“We Could Trust our own Instincts:” Catching up with Stephanie Laga
Last fall, Tsai CITY and the Yale Center for Engineering Innovation and Design (CEID) partnered with L’Oréal to host a new Intensive, titled Product Development and Innovation. The cohort-based, multi-session program brought together students from cross-campus disciplines, placing them in teams and challenging them to develop novel products. The Intensive sessions took place in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s new Greenberg Engineering Teaching Concourse (GETC), which unites teaching labs from multiple engineering fields in one space. Yale president Peter Salovey has described Tsai CITY, CEID, and GETC as the key elements of Yale’s innovation corridor: three distinct programs that are working together to create new models for catalyzing innovation, creativity, and discovery. The Intensive model, and the student creations that emerged from the program, exemplify the potential of this corridor.
Drawing from the collective resources of Tsai CITY, CEID, and GETC — ranging from wet lab space to mentorship — student teams worked to conceptualize and prototype new hair products over the course of the fall term. With leadership from L’Oréal research and innovation manager (and Yale engineering alumna) Dr. Seyma Aslan, guest speakers provided insights along the way, and students ultimately presented their ideas to an expert panel as the semester concluded.
But the program’s impact didn’t stop there. In the months that followed, the L’Oréal and student teams explored next steps for product ideas that seemed particularly promising. Over the summer, two student products (one focused on hair coloring and one focused on curl holding) were approved by L’Oréal for patent filing — a remarkable output of a semester-long extracurricular program. A student team member behind one of these products, Stephanie Laga, also joined the L’Oréal team in July as an intern, continuing to build on a connection first sparked in the Intensive. We chatted with Stephanie to get her perspective on the Intensive, lessons for innovation, and more.
Why were you originally interested in participating in the Product Development and Innovation Intensive with L’Oréal, and what was your primary takeaway from the Intensive?
As a PhD student in chemistry, my research has focused on very fundamental science. I was hoping to get a taste for how I could use my science background in a more applied setting and explore an alternative career path to academia.
I have come away from the Intensive with a definite interest in formulation chemistry, but also an idea of what an ideal job would look like for me. I was immensely invested in developing the prototype during the Intensive because I truly enjoyed the process of developing a concept, creating an experimental plan, and observing tangible results. Realizing these things about myself has been extremely valuable as I look toward preparing for graduation and figuring out my career path.
I highly recommend taking advantage of these types of Intensives to explore one’s interests. For such a short amount of time, it has given me a lot of insight.
Tell us about the product idea your team developed in the Intensive and the experience of that evolving into a patent submission.
The requirements for the product in the Intensive were very broad. The main specifications were that we needed to innovate a hair product, whether that be a hair tool or formulation, in about 10 weeks. We initially proposed two “safer” ideas that we thought would be very doable given the timeline and one ambitious project, a color changing hair dye. The inspiration for this came from popular consumer products we had seen on the market before, like color changing shirts, nail polishes, and mood rings. The response from L’Oréal experts about the color changing hair dye was very positive, so we decided to pursue it. At the final prototype evaluation, we presented a dye that could instantaneously change colors after being applied to hair using special spray solutions. The name of our prototype, Ombre Your Way, was inspired by the ability to mix sprays together to create an ombre effect on hair.
Evolution of the technology into a patent submission with L’Oréal has been very rewarding. I first had the chance to visit the L’Oréal Research Center in New Jersey, where I was able to meet some of their patent team and present the science of our prototype to the Hair Color Team. The patent submission is definitely a long process, but it has been very cool to see drafts of the submission in legal speak. I’m very appreciative of all of the internal support from L’Oréal in moving this process forward, especially from the organizer of the Intensive, Dr. Seyma Aslan.
This summer, you’re interning with L’Oréal. What are you working on, and how is it going?
I am very excited to be with the Hair Color Team for the summer. I can’t say much about what I am working on specifically, but I am doing a lot of formulation work. Working in industry has felt very different from an academic setting, so I’m glad that I have had the opportunity to experience both. An example of this is all of the additional considerations that go into making a formula that you don’t have to consider when doing academic research. Not only is the science important, but also attention to how similar products are doing in the market, whether there are any patents or right-to-market conflicts with the chosen raw ingredients, or whether your formula has a long enough shelf life and is resistant to growing microbes.
What stands out in the internship for me so far is the mentorship I’ve received and the willingness of all of my new colleagues to help me get started. Similarly, I’ve had a lot of encouragement from my PhD advisor at Yale, Professor James Mayer, in pursuing this opportunity. I’m grateful for the support on both ends.
Throughout your experience in the Intensive and now working more with L’Oréal, what’s one surprising or unexpected lesson you’ve learned?
As a student there is a lot of emphasis on what you don’t know and on the effort that should be made to learn. It is of course important to have self-awareness about things you don’t understand, but from this Intensive I’ve learned that it’s important to appreciate how far you’ve come as a student. It’s okay to have confidence in the abilities you have so painstakingly developed. Realizing that we could trust our own instincts helped our team to evolve an idea into reality during the Intensive.