PNAS: Amy Young, Saponifier

(This post is part of the new round of interviews of non-academic scientists, giving the responses of Amy Young, who runs her own soap-making business. The goal is to provide some additional information for science students thinking about their fiuture careers, describing options beyond the assumed default Ph.D.–post-doc–academic-job track.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

The relevant part of my work is as partner and chief developer/producer at Foam on the Range, which makes and sells soaps, lotions, and other bath/cosmetic-type products. My business cards say “Saponifier in Chief”. It’s a company in its infancy, though, so “chief cook and bottle washer” would be equally accurate. Literally, even.


2) What is your science background?

I have a bachelor’s in biology, emphasis on human/medical biology, from Friends University in Wichita, KS; a tiny little Quaker school with a gorgeous (and at that time, newly renovated) biology department entirely out of proportion to its overall size. I thought I wanted to embrace the life of a researcher and academic (I was going to cure EVERYTHING, don’t you know), so I went on to the University of Kansas to get a PhD, but that didn’t work out. Nor did my subsequent attempt to get a master’s at Wichita State University, after which I just tabled the whole idea, concluding that higher learning required a level of focus which was not within my capacity.

3) What led you to this job?

Um. Dumb luck? No, what brought me here is the same thing that has brought me pretty much everywhere else I’ve got in life: I can’t sit still. I try new things constantly, and sometimes they turn into obsessions and I want to spend all my time working on them, and so then I try to find a way to get people to pay me to do them so I can keep it up. I think maybe this is what’s called the entrepreneurial spirit, but it could just as well be a form of subclinical insanity. In this particular endeavor, my tendency to pick up new crafts with glee intersected the scientific training I thought I would never get to use again, and by the time I’d made my second batch of soap I was hooked. Tinkering with the oil profile, tweaking reaction temperatures, charting the way fragrances interact with the high pH of raw soap to mutate the final product . . . it was all of the fun parts of science, except once I got a replicable result that I was pleased with, I didn’t have a paper to write up and publish, I had a product to sell. Well, try to sell, but that part is coming along quite well lately, too. And then I branched out into lotions and other things – once I got beyond soap, the real experimenting started.

4) What’s your work environment like?

My lab is my kitchen, overflowing to my dining room table, for now. Stainless steel and pyrex implements, nicely calibrated digital scale, wooden and silicone molds – when not in use, the soaping hardware lives in what used to be a spare bedroom and is now the Soap Room, filled with shelving to store the equipment and the inventory and the curing racks and the supplies… It takes up a lot of space. I only go out into the “field”, as it were, for the commercial end of the business, craft fairs and the like, which are not terribly science-y. The selling part is really more like voodoo, actually.

As for an office, that’s the couch, with laptop.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

I wish I could say I spent ten hours a day in the soap lab, cooking up new inventory and designing new concoctions, and maybe someday that will be true, once it starts paying for itself. Unfortunately, I usually spend between six and 12 hours a day working on projects unrelated to this business at all, as the bills need paying, and I need to raise capital to inject into the soap business. What time I do get to dedicate to this work is divided maybe 25% Making Stuff, 25% Packaging/Labeling Stuff, 15% face-to-face time with customers, 5% lobbying for new wholesale clients, and 30% administrivia. Time spent on those areas probably adds up to about 35-50 hours in a typical week. …yes, that’s on top of the other stuff. I don’t sleep much.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

If I hadn’t had the importance of keeping a proper lab notebook drilled into my head in my formative years, I would never in a hundred years be able to keep up with all the product lines I’ve got now. (Which colorant did I put in this one, again? And how much? Wait, wasn’t this the fragrance that made the soap seize up on me last time? I should probably try a lower temperature. And so on.) It may be six months or more between making batches of a given kind of soap, so keeping track is vital. Not to mention the product development phase, in which the thing just doesn’t work right, and I have fifteen different things to try varying; I’ve talked with colleagues who run similar businesses, and they seem to operate in a “just change stuff until it works” mode, rather than changing one element at a time (even if I run a dozen or more iterations simultaneously) so as to know which thing or combination of things created the desired effect. It’s invaluable in crafting the more complex items.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

Try to find an established, thriving soapmaking company and see if they need help. On the other hand, if you have an alternate source of revenue to live on while ramping the business up for the first year or three, and are possessed of a tremendous supply of guts and gumption, you buy a book (I started with Cavitch’s The Soapmaker’s Companion), prepare to make a hideous number of mistakes, and dive in.

8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?

Document everything! In fact, I really need to get a humidity meter and start recording that in my logs, because I think it may account for some of my unexplained variations. Also, while this is only tangentially a science-sourced lesson, one of the first places I learned it was the story of Alexander Fleming: Sometimes your greatest successes are things you weren’t even trying to do in the first place.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

Take care of yourself. No one is going to do it for you.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What’s the pay like?

I have no earthly idea. At the moment, of course, this part of my life is a money sink, not a revenue source, so, pretty dire! Still, assuming my projections for growth are in the right ballpark, I think it might end up settling out at a living wage. I hope so, anyway, because I really, really love this work. Using both my creative and scientific skills at the same time is something I had never even dreamed I’d get to do, and it is the most fulfilling work I have ever done.

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