Arriving in the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when she was in middle school, Laura Dee ’00 didn’t speak English. What she did know was numbers. Her teachers noticed that math was an area in which she excelled, and they continually encouraged her to take more math courses. It paid off.
“I’m a senior research scientist with an expertise in gas chromatography and in nuclear magnetic resonance. I dabble in infrared spectroscopy and do a little bit of automated titration.”
Dee explains that essentially her job is to use instrumentation to obtain information about the composition and structure of products that her employer, Colgate Palmolive, produces. Based in the company’s Piscataway, New Jersey, global technology center, she’s worked in the oral care global analytical sciences department for her entire 17 years with the consumer products giant, testing “anything that goes into people’s mouths,” including over-the-counter products that consumers buy off the shelves at the drug store (toothpaste, mouthwash, etc.) to pharmaceutical materials and varnishes found in dental offices.
“We test both experimental items not yet available and those that are already on the market because we have to prove those are efficacious and safe. For example, stability testing: If we give a toothpaste a lifespan of two years, it has to hold up. We have to make sure that no byproducts are produced as it ages,” she says. “Our products go out to the world where there are differing regulation guidelines — the U.S. and Europe’s are strict — and we have to know and conform to them all.”
Dee explains that another role of hers is learning the instrumentation she uses to become a resource for Colgate Palmolive employees worldwide by developing methods to make sure the data retrieved is accurate and writing the standard operating procedures. “If a plant anywhere in the world has a problem with the instrumentation, they call me. We do the training on methodology and because it’s specific to Colgate Palmolive, it must be learned internally,” she says.
Dee laughs when she says she still doesn’t know how she got where she is. Retracing her steps, though, it makes sense. Attending high school in Union City, New Jersey, her AP biology class took a field trip to Stevens where she heard a talk on genetics and was fascinated. She decided it was where she belonged and, coming from a low-income family, she says she thought she’d be able to get a good job to help her mom.
“I got accepted to Stevens and was part of STEP (Stevens Technical Enrichment Program). And they were — and are — my family. You’re spending 24-7 with these people, you just get connected,” she says. “We have similar stories so the affinity is already there. The extra help, tutoring, partners with each other…you can’t do it by yourself at Stevens.”
And, of course, Dee didn’t have to. In addition to her extended STEP family, Dee met her best friend, Martha “Patty” Torres ’01 on her first day on campus.
“My roommate was Martha and we became best friends immediately. We started talking like we knew each other for ages and everyone thought we went to high school together. We were roommates throughout college, after college…,” she laughs as she trails off.
She goes on to say that a year after graduation, it was Torres (who was working at Colgate Palmolive at the time) who brought Dee to the company, a move for which Dee is still grateful. Aside from her position, which she genuinely enjoys, Dee is involved in numerous outreach activities that help her continue the cycle of support she received when navigating her own education and employment. Specifically, she cites her role as leader of Colgate Palmolive’s Hispanic Action Network (HAN, where she’s been on the leadership board for ten years and co-chair since 2012) as giving her the opportunity to make a difference outside the office.
“It’s an employee resource group, so we do try to tie everything to the business. We promote social and cultural awareness, community engagement and professional development with employees, and we make an effort to help understand the Latino consumer,” she says. “We celebrate Hispanic heritage month and our culture, and host internal and external speakers.”
Dee also mentions that as part of HAN, she and her colleagues participate in health fairs and take Colgate’s Bright Smiles, Bright Futures® mobile van with them, especially when they travel to communities where many people can’t afford to go to the dentist. While no major work can be done in the van, children can get check-ups, information and products.
It’s also important to Dee to reach out to high schoolers like she once was, so they know that they, too, can succeed in STEM fields.
“Promoting STEM in the Latino community is very important to me because I know one of the reasons why there are not many Latinos in STEM fields is because many students and their families are not aware of the opportunities available to them. For those that may know little about STEM fields, the goal of achieving a career in STEM may seem unreachable. I hope that my involvement in the community with Latino students helps them to see the possibilities in STEM fields and, whenever I can, I like to share how I did it,” she says, mentioning a recent open house for mostly minority high school students featuring Colgate Palmolive, Microsoft and other companies. “I hope that they can see that you can go to college even if you're an immigrant with English as a second language and come from a low-income background. To work for a company that allows you to invest your time in these causes is truly wonderful.”