Self-healing turbines and mentorship: Dr Erin Leitao on what synthetic chemistry is (and isn't) and encouraging more women in STEM careers

Idealog digital editor Ben Mack caught up with Dr Erin Leitao, University of Auckland synthetic chemistry scientist and 2016 New Zealand Fellow of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme.

Just the phrase “synthetic chemistry” conjures images of mad scientists, Frankenstein, beakers full of bubbling and fizzing goo, and more terrible B-movies than one can shake 14 sticks at. But Dr Erin Leitao says it’s none of those things.

“Synthetic chemistry allows us to create molecules and materials by strategically connecting different elements in the period table together,” she explains. “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). Synthesizing 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 moulded into bakeware.”

Leitao also says it’s a field she’s thrilled to be in. “I have been interested in science ever since I was a small child,” she says. “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!”

Although the field might be unknown to many, Leitao explains there’s some very cool stuff going on that could one day impact all of our lives – like self-healing materials and machines the size of molecules. “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,” she says. “We are talking about moving ‘cars’ that are smaller than a speck of dust!”

As part of her For Women in Science New Zealand Fellowship, Leitao received $25,000 to help with her research. But she says it’s not the only benefit. “The L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science fellowship has already been great for my career,” she says. “I have met some amazing women in science, expanded my network within New Zealand 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 synthesize as the building blocks are hard to access and routes to connect them together are under-developed.”

Dr Erin Leitao.

Leitao also has high praise for the University of Auckland in allowing her to pursue her research. “I chose to do my research at the University of Auckland as a great opportunity to start my independent career here presented itself,” she explains. “There is no one else in New Zealand looking at making main-group polymers so I am able to carve out a little niche in New Zealand. 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.”

But as great as the university’s support has been, Leitao explains that the synthetic chemistry field is really a global one due to its collaborative nature. “There are some excellent synthetic chemists in New Zealand, but the field is highly collaborative,” she explains. “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.”

As a woman in a STEM career, Leitao also says there are ways to encourage more women to go into – and stay – in STEM careers. “To attract more women into STEM careers, successful women in science need to be visible and recognised for their achievements,” she says. “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.”

She also has some advice for women thinking about a STEM 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,” she says. “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.”