MEET DEIRDRE WALTERS, AN ORAL CARE PRODUCT RESEARCHER WHO TRANSLATES CONSUMER NEEDS INTO TECHNICAL REALITIES.
What is your job title and what are the main characteristics of your day-to-day work?
I am a Product Researcher in Oral Care Product Research and Development.
My role is both consumer and technically orientated. I work with consumers to understand what they want from a product, and I can then translate what this means for the formulators so they can continue to update the technology and make it into an even better product. Our department works on toothpaste, tooth whitening products, denture adhesives, mouth rinses, flosses, and brushes. I also have to decode the science used in product development for our sales and marketing people, so that they can understand the technical aspects of a product and communicate them to the consumer, trade customers and dental professionals.
What area of science (if any) do you use in your current job?
I have a chemistry degree and use it in the technical aspects of my job. When dealing with consumers though, I also tend to use a lot of psychology training and research techniques as well in order to help them articulate what it is they need or want and then I have to translate that to chemical and physical properties like pH or viscosity. In terms of oral care, I need to understand the mouth – the physiology of the mouth, the biochemistry of the interactions between products and the tissues in the mouth. I also need to understand microbiology. My degree was general science in the first year and in the second year I did some biochemistry before specialising in chemistry and I draw on a lot of my university knowledge on an everyday basis.
Do you work in a specific department – if yes, is there a mix of speciality staff?
We have a mixture of staff in the Oral Care Product Development department. We have product researchers and technology development formulators who do the technology development and work with material suppliers to get new ingredients to upgrade our products. We also have a process group who make sure we can manufacture and they have a lot of engineering expertise. Then we have a packaging development group with specialities in engineering and materials science. There is also a clinical organisation and a microbiology analytical group. We also have statisticians who help us to draw conclusions from the data in our large-scale product surveys. We have about 50 core staff with another 20 or so support staff like the microbiology analytical group who also support the beauty care areas as well as oral care. The company also has a very large Oral Care research group in Cincinnati in the US and another large Oral Care research group in China. We are responsible for Western & Eastern Europe, African and Middle-Eastern markets. The US covers North and South America and Canada. China is responsible for the Asian market. We get together roughly once a year and speak to each other weekly if not daily, depending on the project. It can be difficult with time zones but it's interesting working with different ideas and cultural backgrounds
What other departments/professions do you work with e.g. production, marketing, sales?
When thinking about a new product, we would have a representative from Research and Development but also there would be people from Marketing, the Consumer Market Knowledge Group, a Sales Group, a Professional Marketing group who market to dentists. We also work with the advertising agency who develop the advertising that uses the claims, communication and visuals that we have prepared
What made you choose your current job and why in the cosmetics industry?
I’ve always been fascinated by beauty products – my bathroom at home is overflowing with them. I really like the industry because it is so fast moving – much more so than the drugs industry. The cosmetics industry is constantly moving forwards with new innovations. It’s also great to be able to walk into a shop at the weekend and see the products you’ve helped to develop. It’s a very tangible industry – your friends and family will always be telling you what they like and don’t like about products. I originally joined the company to do manufacturing as I thought it would be very team-based. I had thought product development was very lab based and insular and I wanted more interaction. Whilst I was working in Manufacturing, I realised that people who work in Research and Development also work with the consumer. When I was in university I was interested in psychology and marketing and business and the role I have now in product development combines all the human interaction and business aspects I’m interested in with the technical aspects I like. I’ve learned that being a scientist does not tie you to a white coat and lab specs – it can be quite interactive, fun and exciting. I work in a large company and in 8 years have changed jobs a lot and worked on many different products. I’ve been able to try a wide variety of things and gain new experiences.
What are the most exciting aspects of what you do?
I love working with consumers on a day-to-day basis. When they’ve tried a new product you’re working on and you’re sitting there waiting for their verdict. Then you have to think about what needs to be changed, what should be kept, what should there be more of or less of to make the product better.
Is there anything you don’t really enjoy in your day-to-day work?
Being tied to a schedule and being in the office for certain hours each day but it’s necessary for the team and process to work. Going through regulatory and safety assessment can be routine but it has to be done to ensure the product is safe for the consumer.
Are there any specific skills that are essential to have in the job you do?
Personal leadership to be able to take on a project and see it through to the end and determination to drive things forward to make the consumer’s dream a reality. Collaboration skills are important as we work in a multi-functional and diverse environment with many different types of people and we have to work together to successfully launch the product. Business acumen is important – scientists need to understand the real world to provide products that are wanted.
Could someone come into your job straight from school? What skills/qualifications would they need?
You can enter Research and Development at my company in 2 ways. You can do an internship in your penultimate year of university and spend 3 months with us working through an intensive programme or you can apply directly if you have a PhD. There is a continuous training and development program that evolves with your career.
Did you receive any special training either before or during your first year of working in your current role?
There is formal and informal training. You learn about the company formally and then, when you start working on a project, you have a mentor who informally coaches you in what you need to know. You will be given a training plan of courses to attend according to your needs, as well as receiving mentoring from others in different departments.
Did your previous job prepare you for this one?
I came straight from university and this company usually recruits from within so most people in the company have worked their way up and have lived through similar experiences, which is good as it means your manager will understand what you’re going through because they also went through the experience.
Is there anything you wished you had studied or done differently when you were younger?
Languages as we work with so many different countries and so many different consumers. Other employees in the company always have to speak to me in English and I would love to be able to reply in their own language. The other thing I would love to know more about is business and marketing. I have studied marketing in my own time outside of work but I wish I could have done a little at university, as it’s useful to understand the business in which we’re going to launch the product
At school what did you think you would do for a living? For instance, did you envisage your sciences being used in the cosmetics industry?
I knew I liked working with people, I knew I liked working on projects, I knew I liked beauty products, but I didn’t know what career would tie all those things together. I briefly wanted to be a psychologist but I wasn’t interested in the therapy side – I just wanted to understand more about how the mind works and I do use some of that when working with consumers.
What subjects are you glad you studied? Were there any that were not immediately obvious as useful to your career but now are proving helpful, e.g. languages?
I’m obviously glad I studied Chemistry. I didn’t think I would need Physics but it has been incredibly useful, as has Maths. I hated Biology with a passion, as it just seemed to be learning facts and figures for no reason. Chemistry you could understand why reactions happened and apply your knowledge. In industry Biology gets applied and it has therefore become more interesting. I remember once I was reading a Biochemistry book thinking it was very boring, when they had an example about how hair dyes work and I could see the application of the knowledge, it made more sense and became interesting. In my current role I use all the Sciences and Maths as they don’t work in isolation. We need to have a much more holistic approach to the application of how all sciences work together so that we can consider the situation from lots of different angles.
With your skills and qualifications, what do you hope to achieve next in your career?
I am enjoying what I’m doing but for my next career move I will be moving into management in the R&D business, looking at the long-term developments for the future, making sure we have plans for 5 and 10 years down the line and the right skills in the department to achieve what we want to in that time. I would miss the more hands on / day-day aspects of working with consumers and the more technical aspects though.
Why is it important to look after your teeth and what is the best way to care for your teeth?
Dentists are right to tell us to brush twice a day, after meals and also to floss. I used to think my dentist was being a pain but now I see the reasons why. I’ve seen the effects on people who don’t look after their teeth both physical and emotional effects. If you lose a tooth, it can make you lose confidence. We are more emotionally connected to our teeth than we realise and we can prevent losing them. We can’t prevent hair loss or aging but we can prevent tooth loss so we should think of the future and make sure we brush and floss as our dentist tells us to.