Faces of Science


The CTPA education portal | Free educational resources for Schools and Colleges
Faces of Science
Meet the Faces

Meet the Faces

Photo of Mike Brown

Careers

MEET MIKE BROWN, AN INDUSTRY SCIENTIST WHO HAS WORKED FOR YEARS ON PRODUCTS THAT PROTECT THE SKIN FROM SUN DAMAGE.

What is your job title and what are the main characteristics of your day-to-day work?

My job title is Suncare Scientific Advisor. There are so many aspects to what I do. I ensure that the latest technology and all future technology is incorporated into our products. I find out what is going on in the world of suncare and make sure our products are as technologically advanced as they can be. I look at what other companies are using and also what new raw materials are becoming available. We work with raw material suppliers to get uniquely designed ingredients to our specifications. I look at completely different industries to see if any technology there might be useful in sunscreens. For example, titanium dioxide, which is used as a reflector in sunscreens, came from the paint industry as it is used there to reflect light to produce a white colour so we adapted it and now use it to reflect ultraviolet light from the surface of the skin, rather than white light. I have to think laterally to come up with fresh ideas. I liaise with academics, hospitals, universities, and other organisations that carry out relevant research. I see how their findings fit in with our products. We fund some research and co-operate with others and I read published research papers to keep me informed. Sometimes I speak directly with the researchers to find out more.

"We work with raw material suppliers to get uniquely designed ingredients."

Does the research change the way you operate?

Yes. When I started working in suncare in 1986, it was thought that UVB rays were the bad rays that burnt you and UVA rays were safe and gave you a tan. It was only through research and by talking to researchers in the field that it became obvious that UVA rays were also bad for the skin.

What area of science (if any) do you use in your current job?

I graduated in Biochemistry and one of the problems in the cosmetics industry is that the Chemists are mainly interested in making the products, the bonding and molecular interactions of the ingredients with each other and making sure that the chemistry of the product is effective and safe. The biologists are primarily interested in how the products interact with human skin. Biochemistry is the best of both worlds as you know about both and in my job I have to communicate to both Chemists and Biologists and act as an intermediary so they both understand each other. I also translate the science from the labs to the marketing people in a language they can understand.

Do you work in a specific department – if yes, is there a mix of speciality staff?

I tend to float around between departments although I’m largely based in two departments.
On the commercial side I work with the product introduction team who are responsible for managing and trading new products either in our own labs or from other companies. I also work with the Category Marketing team that decide what products will actually go on the shelf. On the technical side, I work with the development teams formulating and testing new products for efficacy and safety.

"It's a constant battle between offering the consumer what they want and also not confusing them with too many product choices."

There are so many different suncare products available already, why do you need more?

It’s a constant battle between offering the consumer what they want and also not confusing them with too many product choices. If you discontinue a product, there will always be some people who miss it. Different people want different things from a product which is whey there are so many formulations – all to try and give the consumer what they want.

What other departments/professions do you work with e.g. production, marketing, sales?

I work with just about everyone: product development who formulate new products, product evaluation who test the products do what they should safely, category marketing who decide what goes into shops, and marketing who do brand advertising. I’m also the scientific spokesman for our PR department. I occasionally get involved in production and manage our external research. I don’t have teams of people that I tell what to do, I am more a one-man band who has to influence a wide variety of people to do what you think they should be doing.

What made you choose your current job and why in the cosmetics industry?

"I wanted to apply my science and work on projects that would benefit people in a tangible, real way."

After my degree in Biochemistry I worked in academia doing research for 7 years. I worked on a couple of different projects and loved doing research but it’s poorly paid and there is no job security because you work on short-term contracts. When I got married and had a child, I wanted more job security but I still wanted to apply my science and work on projects that would benefit people in a tangible, real way. I looked round for jobs that met this criteria and accepted the first one I was offered. When I first joined this company, I worked in a department making sure that products really did work in the way they were supposed to and this included suncare products protecting people’s skin.

What are the most exciting aspects of what you do?

