Hilary Stinnett Adragna ’09 says it was the WPI Plan, the university’s project-based approach to education, that first drew her to WPI, but it was the story of its most famous graduate, known today as the Father of Modern Rocketry, that truly sealed the deal.
“I was excited about the idea that the relevant, creative, application side of science and knowledge was part of the education at WPI,” she says. “But I also loved the campus mythology about Robert Goddard blowing up labs in Salisbury, but still being allowed to experiment in the Magnetic Lab [now Skull Tomb] after he graduated. The idea that you could mess up, and mess up big, but still go on to do something important and meaningful … that really resonated with me.
“What I really needed to hear when I was younger was that success can be achieved in a lot of different ways and that careers can be successful without being perfect and linear. It’s easy to brush over the hardships and see a career that only ever moves forward and up. But taking detours, going in a different direction, adapting to unexpected situations, taking a break, or trying something new shouldn’t be thought of as failure. It’s all about accepting and learning from what went wrong, sticking with the struggle, and doing a little better next time.”
On paper, Adragna’s own career seems decidedly linear, but behind the orderly mileposts on her resume lies at least one critical turning point, a detour, that in the end, made all the difference. Without it, she may never have found her way to The Estée Lauder Companies, one of the world’s leading manufacturers and marketers of skin care, makeup, fragrance, and hair care products. As a senior scientist of toxicology, her job at The Estée Lauder Companies is to minimize the hazards and risks posed by the raw materials that go into products sold under more than 25 global brands, including Aveda, Clinique, DKNY, Ermenegildo Zegna, and Estée Lauder.
A Critical Detour
Interested in biology and chemistry, Adragna chose to major in biochemistry at WPI “because I couldn’t decide between the two.” As she threw herself into her studies, she reveled at being part of a community of like-minded people. “WPI was the first place where I felt like I really belonged,” she says. “I loved being surrounded by intelligent people who understood what I was saying. One of the best parts about being around WPI people is that when you think of something new, they don’t say, ‘that isn’t real.’ They say, ‘how can we make that real?’
“My favorite game at WPI was sitting in the Rubin Campus Center bouncing ideas around with groups of people, imagining together the different ways an idea could be developed or made real, and pointing out flaws in the design,” she says. “I still play these thought-experiment games at work with new ideas, looping in people from different departments and backgrounds to see if we can create something together.”
By the time she graduated, Adragna knew she wanted to work in government or industry. “I love theory, but I realized that applied knowledge was more important to me,” she says. “As a scientist, I wanted my work to have real, direct impact on people in my lifetime.”
Pharmacology, which draws heavily on biochemistry, was a field in which she felt she could make that kind of immediate impact. She enrolled at Kent State University to pursue a PhD in pharmacology through a joint research-based program with the Northeast Ohio Medical University Consortium. In addition to teaching such courses as Cosmeceutical Laboratory and 3D Computational Modeling, she began a research project aimed at developing a new treatment for glaucoma. The work was difficult, made more so by a fraught relationship with her advisor. More than three years into her graduate program, she decided to change advisors and labs, which meant also changing her research focus.
“That’s pretty late in the game to be doing that,” she says. “I was strongly discouraged from continuing in the PhD program and told I should switch to a master’s. I refused.”
At weekly graduate student luncheons, she listened to a parade of academics who talked about possible career paths. “They all described perfect, linear, direct paths from one great lab to the next, with never a gap, or break, or mistake. It didn’t seem relevant to me. I remember thinking, ‘I’ve already screwed up my PhD program; how am I ever going to have a career if perfection is a requirement for success?’” Finally, one professor talked about his own circuitous route, from industry to academia and, perhaps, back to industry again. “The idea that you could take detours, go your own way, and still be successful was what I needed to hear right then.”
For her second research project, Adragna looked at how a therapeutic peptide called osteoactivin-D worked in osteoclasts (bone resorbing cells) and osteoblasts (bone building cells), with the hypothesis that the compound might prevent or reverse bone loss in osteoporosis. While the peptide worked well in cultures of osteoclasts and osteoblasts, it had no beneficial effect in an animal model. Still, when she presented the research in a poster session at the American Society of Bone and Mineral Research, she won a Young Investigator Travel Award, which enabled her to share her work at the Mechanistic & Therapeutics Insights into Skeletal Biology Learned from the Study of Rare Bone and Mineral Diseases Workshop. “I had the opportunity to share some of my data with people who were investigating osteoporosis,” she says, “and I had some illuminating conversations about ideas for related investigations.”
Into the Weeds
Adragna earned her PhD in 2015, just as an economic slowdown was triggering cutbacks in the pharmaceutical industry. Faced with drastically increased competition for jobs in her field, she took another detour and began searching for positions in the related field of toxicology. It took a year of underemployment and hundreds of job applications to land her first position, as an associate toxicologist at SafeBridge Consultants, which provides toxicology, industrial hygiene, and other safety services to the pharmaceutical, specialty chemical, and food industries. She joined The Estée Lauder Companies in her current position in early 2020.
As part of the Global Product Safety Team, she works with the Innovations Team, which studies new materials for cosmetics about which little is known, and the Raw Material Management group, which deals with ingredients that have already undergone safety testing by suppliers. The new materials evaluated by the Innovations Team may be offshoots of existing materials or, she says, may start out “as a rumor of a phenomenal, breakthrough ingredient.”
While the neuroscientists, pharmacologists, and biochemists work to understand how the new materials work and whether they can be harnessed to make exciting new products, “I get to be the voice that asks, ‘Is it safe?’” Adragna says. She says she looks for tripwires, including ingredients that may cause skin or eye irritation, materials with the potential to trigger skin sensitization and allergic reactions, and chemicals that pose the risk of systemic toxicity, including organ damage.
Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus is known for his assertion that the “dose makes the poison.” “So part of my job,” Adragna says, “is to consider the doses at which these effects might occur, and ensure that the maximum dose the user could be exposed to is well below the dose at which the effects were observed.”
Finding that maximum dose requires getting down into the scientific weeds, she says. She evaluates the pharmacokinetics of the raw materials—processes like absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion—to assess the risks associated with use. For example, an ingredient made up of large molecules that can’t be absorbed through the skin poses a low risk of affecting internal organs.
“I have to consider the mechanism—how the raw material works, and what might go wrong,” Adragna says. “We test for impurities, like heavy metals or monomers [building blocks of larger organic molecules, some of which can be toxic], to ensure that we’re using high-quality and safe ingredients in our products. These are some of the factors I use to set use-level restrictions for the formulation chemists.”
“I am ecstatic to be working at a company that takes social and environmental ethics into consideration when creating its products,” Adragna says, noting the commitment of The Estée Lauder Companies to sustainability and ethical sourcing of raw materials. She says the company’s values play out in her own work, as well. “The Estée Lauder Companies embraces in vitro and alternative methodologies for testing product safety,” she says, noting that in vitro (“in the glass”) means that the tests are carried out in the lab and not in lab animals (unless demanded by a regulatory body). She says she’d like to see this approach adopted more widely in her field.
“I would love to see toxicology embrace more alternative methodologies,” she says, “and fully replace animal studies by developing replacement practices, like ‘organ-on-a-chip,’ microchip devices that simulate the functions of human living organs. I would also like to see more focus on sustainability and environmental impacts in pharmaceuticals.”
Her own goals include helping to advance toxicology to the next level through data science, structured methodology, and in silico computer simulations. “I would love to someday work with a team to develop predictive toxicity software for novel compounds using machine learning, the FDA’s Adverse Outcomes Pathways, Read-Across (a chemical hazard classification approach), and structure-mechanism relationships for novel compounds,” she says.
Breaking Down Barriers
At WPI, through her extracurricular activities (“I must have joined every club on campus at one time or another”) and engagement in WPI’s interdisciplinary Interactive Qualifying Project (her own IQP looked at the role of technology for mass immunizations in pre-industrialized countries), Adragna says she discovered the joy of working in interdisciplinary teams. “I became deeply interested in working in cross-functional teams,” she says, “and in the pollination of ideas between people with differing backgrounds and focuses. This is a skill I use every day at work.”
In addition to working with interdisciplinary teams as part of her job, Adragna has pitched in at CoronaWhy, a group of volunteers who came together to try to solve the challenge of making the published scientific literature about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, more accessible to scientific experts and physicians by harnessing machine learning technologies. (Among the volunteers is John Adragna, Hilary’s husband, who is working toward his PhD in inhalation toxicology at New York University Langone Health.)
“I became deeply interested in working in cross-functional teams and in the pollination of ideas between people with differing backgrounds and focuses. This is a skill I use every day at work.”
“The team consisted mainly of computer scientists with limited or no life science background,” Adragna says. “I gave them a ‘map’ to navigate the materials: what the section headers were, what keywords were important for scientists to filter the documents, where to find those keywords, how to exclude irrelevant results, synonyms and definitions, etc. I also suggested tools that machine-learning scientists could create to help pharmacologists, physicians, toxicologists, and other life scientists interpret the data in different ways.”
As a pharmacologist, she was curious about apparent gaps in the data. Early in the pandemic, for example, asthmatics had been identified as a vulnerable population, but the numbers she was seeing on New York’s coronavirus dashboard didn’t support that prediction. “We wondered, were anti-asthmatic steroids having a protective effect against disease severity?” she says. “How could we leverage the data to draw new conclusions on potential interventions or protective measures, and help experts filter the data to make their own inferences? If I hadn’t done cross-functional teamwork at WPI, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to walk in and offer to help.”
Adragna sees this work as an example of the progress that can be made when people from different fields break down the artificial barriers that often separate them, barriers that can stand in the way of progress. Breaking down barriers takes hard work, and, too often, she says, those who’ve broken through turn around and build the barriers back again. “I’ve often heard people say, ‘I’ve had a really hard time getting where I am, so I need to make it hard for the next person.’ But progress should be hard for the right reasons, and shouldn’t require that you sacrifice part of yourself to get there. We can challenge people intellectually and still treat them as human beings.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the scientist whose own journey has been marked by unexpected challenges and detours would want to help others find an easier path.
Tackling Hunger: Adragna is helping to tackle local food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic by working with several mutual aid groups on grocery runs, seed swaps, and the development of local “food forests” as a source of fresh healthy food to residents. “Unemployment and food insecurity in the local area have skyrocketed, and we’ve seen lines at the food pantry that stretch for miles,” she says. “We’re working to establish community food forests in the surrounding areas while continuing to support local families with monthly food grants. The number of people experiencing food insecurity as a result of the coronavirus pandemic continues to rise.”
Global Explorer: She and her husband have taken part in Biosphere Expeditions, where people have the opportunity to be citizen scientists and assist in field work for environmental and conservation causes. She went to Kyrgyzstan for two weeks in the summer of 2019, searching for signs of snow leopards in the Tien Shan mountains. “I documented an enormous collection of Kyrgyz petroglyphs, thought to be from the Silk Road era,” Adragna says. “My team also found tracks from the Pallas’s cat, saw ibex [wild mountain goats], and left cameras that later recorded snow leopards. Most of our days were spent hiking up mountains and documenting prey animals for the snow leopard. The locals thought it was laughable that we climbed the mountain on foot. They rode horses!”