Dr Nancy T. Ilaya

I still use a lot of what I learnt, especially applying my understanding of disease mechanisms and using that framework to approach problem solving, design and innovation in an industry setting.

Nancy Ilaya

How do you go from pathology to the world of prestigious cosmetics? It’s not a question that Faculty of Science alumna Dr Nancy T. Ilaya thinks she would have ever had to ask, but that’s the journey her career has taken since completing her PhD at the University of Melbourne.

Dr Ilaya is the Manager of Scientific Affairs (Skincare) at cosmetics giant Estée Lauder in New York, where she works across legal, marketing, product development, formulation lab and physical material science to bring her scientific knowledge to the creation of cutting-edge skin care.

Before Dr Ilaya worked in the competitive world of scientific cosmetics, she had her eye on a career in pathology.

“It started off in Year Eight or Nine; the movie Outbreak came out and I read the book and then I read all the books about virology and diseases and I initially wanted to be a virologist,” she says.

“A few years later, The X-Files came out and I was just obsessed with Dana Scully, who did all those autopsies. She’s a pathologist, so I thought, ‘right, that’s what I want to do’.”

Being a pathologist wasn’t her only goal at the time; her other goal was to study at the University of Melbourne, which she did after being accepted in the Bachelor of Science. After completing her degree, she was all set to apply to enter medicine, but a last-minute offer of a scholarship for a PhD in pathology was an offer too good to refuse.

“That’s how I ended up staying in science and it’s just been something I’ve been passionate about since,” she says.

Dr Ilaya later moved to New York with her husband, fellow Melbourne Science graduate Dr Marcus Kelly, who works in cancer research, and she landed a job in science-based public relations, which gave her a first taste of this kind of work.

“I taught all our firm’s PR associates to be fluent in the science underpinning their client’s accounts in order to help them develop messaging, and helped create the scientific strategy for the communications.  A year into the job, I got to know my boss, who introduced me to his wife, who was a beauty writer for a magazine.

A big advocate for having a backup plan or “side-hustle”, Nancy started writing freelance about beauty and cosmetics, and saw this as a potential way to leverage that as experience in the industry.

And leverage she did. Soon after, Dr Ilaya landed the role of senior scientist in research and development for Avon, and then went on to Estée Lauder, where she now brings together all the data created from multiple departments and measures the scientific integrity of that data, test its legal strength, and ensures that all studies and trials are scientifically relevant and the methods are of the same integrity as those performed in a clinical setting.

“I still use a lot of what I learnt, especially applying my understanding of disease mechanisms and using that framework to approach problem solving, design and innovation in an industry setting,” she says.

“My scientific training has really helped me in my job of translating the science and technology, and mapping it into a beauty consumer relevant way that satisfies marketing and legal standards.

“For example, when you’re working with ageing skin, you’re thinking about UV damage, exposure to pollution and environment. It’s understanding the biology of why and how these things happen to the skin and what you can do to mitigate the impact in a cosmetic way; it’s really tied into pathology and how diseases work.”

Just like her career, Dr Ilaya’s unorthodox PhD thesis has left a lasting impression.

“My PhD thesis was bound in bright pink and it really stands out; it’s Barbie pink. I thought I’d have some fun with it, but apparently it’s one of the most leafed theses in the pathology library!”

Dr Ilaya encourages current students to ‘think outside the box’ when planning their own careers.

“Design your career the way you want to design it. Don’t be afraid to be the rebel, don’t let people tell you no.

“Get out of the idea that you’re locked into just one career because you’re studying just one discipline. Take control and own it.”

See Nancy Ilaya's inspiration talk to students about the value of a PhD here.