Lauren Eberly - Research Scientist, North America
As a research scientist, I’m drawn to the element of discovery. My career highlight remains when I went out to sea during my graduate work for two weeks to record data on deep ocean currents. While working on the deck of the ship, a sea lion jumped up onto it a mere four feet away. I completed the rest of my shift with my new marine companion - it’s hard to beat that!
Now I work in Research and Development in skin cleansing formulation at Unilever. Operating in an industry setting means I can add real value to my community. Here I can experience the excitement of the results of my work on store shelves: products that improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people every day. It’s the most rewarding feeling. In a role like mine I’m continually discovering new, sometimes ground-breaking things.
Here are my reasons why Research and Development is changing the game for scientists and the potential it can bring for anyone considering it as a career:
Competitive business – creative scientists
My work at Unilever is focused on mathematical, predictive, and statistical modelling. The role relies on the use of simulation modelling; this is a highly emerging field in the science world. By using a super computer to work through calculations at lightning speed, we are increasingly building products optimally made to consumer preferences while cutting down the need for lengthy and costly field tests.
One great advantage of simulation modelling is that it enables scientists to spend less time collecting data and more time analysing it. This is better for our researchers who get to focus on the fun, discovery side of science rather than on the repetition of time-consuming experiments. It is also better for business by putting the intelligence and experience of its scientists to much more effective use.
Unilever encourages innovation and is excited to incorporate these new technologies and cutting-edge research methods.
In an effort to take full advantage of the intellect of Unilever’s employee body, creativity is encouraged in everyone, whatever their role. As a mathematician who has spent much of my academic career stuck in purely technical roles, I find this incredibly refreshing. As a team, we’ve participated in “inspiration walks” (where we visit different types of stores) and brainstorming sessions complete with flowers and markers. Not to mention, we work in a laboratory environment that gives us the freedom to explore.
We aren’t just selling a product, we’re selling an experience. The way Unilever fosters creativity enables us scientists to do this successfully in an experiential space.
How Unilever is helping scientists change the game
The other great thing about being a scientist at Unilever is the amount of freedom we are given. When I was looking for a job, one of the biggest qualities I prioritized was an independent working environment. There is very little sense of hierarchy here. If I have an idea I can take it straight to senior people like Directors or Vice Presidents. As long as my idea is of benefit to the business, they will give me the green light to go ahead and make it work. This kind of freedom is so important when we are trying to get new technologies off the ground.
My goal here is to translate consumer responses to scientific measurements. So when a consumer says “Product A is creamier than Product B,” we can translate “creamier” to measurable parameters in an effort to better guide our product development. So far, I have developed a few measurement protocols that are currently being used by many of our groups.
Whenever I’ve needed help, I have managers, directors, and other team members who are eager to lend their expertise. Unilever is further reaching out to a wide range of universities, institutes and other agencies to try and get these new technologies off the ground.
A great example of these new technologies is Unilever’s biggest innovation in deodorants in over 40 years. By redesigning compressed deodorant cans, they now give our consumers the same performance as regular cans and are also more environmentally friendly. This is enabling Unilever to hit its Sustainable Living Plan targets while tailoring increasingly to the needs of the consumer.
Choosing to work in Research and Development
I’ve seen many other first-hand examples of how Unilever encourages innovation and is excited to incorporate these new technologies and cutting-edge research methods. I knew I was going to be pushed and challenged in this role and that I wouldn’t be sacrificing the excitement of discovery found in an academic setting.
As more tools are developed in the future, the people behind our innovations will only grow more diverse. The R&D department at Unilever already ranges from scientists to hairdressers and chefs, who have the skills to evaluate new products. I would recommend this career to anyone who not only enjoys science but has a keen interest in business strategy.
What it takes for a career in Research and Development
To make a best-selling product (my personal favorite of Unilever’s being Simple Face Wipes), we need to have an understanding of all areas of the business from technical formulation to supply chain to marketing. Thus, someone who is able to see the big picture will do very well at a company like Unilever. Obviously we need people with strong technical skills but basic skills like communication, self-sufficiency are key as well.
Writing code for simulation models requires a high level of math and numerics expertise; but the ability to see patterns in a pile of raw data isn’t taught in a text book. As such, I would advise anyone working in this arena to cultivate their imagination. Take that pottery class you’ve been thinking about, learn a new language, or sign up for a jazz theory seminar – you never know what might spark your next creative idea.
Computers are extremely useful tools but being a unique thinker is one of the most valuable ways to distinguish someone in this competitive and emerging field. Ultimately, it’s your human creativity that will be most in demand.