This Northeastern alumna is revolutionizing how science, art, and social change can be connected.
During her time at Northeastern, AJ Addae pursued biology, a co-op at a skincare company, and biomaterials design research. Now, Addae is working on her PhD in chemical biology at UCLA and is running her own beauty product development and testing business called SULA LABS, who has developed products for brands sold in Sephora, Ulta, and more. They specifically focus on Black owned brands and skin of color.
AJ talked with us about her time at Northeastern and how it influenced the career path she is embarking on.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What is your name, when did you graduate from Northeastern, and what major did you graduate with?
I’m AJ, I graduated from Northeastern in 2020, and I graduated with a biology major with minors in English and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.
When you reflect on your Northeastern experience, what stands out to you as being memorable or transformative?
I would say my co-op experience was pivotal and gave me an “in” to the beauty industry. I worked at a startup called Sundaily which has since been acquired. That experience was helpful in understanding how brands scale in this market. However, I would also say my research experience in Dr. Deravi’s lab was important because it really showed me how R&D is used to leverage these sorts of innovations that we see in beauty.
What was your favorite class at Northeastern and why?
I think my favorite class was the brain and visual art that was taught by Dr. Joshua Sariñana, who was a visiting lecturer at the time, and he’s awesome. The class really showed me how certain aspects of science can be used to leverage social change. That was the first time I ever saw that idea positioned as such. He was such a brilliant mind. It was an upper-level grad class, but I emailed him and asked him if I could join the class. That’s actually a theme of how I did my Northeastern studies! It was definitely one of the best things I did during my time at Northeastern.
What have you done professionally since graduation, and how did Northeastern/your experience with biology help shape the direction your life would take after graduation?
I graduated on a Friday, and I started my job on a Monday (in December!) My first job postgrad was a position in clinical research and formulation at a medical grade skincare manufacturer and medical grade physician dispensed beauty brand. Medical grade is this distinct category in the beauty industry where they leverage clinical trials and evidence-based efficacy in their product development pipeline. My time at Northeastern was helpful because not only did I work at a skincare company, but I also had done research, which was helpful for understanding how materials designed in the lab were leveraged to become clinical innovations. I know how to collect data on these materials and use that data to shape the products. Northeastern really gave me a leg up and that co-op really gave me a little more experience in the beauty industry at the time, along with the translational science that occurrs in the research labs, and I don’t think without that I could’ve gotten such a head start in the product development industry.
What specific things about Northeastern helped prepare you for life after graduation?
Huge praise to co-op; it helped me understand how career paths are really paved out in terms of science. Northeastern did a great job of being– I know the word that they use a lot is “interdisciplinary”– and the university gave me a sense of understanding when it comes to professional development. Northeastern also did a great job of tying in research as professional development. For example, prioritizing understanding skills in the lab. I credit a lot of my research skills and research-based thinking to Dr. Deravi’s lab. It gave me the chance to solve a problem that no one else had really understood in the lab before. I got to understand the step-by-step process of solving research problems, which prepped me for grad school as well.
What drives you and what are your proudest or most notable achievements?
I would say I’m proud of being able to run SULA Labs and get my PhD. These tasks are a testament to the work I put in in terms of wanting to shift an industry forward from an academic standpoint. Another one I always like to cite is that John Legend called me professor this year while I was collaborating on a project with his brand, which was really cool. The ability for both my business and my graduate research to contribute to advancing a field is exactly what I wanted.
Was there a particular faculty or staff member that made an impact on you during your time at Northeastern?
I talked a bit about Professor Sariñana because he helped me understand the gap that can be bridged between science and art. Huge credit to Dr. Deravi because I cold emailed her, and she took me into her lab. We still keep in touch and collaborate on projects to this day, so she’s always been a super big help. Also, huge credit to Dean Lauren Machunis, who was the dean of College of Science Advising. The Bridge program at Northeastern was pivotal for me because for a really long time I didn’t think of myself as a scientist. I thought of myself as a creative minded individual, but she really helped me understand that science can be many different things. It’s all about finding a problem that you want to solve in this world. There’s been several times in which she gave me the fuel to keep pushing during my time at Northeastern. One thing she told me that still sticks with me to this day is that closed mouths don’t get fed. I can’t praise her enough!
What made you pursue a degree in science?
I actually didn’t choose science, science chose me! As I mentioned earlier, I was really interested in writing, journalism and media, especially as it relates to the beauty industry, so that’s what a lot of my experiences going into college were based on. My parents thought it would be really cool if I could be a doctor. I really tried to stick it through, and I tried to understand how a career in medicine would help me contribute the certain things I want to contribute to this world. It wasn’t until I started doing research that I realized that this is where I belong and that scientists can have a need for social change that they want to tackle in the lab. That’s also part of what I’m doing now in my graduate studies at UCLA under professor Paul Weiss, who fosters my need for inclusivity in science and my want to chase after certain goals that may not have been front and center in academia historically.