I’m really excited about this interview! One, Dr. Richards is our first non-Oakwood grad being featured and two, her experience highlights the secondary focus of this blog – showing students what options exist outside of medicine / dentistry. Most times when students with science degrees think about doing research they think of research that still has a clinical emphasis or benefit. Dr. Richards started along this path but was able to translate the skills / knowledge she acquired in undergrad/graduate school to the beauty industry. See her story below…
HEALTHOU: When did your interest in and love for science emerge?
Dr. Richards: My passion for science must have developed at a very early age. It seems that I was always curious about living things in my surroundings that were unusual to me and that typically involved insects and unique plants. By the time I was 8 years old, I had a fascination with ladybugs and was convinced that I could hatch them from ‘jumbie beans’ (brightly colored red seeds with a black spot) which are common in the Caribbean. While I waited on my glass jar of beans to do something else besides rattle at the back of my sock draw, I moved on to collect live bugs in containers filled with leaves that I hoped would keep them happy and hidden in my school desk, but they were destined to escape in swarms and horrify my 3rd grade teacher.
Fortunately, that curiosity was nurtured early on by my mother Mrs. Vernice Hughes who even with meager funds, bought me tools such as a microscope and scientific books for kids. My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Carolyn Henry who believed that 5th grade was the foundation of the rest of your life, helped channel that interest with simple projects that introduced me to the scientific method in an age-appropriate way.
HEALTHOU: What did you major in in college? What led to your decision to pursue that particular course of study?
Dr. Richards: I majored in biology at the University of the Virgin Islands because I had enjoyed that subject in high school more than any other and believed that would provide a good basis for my career; however once I took General Chemistry in college and survived the first semester of Organic, I was surprised to find that chemistry was equally interesting. hards:
HEALTHOU: Did you ever have an interest in pursuing medicine or any other “typical” science career?
Dr. Richards: I was on the pre-med track when I started undergrad as I had plans since elementary school to become a pediatrician. The experience that profoundly changed my path began when my organic chemistry professor, Dr. Meledath Govindan asked me to be a part of his research program that focused on application of chemistry and chemical ecology for isolation of bioactive compounds from marine sources. This was done in collaboration with Dr. Teresa Turner, a marine biology professor who would become one of the most influential persons in my life. I was 18 years old and felt that I was making a difference at that age and could envision how my small contribution could help advance the knowledge in this area and lead to drugs for diseases such as cancer. That was important to me because my grandfather was losing his fight with multiple myeloma. In addition, I had worked at the hospital the year before and while that was valuable, the up-close experience with human suffering was difficult for me.Still, I kept the goal of medical school while I continued to conduct research in natural products chemistry and lipid biochemistry throughout college and trained for both the MCAT and GRE as required by my department. My intent was to pursue the MD/PhD path until an academic advisor in my junior year helped me to identify what I really wanted to do and that was research.
HEALTHOU: How did you decide to pursue a PhD in biochemistry?
Dr. Richards: Most of the graduate programs to which I applied were pharmacognosy/medicinal chemistry ones because of my interest in drug discovery and biomedical research; however the interdisciplinary biochemistry program at The Ohio State University provided training and research opportunities at the interface of chemistry and biology that appealed to my desire to solve problems with multiple approaches. I was fortunate to eventually work on breast cancer in a broad-based research group where my particular focus was on biochemical pathways of aromatase and cyclooxygenase regulation.
HEALTHOU: What did you do after graduate school?
Dr. Richards: My advisor, Dr. Robert Brueggemeier was a considerate person who allowed his students to continue to work in his lab during the transition period after grad school which enabled me to figure out my next steps. For about a year I did a short post-doc focused on gene expression profiling of breast and colon cancer and dabbled in biochemistry lectures for pharmacy students while I explored future career paths.
HEALTHOU: Oftentimes when students think of pursuing a terminal degree in a scientific discipline they usually think academic or clinically related research. Did you ever imagine a career in industry during your training?
Dr. Richards: I never imagined a career in industry because I simply was not aware of the disciplines and depth of science involved in industry. To be frank, there was a stigma associated with industry at least by ‘scientific purists’ that made it seem like less rigorous science and a less challenging path than academia. I had also been supported by NIH training programs throughout my undergrad and grad studies and was interested in NCI but at the same time the additional 6 to 9 years of post-doctoral positions that would be required in order to be competitive for that or even academia was not enticing to me. Ultimately, I wanted to find a way to make a more immediate difference and pragmatically that led me to industry.
