As an analytical chemist and senior scientist for consumer goods giant Proctor & Gamble, Ronita Marple ’05 Ph.D., chemistry, observes that it’s not unusual for her to walk past a lab and catch a glimpse of a robot testing a product by performing a household chore over and over again, for hours on end, to identify a product’s weaknesses without stressing out human testers in the process.
Such grueling tests are part of how all of the nearly 125 products marketed by Proctor & Gamble end up in a consumer’s shopping cart. So is Marple’s own job mundane and robotic? “Never,” laughs the recipient of UMBC Alumna of the Year Award in the Sciences, who manages a team of chemists that unravel the technology behind each line of personal care at the corporation’s Cincinnati headquarters.
“Maybe there’s a new ingredient [in a product]: It’s my job to come up with a method to measure it,” she explains. Shampoo, for example. “There are just tons of ingredients in every bottle,” she says. Her team can scan a dollop of shampoo using a technique known as “whole product NMR” to determine the identity and concentration of each ingredient in the formula.
Marple and her team must also help ensure that most important ingredients of all – those responsible for cleaning and conditioning hair – remain stable and optimally concentrated between factory and shower. After all, that dollop of shampoo must trek cross country in a sweltering delivery truck before it becomes lather on a lustrous head of hair.
You don’t want to feel like you’re washing your hair with dish soap,” says Marple. “On the other hand, you want enough conditioning that it feels good.”
To get that balance just right, Marple’s team needs hair. And lots of it. “We probably spend more than a million dollars a year just buying hair to test on,” she says. The company purchases real human hair from suppliers in the form of ponytails (or “switches” as Marple calls them), which are sent off to a lab for testing. Once a shampoo has been developed for a specific hair type, the final formulation is tested by consumers in the company’s on-site salon.
Before any of the nearly 125 products marketed by Proctor & Gamble end up in a consumer’s shopping cart, each one – personal care or not – must be beaten, battered, diluted, pressured and manipulated in every imaginable way to see how it holds up under the most grueling conditions. Growing up in the small town of Bellaire, OH, Marple’s early exposure to science was relatively simple. “We didn’t have things like AP classes or weighted graded systems,” she says. “It was just a basic public school education.”
Graduate school is never easy, but Marple remembers her time at UMBC in the doctoral program in chemistry with great fondness. “Even though it was really, really difficult,” she recalls, “probably one of the most difficult times in my life, trying to do all the research and pass my qualifying exams and finish my dissertation. I just had so much fun. It was such a satisfying experience.”
The research that she did at UMBC made it even more worthwhile, Marple says. “A lot of times you’re doing really cutting edge things that no one has ever done before,” she says. And the best part? “That whole sense of discovery; just knowing that you’re really pushing the limit and discovering new things.”
After graduation, Marple began working at Proctor & Gamble. In addition to her work as a chemist, she also encourages mentoring and networking relationships among emerging female scientists from all corners of the world through the company’s Analytical Women of Excellence program. The job also has her traveling the world – including India, Sweden, Russia, Italy, Germany, England and Belgium – to connect with Proctor & Gamble’s other technical centers and establish projects through the company’s Connect and Development program.
But regardless of how far she’s traveled on her road to becoming a chemist, she credits “the family-like culture” at UMBC with teaching her the lesson of a lifetime: “You can be what you want to be. There might be obstacles but you can overcome them,” Marple says. “Just do what you have your heart set on.”
— Ann Griswold