Dr Erin Leitao is the 2016 New Zealand Fellow of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Programme. Supporting women researchers around the world with the objective of recognising and rewarding their accomplishments whilst encouraging young women to enter the profession, the programme and the awards are a big deal – alongside the recognition of her peers, Dr Leitao also received a $25,000 grant to assist her independent research at the University of Auckland.
Dr Leitao is the only scientist in Aotearoa working towards creating new polymeric materials with main-group elements comprising the backbone. Villainesse caught up with Dr Leitao to understand what that means, what it’s like to be a scientist, and how to encourage more young women to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. Here’s what she had to say.
Villainesse: What does your L’Oreal For Women in Science New Zealand Fellowship mean to you? What kinds of research will the $25,000 grant will go towards?
Dr. Erin Leitao: The L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowship has already been great for my career. I have met some amazing women in science, expanded my network within NZ and internationally and have had some great media exposure. The financial support is going towards kick-starting my independent research career at the University of Auckland allowing me to purchase expensive equipment and chemicals that I require for my research. It will also allow me to attend a couple of international conferences, which is key at this stage in my career. I am working towards creating new chains (polymers) containing main-group atoms in the backbone. These polymers are challenging to synthesise as the building blocks are hard to access and routes to connect them together are under-developed.
How did you first get interested/involved in science?
I have been interested in science ever since I was a small child. I really enjoyed mixing different things together and have always loved baking (which, of course, is a delicious type of chemistry). Unfortunately, synthetic chemistry doesn’t have the same large scale and consistent results as baking, but this is because there are a lot more variables and ingredients to work with!
Part of the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Programme focuses on getting young women into STEM industries. What advice would you have for young women thinking about going into a science career?
If you love science – go for it! Don’t let anyone stop you and don’t worry if the subject you feel passionate about isn’t where you have your best marks. There are many different pathways into a career in science so keep an open mind and find some key people early on who can mentor and advise you along the way.
I understand you are a synthetic chemistry scientist. Could you explain what synthetic chemistry is for non-science people? What kinds of applications does it have?
Synthetic chemistry allows us to create molecules and materials by strategically connecting different elements in the period table together. Some of these molecules and materials will be completely new, while others might have been identified from nature as being useful (e.g. a biologically active compound in a rare plant). Synthesising the latter allows us to more efficiently access these targets in large amounts. Applications include: pharmaceutical drugs, mimicking invaluable biological processes, and new materials such as carbon-based polymers (plastics/rubbers) used in banknotes, credit cards and tyres. Closer to home for me would be the creation of silicone, an inorganic polymer which is used to seal showers and can be molded into bakeware.
Is New Zealand a world-leader in the synthetic chemistry field? Why do your research at the University of Auckland and not another school?
There are some excellent synthetic chemists in NZ but the field is highly collaborative. Researchers from universities across the world all contribute to the available knowledge in the area. It would be hard to pinpoint one place as the ‘world-leader in synthetic chemistry.’ Although, it should be noted that New Zealand is a great place to commercialise ideas so for new technologies invented in the country it could easily become the world leader.
I chose to do my research at the University of Auckland as a great opportunity to start my independent career here presented itself. There is no one else in NZ looking at making main-group polymers so I am able to carve out a little niche in NZ. The supporting fields to mine are thriving so it was an easy fit. Furthermore, importantly, the University of Auckland also has some excellent policies and support in place for employees with family obligations, such as flexible-working schemes, on-site early childhood centers and salary-sacrifice schemes. These make it possible as a mother with two young children to maximise family time and research productivity.
What are some exciting developments we are seeing in the field of synthetic chemistry?
Some recent exciting developments in synthetic chemistry include: self-healing materials used in aircraft and wind turbines, polymers that mimic skin and other body parts, new drugs such as Viagra, and my personal favorite as well as the most recent Nobel Prize in chemistry, the synthesis and design of molecular machines. We are talking about moving ‘cars’ that are smaller than a speck of dust!
There’s been a lot of media attention about getting more women into STEM careers. What are some things we can do to achieve this, and what are some challenges that remain?
To attract more women into STEM careers, successful women in science need to be visible and recognized for their achievements. Institutional and government support systems and policies surrounding having a family and a career in STEM need to be in place, along with schemes to assist women during their transition into becoming a mother in STEM. Moreover, once women have shown an interest in STEM, both male and female mentors/teachers/supervisors/advisors need to encourage the rising-stars to stay.
What does the word “feminism” mean to you?
To me feminism means to have equal opportunity, resources, and support regardless of gender.