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DR. R. BLYTHE TOWAL is a biomedical engineer at the California Institute of Technology practicing computational neuroscience of vision. Towal is most interested in using the brain to inspire different technologies in computer vision of robotics and also using robotics and computer vision to help inspire theories about the brain.
This story first appeared in the October 14, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
DR. KARLIN BARK is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of haptics, the study of the sense of touch. She is working on several projects, one being the development of devices that recreate the sense of touch, such as in surgical robotics, since surgeons using robotic devices can’t feel what they are working on. She is aiming to try to give them some tactile input.
DR. SASHA DEVORE is pursuing postdoctoral research in neuroscience at Cornell University. She studies how different areas of the brain communicate with each other — more specifically, how high-level areas of the brain responsible for decision making or communicating information to more sensory areas control what information the brain is taking in.
DR. TRISHA ANDREW is a postdoctoral researcher at MIT and is working on making a device that is one-tenth the width of a human hair that can absorb enough light to power common household items, such as a clock.
DR. TIJANA IVANOVIC, a postdoctoral researcher in the field of virology at Harvard University (she works remotely from the University of Colorado, where her husband teaches) is studying how viruses enter cells, specifically how the influenza virus breaks the membrane of a cell.
Five women in the field of science recently had their lives changed by winning L’Oréal’s Women in Science Fellowship Award, which endows each winner with a $60,000 prize to be used toward their respective research, from neuroscience to chemistry to engineering. This year’s group is the eighth set of female scientists to be selected by an interdisciplinary review panel and jury of nine scientists and engineers. The American Association for the Advancement of Science managed the peer-review process. The group was also treated to four days in Washington D.C., where the activities included networking with their peers, attending professional development seminars and perhaps the most fun perk of all: a personal tour of the White House and meeting Bo, the first dog. The day before a special luncheon at the Kennedy Caucus Room, where the winners were formally honored, the group sat down with Beauty Inc to discuss how the fellowship will propel their research and what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s field.
BI: I’d like to wish everyone congratulations. You’ve bested more than 200 applicants for this fellowship. From what I understand, while the number consistently increases, there are still relatively few women in the field. How did you become interested in science?
SASHA: For me, it was just being that curious kid. But also being in the right place at the right time, and sort of having an awesome never-ending series of teachers and mentors to give those subtle pushes in the right direction.
BI: Is being a woman an obstacle in your field?
SASHA: Personally, I have never felt that it has been an obstacle but I have also been extremely fortunate in that three out of my four graduate mentors and post-doc advisors have actually been females, so I’ve always had these strong female role models around me. But I am very aware that there are obstacles that women face and that it’s not necessarily an even playing field.
BLYTHE: I wouldn’t say [being a woman is necessarily an] obstacle, but it has been a little bit more difficult being the only woman in a room of maybe 60 other men in classes and things like that. It wasn’t a roadblock, but it could be intimidating, I guess, for some people. I started out in electrical engineering, which is one of the more extreme cases [where men outnumber women].
TIJANA: I never believed that I couldn’t do something because I am a woman or that there could be an obstacle that would be specific to me. I pushed 100 percent throughout education and throughout life. The time I felt there are real differences is when I decided to have a child. You are the one who is pregnant for nine months. You are the one who is going through labor and recovering from it. And you are the primary caretaker — even if your husband is helping a lot. You are the one who is breast feeding the child and who has to be there every two hours and so on. And throughout that you have to push your career. You don’t want anyone knowing that it is slowing you down at all. So you have to find this extra energy.
BI: So your peers may not be able to relate to the stress of raising a child and also having a career?
TIJANA: I have an amazing advisor who is incredibly supportive who is a male and he is just wonderful. My husband started a faculty position at the University of Colorado while I was doing postdoc at Harvard Medical School and [my advisor] even offered that I move to Colorado to join my husband so that the family could stay together. He said that he would continue to provide support and guidance for me to continue postdoc from a remote location, which I think is incredible and unheard of.
BI: Why do you think there aren’t more women in science?
SASHA: I could be wrong, but there are a lot of women starting out in science but the numbers drop off the higher you progress up the professional chain. I think it’s the same in business, too.
BI: What would you attribute that to?
SASHA: I think it has to do with the work/life balance.
BLYTHE: I think it may have something to do with not having many role models or mentors that are above you as you go higher and higher. It is a very useful thing to find the right role model or mentors as you go higher, be they men or women, just someone open to the idea.
KARLIN: There is a stereotype that still exits — I am in engineering — and so when you think of an engineer you may think of someone who is working on cars or when they were kids they built radios. I never did any of that stuff. So young girls now, if they just had more exposure to what’s possible in the science of engineering, they might realize at an earlier age that this is something that they want to do. Having role models and mentors and seeing someone who’s like them doing that has a huge effect.
BI: Do any of you think that companies can do more to appeal to female scientists?
BLYTHE: Well, L’Oréal is doing a great thing here for women in science. Companies could just show women more support, not necessarily through a fellowship program, but by promoting women or having more women involved at higher levels of the company. So again, getting these role models and mentors in there to show that women can actually progress in their company and there is a possibility for them if they go there.
