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New Zealand synthetic chemistry scientist wins Women in Science Fellowship

Dr Erin Leitao is the 2016 New Zealand Fellow of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme, receiving a $25,000 grant to assist her independent research at the University of Auckland.

For 18 years, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme has supported women researchers around the world with the objective of recognising and rewarding their accomplishments whilst encouraging young women to enter the profession.

“We are immensely proud to provide the opportunity to ensure that women are fairly represented at all levels in science.” says Martin Smith Executive General Manager, L’Oréal New Zealand. “Erin’s research is fundamental and time consuming so it is essential that we play our role to support new research solutions to help solve the world’s most complex questions.”

Leitao is the only scientist in New Zealand working towards creating new polymeric materials with main-group elements comprising the backbone. The vast majority of synthetic chemistry is targeted at making molecules and materials containing predominantly carbon atoms.

She wants to create new polymers by making use of main-group (inorganic) elements such as silicon, phosphorus, nitrogen, and oxygen. These alternatives to carbon are not only in high abundance, they give the potential to produce materials with unexplored properties and reactivity.

Dr Leitao is investigating ways of creating new polymer building blocks and new ways in which to connect them.

Erin says the materials resulting from the creation of synthetic polymers with main-group elements will give rise to new applications and a better understanding of the behaviour of the various main-group molecules and polymers.

“It’s an under-explored area of science so there is potential to make significant discoveries. And that has the exciting prospect of one day putting New Zealand on the global map as a key player in main-group polymer chemistry, especially when it comes to commercializing new materials as there is a lot of support for that here,” she says.

“The L’Oréal FWIS fellowship will help kick-start my independent research career as well as provide financial support which will make balancing a family and a career more effective.

“Funding for basic science is crucial as we need it for new discoveries that enable new applications which haven’t even been considered yet.

“It is vital work and without it we could miss out on knowledge that will expand our understanding of science,” Dr Leitao says. “Currently we are working towards creating stable silicon-based polymers which can conduct electricity that may be found in applications such as sensors or in electronic devices.”

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