Jane Oppenheim and her career in science-based skincare

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Researcher Dr Jane Oppenheim was the 2019 Clunies Ross Entrepreneur of the Year. In this article, you will find out about her career in pharmaceuticals and in the podcast, she talks about how science has laid the basis for both healthy skin and a significant growth in manufacturing jobs.

This activity is best suited to Year 8-10 Biology and Chemistry students who have an interest in pharmaceuticals and are looking for career inspiration in this field.

Word Count / Podcast Length: 585 / 21:49 mins

Dr Jane Oppenheim in her pharmaceutical lab. Credit: ATSE

Have you ever wondered how moisturisers, acne cream or sunscreen are made? Who comes up with the idea, formulates it and tests it out?

Turns out, it takes a lot of rigorous scientific research to produce the kinds of skincare products that change people’s lives.

Dr Oppenheim has spent thirty years studying the science of skincare. Credit: ATSE

This has been the focus of Dr Jane Oppenheim’s career.

Oppenheim is the scientific and operations director at Ego Pharmaceuticals in Melbourne, and she’s spent the past thirty years studying the science of skincare. She leads a team in the research and development of dermatological products, including head lice treatment, sun protection, and therapeutic skincare.

But how did Oppenheim reach where she is today?

It all started when she was a kid, and she chanced on a TV series called The Beauty Queens. She watched with fascination as pioneers of the cosmetics industry – like Estee Lauder and Elizabeth Ardern – poured and blended the potions that made them famous.

At school she enjoyed science and went on to study biochemistry and maths at Monash University, gaining a Bachelor of Science with honours. At one point she thought she might become a teacher, but instead went on to undertake a PhD. Her research project was also in biochemistry and involved investigating peptides: chains of amino acids that are useful in our bodies.

“From there, I found that I had the right qualification at the right time that the world was looking for peptide chemists,” Oppenheim says. “The world had just finished sequencing DNA, and they wanted to make all the path sequences.”

Straight out of university, Oppenheim was offered a postdoctoral fellowship as a peptide chemist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research – but a twist of fate changed her path.

“As I arrived, so did a peptide synthesiser machine and they didn’t need me to do peptide synthesis!” she says.

Instead, she worked in immunoparasitology, studying various molecules as potential candidates for a malaria vaccine.

Dr Jane Oppenheim is the scientific and operations director at Ego Pharmaceuticals in Melbourne. Credit: ATSE

This experience served her well when she transitioned into a job managing the science team at Ego Pharmaceuticals. This privately-owned company now manufactures well-known skincare products like QV cream, but in the early days they were pioneering innovations such as putting titanium dioxide into sunscreen.

“You could get so much more protection for the skin with so much smaller quantities of the organic absorbing agents,” Oppenheim explains. “The products were so beautiful to use, so easy to apply to the skin, and so much less greasy than all the other products.”

Companies like Ego Pharmaceuticals put a lot of time and effort into creating products that not only work well, but are also safe, stable and easy to use.

Science teams, such as the one Oppenheim manages, start by scouring the current skincare research to come up with the best ideas for novel, useful products, which they then formulate and test rigorously.

The questions they ask themselves, according to Oppenheim, include: “Can we produce something different, something new? Something that is really high quality? Because what we want are products that work, underpinned by science.”

Over the years she has run many clinical and efficacy trials on new products, which then help inform the further development of skincare products in labs around the world.

Throughout Oppenheim’s career at Ego Pharmaceuticals, she has seen the manufacturing plant expand by ten times, as well as seeing advances in research into issues like skin tears and eczema – and there are many innovative advances still to come.

Listen to the podcast:

This article was written by Lauren Fuge.

The podcast was created and supplied by ATSE. Get the original podcast here.

Years: 8, 9, 10

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Biological Sciences – Cells, The Body, Genetics

Chemical Sciences – Chemical Reactions, Atoms

Additional – Careers, Technology, Engineering.

Concepts (South Australia):

Biological Sciences – Diversity and Evolution, Form and Function

Chemical Sciences – Properties of Matter, Change of Matter

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