TRISHA: I wanted to point out again that L’Oréal is doing a great thing. The specific award they are giving for $60,000 is essentially toward our professional development and that allows us to take a leadership role in whatever activity we want to do. So we can control the reins and set the foundation for advancing our careers. Instead of having something more restrictive, we can basically choose our own path and plan for the future and even possibly use this in the early stages of our independent research labs. It is very unique and also very powerful.
TIJANA: When I moved from Harvard to University of Colorado I had to leave behind a certain technology that was essential for doing my research. What made it possible for me to continue my research was the L’Oréal fellowship, which is funding the major portion of building a special microscope that my research requires.
BI: Are there any discoveries within your respective research that in your wildest dreams may be applied to beauty in some way?
BLYTHE: My research studies where you look or what catches your eye so that may have tremendous implications in the beauty world if we figure out what brain processes direct our eyes to different things.
BI: I believe the beauty industry uses this type of technology when it comes to advertising and where the eye looks first on the page and why. Is this similar?
BLYTHE: They are related. They know a lot about this in terms of how one always tends to look at bright, shiny things with lights and lots of color and things like that. But there is also a significant amount of where we look that we can’t quite explain. Also, when you start adding moving components it becomes a little more complicated. For example, if you are walking down the street and you’re hungry you might tend to look at food items, even though they’re not as bright and shiny or colorful. So it depends a lot on your own internal drives as well.
BI: So you might miss the bag of money.
BLYTHE: Right. Because you’re so hungry.
KARLIN: As for my research, it’s not so much beauty product related but in fashion for online shopping, if you want to know what some fabric feels like, if it’s going to be like a rough piece of wool or a soft piece of silk, to know what the texture is. I foresee that in the next 20 years you’ll have something like that on your touchpad, a little section where you can feel what the fabric is.
TIJANA: You never know where research can lead. What possibilities it can open up. For example, I study viruses and you say these are pathogens. They are bad things. Like, how can they be beneficial in any way? Actually, it turns out that viruses, certain viruses, are not that dangerous. Like the bacteria that produces this very potent neurotoxin, botulism, and it turns out when you really understand how something works you can actually take it and apply it the way you want so you can use it as a treatment for some conditions or as an anti-wrinkle agent.
SASHA: I don’t personally apply my research in this direction but I study basic sensory processing, so I used to study how we hear and now I study how we smell. Those have very direct applications especially in olfaction and smell for the fragrance industry.
TRISHA: I can’t even try [to come up with how my research is related to beauty].
Lots of laughter from the group.
TRISHA: But that’s the great thing about this award. L’Oréal is a traditional cosmetics company but very tangentially by funding me they are investing in renewable resources.
BI: Do any of you think that beauty products might be different if there were more women creating them?
TRISHA: Any time there is greater female participation or even gender equality in any field, it is always good. I’m not going to say that a particular brand is better if there is a woman making it instead of a man. But any time there are more female scientists behind a commercial product it helps the public realize that science is everywhere and chemistry is everywhere. If having a woman behind it allows more nonscientists to aspire to those fields and not separate themselves from science and technology as much as people tend to [then that’s great].
BI: If you did have the technology to create any kind of beauty product what would it be?
BLYTHE: I would invent something that would minimize the amount of time I would have to spend [on a beauty regimen] so that I could do more research.
TIJANA: Something that makes you look really refreshed after you have a couple of all-nighters.
SASHA: A mind-reading robot that could read your mind about how you would like to look and then make you look that way.
KARLIN: Mine is kind of simple. Sometimes I put on liquid eyeliner but my hand’s kind of shaky and I can’t put it on so I have to wait for it to dry to take it off and reapply.
TRISHA: I’m Indian so it’s always either removing hair or keeping hair. Trying to decide on a really quick hair removal that doesn’t smell.
BI: As scientists and doctors, when you hear about a new technology in the beauty world, maybe via a commercial or a magazine, are you immediately skeptical of the science behind it?
SASHA: As scientists, we are probably all extremely critical people and be it a beauty product — any product — or a scientific paper in our field, you read it with a discerning eye. We would apply the same critiques to an article we are reading in Science Magazine that we would to the science behind a beauty product.
TRISHA: There’s no difference, there’s no low or high-brow signs. Any time a company chooses to use the concept of science to plug a product it’s really good. A friend and former fellow was given a chance to work at the L’Oréal labs in New Jersey and she came back pretty impressed with the degree of accuracy and peer review processes. Jumping to the conclusion or denigrating the science that is presented in an ad is not very scientific. Taking caution is the best way to go.
KARLIN: On the one hand we might have a greater appreciation because a lot of times research is very incremental and it takes a lot of work to make a really small improvement and you get super excited about it. Knowing that in cosmetics there’s much that goes behind it, so when they say it’s a more voluminous mascara a lot of work went into doing that.
