Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Pioneering chemist Dr Erin Leitao wins Women in Science award

Dr Erin Leitao has been named the 2016 New Zealand Fellow of the L'Oraal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme. Photo: Supplied
Dr Erin Leitao has been named the 2016 New Zealand Fellow of the L'Oraal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme. Photo: Supplied

A chemical scientist searching for what could be the next wonder-material has been honoured with a major award.

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

The Canadian-born researcher is the only scientist in the country working towards creating new polymeric materials with main-group elements comprising the backbone of her work. The vast majority of synthetic chemistry is targeted at making molecules and materials containing predominantly carbon atoms.

Leitao wants to create new polymers by making use of main-group, or 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.

At the university's School of Chemical Sciences, she is investigating ways of creating new polymer building blocks and new ways in which to connect them.

"It's an under-explored area of science so there is potential to make significant discoveries," she said.

"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 commercialising new materials as there is a lot of support for that here."

The fellowship would help kick-start her independent research career and provide financial support to help balance her family and work life.

"Funding for basic science is crucial as we need it for new discoveries that enable new applications which haven't even been considered yet," she said.

"It is vital work and without it we could miss out on knowledge that will expand our understanding of science."

Beyond funding constraints for discovery-led research, the highly complex field came with its own challenges.

"Once you start doing this kind of chemistry, it's more just being creative and persevering with different methods and ways to do it, and just not giving up, because it's kind of trial and error."

Presently, she was working toward creating stable silicon based polymers that could conduct electricity which may be found in applications such as sensors or in electronic devices.

L'Oreal New Zealand general manager Martin Smith said the company was "delighted" to continue the Women in Science programme, which had supported and celebrated women researchers around the world for nearly two decades.

"Research and innovation is at the heart of our business, so we are immensely proud to provide the opportunity to ensure that women are fairly represented at all levels in science.

"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."

- NZ Herald

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