The fact that when I walk through the door in the morning I have no idea what is going to happen. No matter how much I plan a day, it’s always different as I get unexpected calls and emails from people. I meet and talk to people from all over the world and recently gave a presentation in Washington, which someone emailed me about today. Sometimes I’m in the lab and find out something new about a product and the way it works and that’s always exciting. It’s also a buzz to walk into a shop and see a product on the shelves that I was involved in putting there. It makes your work real.

Is there anything you don’t really enjoy in your day-to-day work?

I don’t like the fact that I end up working late most evenings. I enjoy what I’m doing but it gets quite consuming.

Are there any specific skills that are essential to have in the job you do?

"You need to be a lateral thinker, because to develop new ideas you need to think differently about the world from most of the people around you."

A lot of what I do is like PR work. I need to be able to communicate in the right language to different people. One moment I might be discussing the intricacies of the products’ chemistry with a researcher in academia and then later I might be talking to someone who’s putting together some information on sun safety for a pupils’s television programme. You need to communicate well with both and change your language. You need to be very analytical, look at situations and pull out relevant observations and learning. You also need to be a lateral thinker because to develop new ideas you need to think differently about the world from most of the people around you.

We need people with a scientific research aptitude and that seems to be harder to find these days. We need people who challenge and question why things happen and try different experiments to work out why. Too many graduates these days seem to be great at following processes and recording results but don’t have the questioning mindset. Some of the greatest scientists we have here are notoriously bad at writing things down but come up with very original ideas.

Could someone come into your job straight from school? What skills/qualifications would they need?

To do my job you would need a degree and a considerable amount of experience in the cosmetic industry. You could gain that experience in the company if you came from school but it would obviously take a number of years. One of my colleagues at my level came straight from school and worked their way up through our training scheme, doing a degree whilst working.

Did you receive any special training either before or during your first year of working in your current role?

No

Did your previous job prepare you for this one?

All my previous roles informed me and allowed me to build my knowledge so that I could become a Scientific Advisor. To do this job, you need to have experience in a variety of fields and a broad knowledge to understand the interactions between the different departments. I have to understand the processes in each department to ensure the formulators aren’t making something that can’t be tested and the testers aren’t doing tests that don’t tell the formulators anything.

Is there anything you wished you had studied or done differently when you were younger?

No – although I wished I’d worked harder when I was doing my A-levels, as I didn’t get the grades I wanted and had to do a different course at university because of that.

"I had the option to switch to medicine but I was enjoying Biochemistry so much that I stuck with that."

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?

All through school, I wanted to be a doctor as I wanted to do something meaningful with my life, but when I didn’t get the A-level grades to do medicine, I decided to do Biochemistry at university instead. I had the option to switch to medicine after my first year but by that time I was enjoying Biochemistry so much that I stuck with that.

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 thoroughly enjoy Biochemistry and I’m very glad I was made to study Maths at school. I couldn’t see the relevance of what I was learning in Maths at the time, but it is very important, and particularly for scientists.

With your skills and qualifications, what do you hope to achieve next in your career?

I’m happy doing what I’m doing. Over my time working in suncare I have built up a reputation in the UK and now represent the UK trade association at European level. I suppose the next step would be to develop a professional reputation outside of Europe - worldwide. I’m also driven to continually improve the quality of the products I work on. I think I’ve become so inter-twined with my job that it’s hard to distinguish between what’s a personal thing and what’s a company related ambition.

What are your recommendations to teenagers about sunscreen and suncare?

"We need people who challenge and question why things happen and try different experiments to work out why."

Protect your skin from the sun as much as you possibly can because not only is sunburn painful, but every time you burn your skin, you increase your chances of skin cancer. If you do want to sit in the sun and get a tan, do it as safely as possible. Avoid the strong mid-day sun and build up your exposure gradually so you do not burn. Do not be afraid to use sunscreens because you will still tan if you wear them. Learn which is the most appropriate product for your skin in different sun conditions. If you’re in strong sun conditions or you are going to be in the sun for a long period of time, make sure you use a higher factor sunscreen. Always start using a higher factor and reduce the factor if you want to. There are lots of variables in skin type, which can be confusing because what works for one person doesn’t for someone else. The government advice is to always use at least a factor 15 or above, which is sensible advice.

Click here to find out more about following a career in this industry