Chemistry is everywhere, even at HP

Meet Silke Courtenay, who has spent 16 years at HP in a field that most don’t associate with Silicon Valley tech companies.

By Sarah Murry — August 7, 2019

If you’ve ever printed out a family photo and been amazed as the smiling faces of your loved ones materialize, in vivid color and with a magazine-gloss shine, from your HP desktop printer, you can thank Silke Courtenay.

Courtenay, who holds 17 patents (with four pending), has spent 16 years at the company as a researcher and project manager in a field that most people don’t associate with Silicon Valley tech companies: chemistry. Her research in formulation chemistry and paper coatings over the years makes sure that when you print that favorite photo of your kids, the ink doesn’t bleed through or fade in the sun, and the whites of their smiles won’t yellow. 

HP chemist Silke Courtenay has been with HP for 16 years and holds 17 patents.

HP chemist Silke Courtenay has been with HP for 16 years and holds 17 patents.

As for the regular paper in your printer, Courtenay and her team ensure that its fibers are robust enough to print on both sides, but smooth enough not to stick together and jam up the works. At HP, there are thousands of chemists behind the scenes working on materials like environmentally-safe latex ink, powder made of plastic for industrial 3D printers and inkjet nozzles so tiny that they can print antibiotics.  

“The one thing that we always need to understand is that chemistry is all around us,” says Courtenay, R&D manager, Latex ink and dispersion at HP. “We, ourselves, are really marvelous examples of a multitude of complex and also simple chemical components. When we break it down to a microscopic level, we realize this, too, is chemistry.”

Her career has evolved from developing those specialized coatings for photo paper to leading the company’s environmental strategy for paper of all types and developing ink for HP' Graphics Solutions Business. One of her patents is for the composition of printer paper made of a mixture of hardwood and softwood pulp that has a basis weight of less than 100 grams per square meter. This innovation means that HP can produce a lighter-weight paper product, which reduces environmental footprint and slashes shipping costs. “Every few years or so, I’ve been learning something new,” she says.

Her team had a major breakthrough with the development of ink for HP's Latex R Series, a commercial portfolio of printers that not only can print on both rigid and flexible surfaces such as plastic, wood and metal — but also serves up the holy grail of latex-based printing: bright white ink. She credits her success to her team’s tenacity in tackling new challenges. “We always have hard problems to solve, but I think our team has shown over and over again that we can solve them,” she says. “Whatever has been thrown at us, usually we overcome it.”

Based out of HP’s San Diego, California, office, Courtenay hails from a small German town near the Baltic Sea called Eutin, about an hour from Hamburg. She emigrated to Canada where she completed an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the University of Windsor in Ontario. She lives in Temecula with her husband and teenage son and daughter. Currently, she manages a team of seven chemists and two interns in the Graphics Solutions Business developing latex inks for wide-format printers. 

We recently asked her about her fascinating work at HP and for her best advice for those interested in chemistry careers.

What’s exciting recently in your area of work at HP? 

I'm excited about the foray that we're taking into textile chemistry. We are really looking more in depth into the whole market. There are a variety of substrates [the surfaces that are printed on] that we haven't really traditionally printed on from a graphics business perspective. I am super-excited that we now have our first textile printer out in the marketplace. I'm looking forward to what's next.

How do you explain your job to non-scientists? 

I compare it to baking or cooking, right? Baking in particular.You have all these different ingredients that you need to put into a dough, then ultimately get this super delicious product out of it, but you want to make sure it has just the right consistency. It's fluffy. It's not hard. It has all the right flavors and textures. That's a little bit like what we're doing here from a formulation chemistry perspective. There's quite a bit of education needed in order to choose the right components. 

Does being a chemist change the way you handle everyday stuff in your household?

There are some areas that I look at maybe a little bit more critically. I'm reading the labels more on daily products, both from a food perspective as well as a cleaning supply perspective.

Courtenay working with HP Latex ink chemist Holly Keene.

What were you like as a kid? Did you always gravitate toward the sciences? 

I always was kind of a curious, adventurous child. I did a variety of different things when I was small that were athletic, like rhythmic gymnastics. Afterwards, I played badminton and vaulted on horses. 

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in chemistry? Who helped you get there? 

In high school, I found my love for chemistry pretty quickly. As soon as I had my first chemistry class, I realized this is something that kind of came easy to me. I also had a great teacher who really inspired me. He did not just do the standard chemistry lessons, but also tried to apply it. He would make margarine or sauerkraut or bake fresh rolls in his classroom and use these to explain different concepts. I liked how he was really applying it to our daily lives. That was quite exciting.

Do you have any personal or professional heroes? 

I am quite fascinated with a recent Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, Sir Fraser Stoddart. He received the Nobel Prize in 2016 for the design and synthesis of molecular machines. I actually had the honor of meeting him last year during an American Chemical Society event. I was just fascinated by his scientific career, but also his passion for giving back.

What do you want recruiters and job-seekers to know about HP? 

HP hires and employs chemists in a variety of roles, from creating and testing ink formulations and coatings for different types of print media such as glass and wood, to regulatory, toxicology and intellectual property research. There are a lot of different areas we have our chemists working on here within HP. Granted, it's not as many as engineers, but we find them across all the businesses.

Courtenay in the Latex ink lab with HP chemists Phil Cagle (foreground), and Mike Ingle and Holly Keene (background). HP Latex inks produce prints that are odorless and release extremely low levels of volatile organic compounds, making them ideal for sensitive environments such as hospitals.

What’s your best advice for young people working toward STEM careers? 

Ultimately, be curious. Don't neglect the soft skills like the ability to negotiate and to listen, which are important even when you are in science. Take control of your own career and do not give up.

What have you learned about being a woman in the sciences? 

I think inherently as women, sometimes we set really high barriers even for ourselves. Women think they have to meet all the requirements for a position before they even apply. Men, in general, figure that they can just learn on the job. I've taken that to heart. If there's one area that I don't have experience in yet, I do not let it stop me. I think other women could benefit from approaching their goals in the same way.