanted to do. You have to try things ... so go and work in different places and plan new things all the time."

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.