TRISHA: We were told earlier this morning about a L’Oréal fragrance-free coloring system [INOA] and I’m a chemist, so all I’m thinking is, there is chemistry behind this. It’s not like someone just made up this random series of words. A team of chemists came up with this. There is science in everything.
BI: What are each of your favorite beauty products and did you choose it because of the science behind it or was it just trial and error that brought you to the product?
BLYTHE: My favorite beauty product is actually the thing that holds my hair back out of my face. [Laughs.] No, really, I often wear lip gloss and I am very discerning because my lips get very dry in the lab.
TIJANA: I’m not a person who uses beauty products a lot, but I recently tried a lip gloss and putting it on was a lot of fun. Then, after I came home from having dinner and a couple of drinks, I saw myself in the mirror and my lips were still shiny. I thought that was really cool.
SASHA: I have really sensitive skin so it is always hard for me to find a face wash and moisturizer that will either make me not completely dry or oily. For me, when I find the right products, I buy them 10 at a time.
BI: Do all of you read the ingredients list and does that spur a purchase?
TRISHA: I do. I’m a chemist. I like Redken and I settled on it by reading the labels. I found out I liked a particular active ingredient as opposed to the ones that are not in most common products that don’t work. After an undergraduate education I figured out why that doesn’t work, so when I saw Redken was different, I tried it out.
KARLIN: Not being a chemist, I don’t read the ingredients but I do read the little ad labels that say “more volume” or “more shiny.”
BI: Are you uberimpressed by your peers here?
IN UNISON: All of them!
TRISHA: I totally feel eclipsed by all of these awesome engineers doing this touch-sensitive stuff, the eye movements.
BI: What is the ultimate goal of your research?
SASHA: The ultimate goal is not something that I directly work on, that would be on the medical side, but I pass my information on and have what is called translational research, so you translate what you’re doing at the bench into a model that would work for the human medical model.
KARLIN: What I’ll be working on with this fellowship is looking at stroke rehabilitation. The goal of that is to develop a low-cost at-home rehabilitation system that patients can use that emulates the presence or the touch of a physical therapist. What happens a lot right now, especially with this one specific set of stroke patients, is they have visual reception sensory damage and if you ask them to stick their arm out in a certain pose it will end up somewhere else but the patient thinks she is properly replicating the pose. The way the physical therapists rehabilitate that is by doing a lot of repetitions and doing this motion over and over. The physical therapists came to us and said it would be really great if we could make a device that patients could take home and practice more often and help them rehabilitate faster.
BLYTHE: I started out in robotics and electrical engineering and one of my first jobs was to train a robot to make a cut with a knife, and one thing that really frustrated me while I was doing this project is that I was using state-of-the-art engineering approaches but this was still so hard. That made me wonder exactly what I’m doing and what my brain is doing to make a cut. That’s where I really got interested in this bio-inspired or neuro-inspired engineering, where I actually go through and look at the brain and figure out what algorithms the brain is using to do these complicated motions and then take that information back and try to build better robotics technology.
TIJANA: Ultimately, I would like to create a very detailed picture of a virus entering into cells. What my work promises to do is to visualize the transition and to get a molecular movie of the event that takes you from before fusion to after fusion. This type of knowledge can then inform drug design in targeting and preventing the influenza virus.
TRISHA: Our goal is to make renewable energy or any device that can harness the sun’s energy very cheaply and cost effectively. What we have done so far is we can put solar cells on anything you want — for example, we have made solar cells on a page of The New York Times, so if you take it out in the sun it can power, say, a clock. That’s kind of like the display version. What we have also done is make brightly colored plastic sheets that can fit as window panes, so we can do a wall of windows in your apartment, like a design or different colors, and that colored window is actually harvesting the sun’s energy that could power your TV.
BI: How did you find out you won this award? Was it like the Academy Awards, when someone just calls your house to let you know you were nominated?
BLYTHE: Most of us had a similar story where L’Oréal called us and we didn’t pick up the phone. We got a message to call back. Many of us were very hopeful at that point thinking, “Why would they call us if we didn’t get it?”
KARLIN: They called me on a Friday and I didn’t pick up the phone and I spent the whole weekend analyzing whether they would call to let me know I didn’t get it and I thought they could if they were being really nice.
SASHA: I didn’t answer the phone either. I have really bad cell reception in my office so I tried calling back a million times. I walked into my advisor’s office and said I had just gotten a message from L’Oréal, what do you think that means? And she started jumping up and down.
TIJANA: For me, my entire world transformed because it was between no, you can’t do your work or yes, you can do your work. When I moved to Colorado my work essentially had to stop because I needed to build a microscope and when I won, I knew it was possible [to continue].
TRISHA: I’m the only one of the five fellows who actually picked up my phone. I saw a New York number and I picked up my phone and they said, “Hi, this is L’Oréal and we are calling to tell you that you are a fellow.” Right then and there, I just started yelling and screaming and jumping up and down. I ran into the hallway and I was jumping so loud, [the woman on the phone] said, “Let me call you back and let you process this information.”