Family and Fellowship

28 August 2017
Dr Erin Letaio
Dr Erin Leitao

Entering Dr Erin Leitao’s office on the tenth floor of the new Science building, I’m warmly surprised. Rather than the usual chemical equations and molecule diagrams, Erin’s whiteboard displays a series of kids’ scribbles.

Far from being research in the making, for Erin, these drawings represent the balance between work and family. A balance made possible by the support of the University of Auckland’s equity policies, and her recent appointment as the 2016 New Zealand Fellow of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme.

Erin has always been interested in science and how the world works. She first became interested at school, and decided to pursue a career path that has taken her from her native Canada, to England and now to New Zealand.

“Ever since my first taste of science I was fascinated by the subject. It wasn’t until university that it became obvious that the questions I was most curious about were  things that could be addressed through understanding chemistry,” says Erin.

“In graduate school I realised that I wanted more control over the creativity and direction of my research. This is how I knew I wanted to continue into academia.”

After completing her PhD at the University of Calgary, Erin spent four years in England where she held a Marie Curie post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Bristol. She moved to New Zealand in 2015 with her husband, a visual effects artist, and her two children, aged four and two.

Today, as a lecturer within the School of Chemical Sciences, Dr 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 uses carbon atoms, whereas Erin’s research makes use of other main-group, inorganic elements such as silicon, phosphorus, nitrogen and oxygen. These alternatives to carbon are not only highly abundant, they could produce materials with unexplored properties and reactivity. But, it’s a challenge.

“You can’t just mimic the same processes that are done with carbon systems. It’s more difficult to synthesise [these new polymers] because, for example, the analogous double-bonded silicon building blocks are not stable, so we have to come up with new building blocks in addition to new ways to bring them together,” she explains.

Erin’s work has been described as ‘blue-sky’ and she admits it’s still in its infancy, but researchers in the field have already discovered some interesting properties in the silicon systems.

“Silicon atoms, when they’re in a chain, are semi-conductors and that’s not something you find with the carbon system. I’m also interested in exploring ways to make bio-compatible polymers containing phosphorus and nitrogen.”

The semi-conducting polymers could be used in electronic devices and solar cells, whereas the bio-compatible polymers have the potential to be used as a carrier to bring drugs into the body. “It’s still explorative, but these are the possibilities we can envision.”

“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,” says Martin Smith, Executive General Manager of L’Oréal New Zealand.

Erin believes that New Zealand offers an ideal environment in which to begin her independent academic research career.

“New Zealand is one of the places in the world where it is easiest to go from an idea to commercialisation. It’s the first place I have lived that I’ve really felt that there is a lot of energy behind generating a new idea, collaboration to get it going, and the support to get it out to the public seems to be much higher than anywhere else.

“That attitude is now changing the way I view my research in terms of its potential.”

Now that potential has been recognised.

In October, Dr Leitao became 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.

“With the For Women in Science Fellowship, L’Oréal have hit the nail bang on the head. This is the most critical time in a woman’s academic career. You’re in a minority, especially if you want to have a family. They’re putting a system in place to give you some exposure, and to give you some financial support that you can use to take care of your family – it’s very significant,” says Erin.

“For women who are struggling, to have that money for childcare would be a game changer. For me, it’s really going to help keep my international presence high. Next year, I’m attending two international conferences funded by the Fellowship.”

Erin believes there are also steps that academic institutions can take to make things easier for women to balance motherhood with their career aspirations.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but I would say information and supportive policies are key. If I was going to have a child now I would want someone who could run my lab while I went on maternity leave.

“In Chemistry in particular, it’s very hard. I worked in the lab until I was eight months pregnant, but I had to be very careful about what I was exposed to. In Germany, for example, you’re not allowed in the lab at all when you’re pregnant.”

One of the reasons that Erin chose the University of Auckland was its commitment to accommodating the work, life and family responsibilities of its staff.

“I knew in advance the support I would receive as an employee with family obligations because of the University’s flexible working policies and the on-campus childcare facilities. I have no lectures timetabled before 9am and none after 4pm, so I’m not expected to teach when I have to be picking up the kids. It just felt really doable.”

As our interview draws to a close, I notice a tiny handprint smeared on the floor-to-ceiling window in Erin’s office. The window looks down onto one of the University’s Early Childhood Education facilities.

“My kids know where I work. I can look down and see my daughter playing in the sandpit. And she knows that I’m up here, watching her!

“I’m always asked, ‘You already have children? How did you do that?’” laughs Erin. “It’s been hard, but I feel very fortunate to be starting my independent academic career with my family by my side.”

(This story appeared in the Faculty of Science alumni magazine InSCIght Issue 10 2016)

Additional information:

Young chemistry researcher named L’Oréal Fellow