Dannah VanPraagh, ’23 recently graduated from Lehigh University. She currently works in L’Oréal’s management trainee rotational program in the skincare development team. (Courtesy of Dannah VanPraagh)

From leadership to L’Oréal: An alumna’s journey from academia to industry


Unlike many other newly admitted first-year students, Dannah VanPraagh, ‘23, knew the career path she wanted to pursue before she began her first semester at Lehigh. Inspired by a project she completed during her junior year of high school, VanPraagh set her sights on a future in the chemistry of cosmetics.

VanPraagh was a sophomore at Lehigh in 2020 at the onset of the COVID pandemic. During this time, the department of chemical engineering focused on meeting with students weekly over Zoom instead of spending time in a lab, so experimental research in VanPraagh’s area of interest was limited.

To improve this disconnect within the department, VanPraagh worked alongside other students in a task force led by James Gilchrist, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

One idea from this task force that caught VanPraagh’s interest was to create a new class in the department. So, throughout the summer of 2020, she and her peers developed a chemical engineering course open to all students, titled “Coffee and Cosmetics.”

The course would act as a beginner-level elective class for engineering students and would combine two simple, everyday necessities by exploring the science behind them.

“(VanPraagh) is a really good example of someone who comes in with blank curiosity and generally just wanting to do well, find a passion and then transitioning to become a real professional at that,” Gilchrist said.

VanPraagh said when designing Coffee and Cosmetics, the team didn’t want to follow the general outline of an engineering class.

“Other chemical engineering courses can be fun for a very specific group of students, but for the general public, they’re not as engaging,” VanPraagh said. “This class was a way to show people that you can break down the barriers, and it’s not as intimidating as it really seems.”

The team especially wanted to create a space where students could digest information m in a stress-free way. To remove a layer of stress, projects would be assigned in place of exams.

Students would research a product of interest to them and explore its history, science and marketing. This process would give them the freedom to choose what they wanted to learn about and apply it to real-world situations.

As VanPraagh and her peers created the syllabus and curriculum, she said the main goal was to keep it fun, as the idea for Coffee and Cosmetics was organized and pitched entirely by students.

“The faculty loved it,” Gilchrist said. “They were all for it, and I’ve joked that if I were to pitch a new class like that, it may not have flown, but the fact that the students were so excited about it really sold it to the faculty.”

After being approved by the faculty, Coffee and Cosmetics officially became a part of Lehigh’s curriculum in 2022. The class is taught by Gilchrist.

Sophie Hunt, ‘27, is currently enrolled in the class and said it’s not like a standard college course.

“It’s always exciting to attend because it’s about two things that most people incorporate into their daily lives,” Hunt said.

Since first being introduced, the course has become more and more popular with students from all four colleges. Class sizes for Coffee and Cosmetics began at around 20 students but have grown to exceed 100.

As for VanPraagh, after taking a teaching assistant position for Coffee and Cosmetics in her junior year at Lehigh, she applied for an internship at L’Oréal. During the application process, Vanpraagh talked about Coffee and Cosmetics and her involvement around campus.

“I think they were very impressed that I was able to do so many things at Lehigh while studying chemical engineering, which is the same reason why I chose Lehigh in the first place,” VanPraagh said.

VanPraagh landed a position in a management trainee rotational program for L’Oréal in September 2023, and is now working in the skincare development team. She will rotate to another team in September 2024 and looks forward to continuing working at L’Oréal.

“(VanPraagh) is the kind of person who doesn’t see barriers,” Gilchrist said. “Her attitude from the beginning was outstanding, and she demonstrates exactly what kind of mindset you want students to have.”

On April 30, VanPraagh will be visiting the current Coffee and Cosmetics class to discuss her role in creating the course and her career so far in the cosmetics industry.

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