Because They’re Worth It: Chemistry Students Win Top Prizes in L’Oréal STEM Intensive

January 31, 2022
Portrait collage of five students

Five chemistry graduate students won top prizes in the Product Development & Innovation Intensive competition. The semester-long program, a partnership with the L’Oréal Groupe, Yale Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, Greenberg Engineering Teaching Concourse, and Tsai CITY, gave STEM students an insider’s look at innovation and consumer goods development with large organizations.

Participants from across the university were selected to learn about the entire product design process from L’Oréal’s top leaders, and gained hands-on experience developing a product through weekly working sessions, lectures, and lab work. Teams of students collaborated on projects either to create new formulations or design skin and hair care products, and pitched their inventions in the final presentation competition for cash prizes. The multidisciplinary approach meant that each team member contributed knowledge from their degree program, such as chemistry, biology, economics, and management. Tanya Townsend, Haote Li, Sooyun Choi, Grace Meng, and Emma Wang represented Chemistry on the winning teams.

“It was really neat to be mentored by L’Oréal scientists and to get the advice of the two women who ran the program,” said Tanya Townsend, 5th-year Ph.D. candidate from the Hazari Lab and leader of Team Regera, the 1st place winners. “The mentors gave us feedback and pointed us in the right direction during formulation and testing of our prototype, and the lectures gave us an overview of different topics, like the science of skin and hair. It was an invaluable experience.”

Team Regera’s winning project was the development of a sustainable, eco-friendly way of introducing additives to create tinted sunscreens that more naturally resemble a variety of skin tones rather than the standard white formula. The team made and tested ten different formulas and used instrumentation in Yale’s Chemical and Biophysical Instrumentation Center, Kline Chemistry Laboratory, and a lab in the Engineering Department to find the best additives and concentrations to use. The team, whose invention also won the Audience Choice Award, is currently considering a patent with L’Oréal.

“Through participating in the program, I learned what role chemistry plays in the marketing and production processes in the cosmetics industry,” said Haote Li, member of the Regera Team and 3rd-year Ph.D. candidate from the Batista Lab. “In addition, I was looking for an opportunity to get a sense of what ‘industry’ is in terms of the interpersonal atmosphere. And I am very satisfied with this experience of cooperation. This allows me to consider more possibilities of careers in the future.”

The panel of L’Oréal and Yale judges awarded the 3rd place prize to Team MESH for their creation of a sustainable, single-use simple moisturizer, which adheres to new legislation prohibiting hotels from using single-use plastic bottles. Graduate students Sooyun Choi, a 5th-year Ph.D. candidate from the Miller Lab, and Emma Wang, a 4th-year Ph.D. candidate from the Loria Lab, mixed and tested the product formulation.

“Our team came up with a base formula using shea butter and presented a prototype wrapped in biodegradable rice paper candy wrappers,” Choi explains. “Our selling points were to appeal to the mass that considers sustainability when making purchases, but also the modern consumer on the go who cares about aesthetics.”

Grace Meng, a 3rd-year Ph.D. candidate from the O’Hern Group, described the project that landed her team, Forest, 2nd place. “Our project was a handheld device and machine learning algorithm for taking photos of the skin to identify potential problem areas before they appear,” Meng explained. “The handheld device is designed to be used with a mobile phone and can take cross-polarized photos. The machine learning portion of the project is meant to classify the skin condition and recommend products for treatment.”

The experience was especially exciting for the chemistry students because it was organized and run by Stephanie Laga ‘20 Ph.D., chemistry alumna of the Mayer Lab and senior chemist at L’Oréal. Laga’s past participation in the program and winning project on an innovative hair product resulted in a patent, internship, and subsequent career with the beauty company. The opportunity brought new meaning to the slogan “because you’re worth it.”

Chemistry graduate students, Kamila Nurmakova, Sarah Ostresh, Qixuan Yu and undergraduate student Alec Chai also participated in the intensive.