HEALTHOU: How did you land a job in industry?
Dr. Richards: Procter & Gamble has an annual 3-day recruiting conference for PhD students/recent PhD graduates who are under-represented minorities, which provides considerable insight into research careers in industry. The program FIRST, was my first exposure to the actual science behind each consumer product which was impressive and the engineers and scientists who have thrived in these business areas. I participated in this conference during my transitional post-doc period which enabled me to meet hiring managers, one of which was a Director in Beauty and that resulted in a day interview in the following month.
HEALTHOU: What is a typical day at work like for you?
Dr. Richards: My role is one where I spend more time in meetings and none at all in the lab. Some other scientists spend more time at the bench which has its advantages. I interact with people across different functions e.g. product development, legal and also with external academic research groups and business partners. I spend dedicated hours on Fridays thinking and also reading scientific papers in more quiet time since my work arrangement allows me to work from home that day. In a typical year I get to travel for clinical studies and to attend scientific conferences in areas such as microbiology and dermatology.
HEALTHOU: Ok, so you work in industry for Procter and Gamble, what exactly does that mean? What do you do? What are some projects that you are currently or have worked on in the past?
Dr. Richards: I develop technical strategies and lead multi-disciplinary teams to discover new materials and clinically evaluate potential technologies for next-generation hair and scalp benefits. Much of what we do involves elements of the drug discovery process including genomics and other molecular profiling techniques, target identification and validation, bioassay development and in vitro analysis in pre-clinical models. A key difference from basic research is that our work needs to have a business purpose and it is imperative to demonstrate how the work can impact business directions and/or results as soon as possible.
My current program is dandruff, which means that I have responsibility for the development of new materials for future Head and Shoulders™ products. This has been a fascinating assignment as it requires me to learn about both scalp biology as well as the biology of the fungus Malassezia that lives on everyone but triggers a flaking, itchy response only in susceptible people. There are several unanswered questions that we hope to resolve.
Five years ago, I led the initiation of a passion project to develop deep technical knowledge of African Ancestry hair, which was a venture I longed to explore as a new hire and continues to be my side project. This has evolved into a much larger business effort to better serve these consumers of multiple hair textures and address their needs and frustrations. It has been so rewarding to see the launch of Pantene™ Gold Series and know that my work helped to influence Black hair care and the creation of products to improve the lives of consumers who share both my hair struggles and its unique delights.
HEALTHOU:What tips would you give to a science undergrad student regarding success in undergrad and transitioning to graduate school and the workforce?
Dr. Richards: Practice. It’s best to uncover what you enjoy and where your strengths lie if you put into practice what you learn in the classroom early on as a student. Find ways to get internships or other experience in your field of interest that will allow you to take the appropriate time and efforts to determine whether this is something you truly want to pursue.
I think the types of students who are drawn to STEM fields are often driven and self-disciplined with much of their lives mapped out; however I want to encourage those of you who don’t have a 5 or 10 year plan, who may need a break to assess your options or still have questions about your abilities or purpose. There may be major obstacles that you have to overcome but if something is your passion, it will be hard to deny that part of yourself or escape your calling. You owe it to yourself to follow it to success or until the road leads you to somewhere else where your talents can be better utilized.
As you transition to graduate school and beyond, always take time for personal development. Diversify your skill-set by attending seminars or deliberately taking classes in subjects outside of your area of expertise. Exposure to different disciplines allows you to make new observations and connections. All of your experiences, no matter the degrees of productivity will add to who you are as a person and ultimately make you better equipped as a scientist or health professional.
Finally, no matter how much I’ve learned, my best tool remains prayer. I pray about opportunities that I desire and for God to direct my path, to close doors not meant for me and to open my eyes to His purpose for my life. In these times where both science and religion are under attack and are often positioned as disparate domains, I hope that you will continue to embrace and engage your faith in God for your best chances of success in your scientific/health career and other aspects of your life.
Dr. Jeanette Richards was born in Dominica and grew up in the US Virgin Islands. She currently works as a Senior Scientist in the Beauty Technology Division at Procter and Gamble. Among many other things, she is an amazing cook, baker and hostess. She credits family support and God’s providence and leading for her success.