Every day, The Hershey Company manufactures 72 million chocolate Hershey’s Kisses. It is Alexandria Lau’s job to ensure the safety of all that candy—as well as many millions more pieces of chocolate and other confections that Hershey produces. Lau—a toxicologist by training who originally planned to be a medical doctor—maintains a holistic scrutiny of the chocolate king’s affairs in her role as the company’s manager of allergens and toxicology. “As a toxicologist, she probably never imagined herself here,” says Lynn Swiech, director of scientific and regulatory affairs at Hershey, who served as Lau’s first boss there. “But [she has the] willingness to go out and learn all aspects of the business.”
Recently, for example, Lau went far beyond the lab and enlisted the assistance of the Hershey social media team to monitor Twitter, Facebook, and other corners of the internet for comments that could clue the company in to potential allergen or safety concerns so that she and her colleagues could work to address them. The fact that she was creative enough to suggest this approach to tracking consumers’ experiences demonstrates why she was hired for her job, Swiech says. It also reflects the initiative and flexibility that has helped her succeed over the course of her varied career.
From medicine to confection
Lau originally thought her destiny was in medicine. Raised in a family that valued education—and science, engineering, and law in particular—both of her brothers were medical doctors. She expected that she would pursue a similar path. But after what she considered a successful undergraduate experience, including a full scholarship to the University of Arizona (UA) and stints working in labs at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and UA’s research hospital, she didn’t get in to medical school. “I went through a panic mode for the first time in my life,” she says. “I was 21, in my senior year in college, and realized I didn’t have a next step. I had to find a different path.”
Lau immediately started applying for jobs and reaching out to anyone she knew who might be able to advise or help her. She still had a great interest in science and medicine, and through her network of contacts, she found her way to a professor in the UA College of Pharmacy who hired her as a lab tech.
It only took 6 months for her to come to the realization that grad school might be a next logical choice for an “alternative” vocational path in the life sciences. “I could have just as successful and impactful a career with my doctorate doing research as I would being a medical doctor,” she recognized. Eager to move on to the next step, “I realized I really needed to get my butt in gear.” Thinking that drug discovery in the pharmaceutical industry might be a viable career option, she began investigating graduate programs and discovered toxicology. The field seemed to be a good fit, because the drug discovery process requires toxicologists to ensure the safety of the compounds that are under development. So she joined the UA pharmacology and toxicology graduate program, where she conducted research on how arsenic affects human cells.
But by the time the finish line of her doctorate was in sight in 2012, job prospects for toxicologists in the pharmaceutical industry had dried up, as much of the work was being outsourced to contract research organizations. So Lau expanded her gaze and discovered that many other industries—such as consumer products, beauty, chemicals, and food—need toxicologists too. As she explored these sectors, she realized how influential her scientific contribution could be there; when it comes to the chemicals used in beauty products and other consumer items, toxicologists serve as gatekeepers who inform and protect the public. “It was the perfect marriage of science and business,” she says. “These are industries that need science for their business to be successful.” Lau found a position at SC Johnson, one of the largest consumer product goods companies in the world, where she worked on product safety assessments and regulatory issues for its pest control brands.
After about 2 years at SC Johnson, Lau’s career turned in another unexpected direction. She wasn’t actively looking for a job outside the company at the time, but a recruiter who had found her on LinkedIn dangled something in front of her that was simply too sweet to pass up: the chance to work for The Hershey Company, one of the largest chocolate manufacturers in North America. Lau was excited about the opportunity to employ her scientific expertise in a new realm and to work on food safety, which aligned with her long-term objective to serve humanity. When she interviewed, she made a big impression on the company leadership when she explained how her pest control experience would allow her to raise the bar for the chocolate corporation. “What excited me about Alex is she is very technically savvy, very, very smart and knowledgeable about toxicology, and even though she didn’t have a food background, [she could see how to] apply that to food,” Swiech says.
Lau joined Hershey in the fall of 2014, and immediately fell in love. Her office is down the hall from the test kitchen, which means that she smells and gets to taste fresh brownies, cakes, and candy every day. But what ultimately drives her is the fact that her work has the potential to affect the health of candy enthusiasts worldwide. “I am the voice of the consumer,” she says. “It strikes a chord with me.”
Boldness and creativity: Two great tastes
Lau’s career is punctuated by her consistent proactive and creative efforts to expand her skills and knowledge. As an undergrad, for instance, she created her own internship at the FDA by leveraging contacts from her brothers. She contacted Keith Lampel, a leader at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, writing that she was “a free set of hands” looking for “some lab experience outside the university and to experience government.” To her surprise, he invited her to spend 6 weeks at his laboratory. When she arrived at the facility, bright-eyed and enthusiastic, Lampel asked her what she knew about doing research. Lau replied, “I don’t know who lied to you, but I’ve never worked in a lab before in my entire life.” Again to Lau’s surprise, he laughed and welcomed her with open arms. She started at the beginning, doing basic pipetting and making dilutions; by the end of the summer, she was growing cultures, isolating RNA and DNA, and doing real-time PCR while trying to develop an easy way to detect shigella (a pathogen that can cause diarrhea and fever) on fresh produce. Emboldened by her success, she invited herself back the following summer.
As her career progressed, she continued to take initiative to gain new skills and experience. In grad school, for example, she took business and entrepreneurship courses to explore her interests in these areas. Later, while at SC Johnson, she came across a much less conventional opportunity to develop her communications and sales skills, which she felt could use some improvement. While hunting for a handbag at her local Kate Spade boutique one afternoon, Lau—who loves fashion and says that shopping is one of her weaknesses—got to chatting with the staff. She ended up being offered a 1-day-a-week sales gig. “I thought being in a job like that would give me perspective, and would home in on some of the skills I was afraid of, such as talking to strangers, and selling something that is not necessarily my preference or taste,” she says, explaining why she took the job. Lau excelled, always hitting the store’s weekly sales goals even though she was only working 4 to 6 hours a week. And, on a personal level, she says, “it really helped me. It really made a difference with a lot of my soft skills.”
“I also realized that if you don’t put yourself out there, it’s not going to help your career,” she continues. “I can’t just sit in my office and not interact with other people in a large, multinational company.” Today, from her perch down the street from the Reese plant, Lau enjoys the variety of challenges she faces at Hershey, as well as the perks of free candy bowls scattered across the campus. The icing on the cake is that she was able to write her own recipe for crafting a career that combines science and service to humanity—like chocolate and peanut butter, a perfect pairing.
For more sweet science, check out this biochemist’s journey to chocolate entrepreneurship.
Read more Clandestine Careers stories, highlighting scientists who have taken their careers in particularly unusual directions.