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Unique NZ synthetic chemistry scientist wins award

Media release

Under embargo until 2:00pm, Tuesday 25 October.

Unique NZ synthetic chemistry scientist wins award

The importance of fundamental science to expand new discoveries.

Imagine a time before electronics, synthetic clothing, tyres, contact lenses or plastic products such as money, packaging and toys existed. This wide variety of man-made products has revolutionised our lives. But, what other materials are scientists capable of creating?

That’s what Dr Erin Leitao, a chemical scientist from the University of Auckland won her award for, and her prize money will go into accelerating these yet to be seen materials.

Dr 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 delighted to continue our support for a programme that recognises and rewards women for scientific excellence and for their contribution to society,” says Martin Smith Executive General Manager, L’Oréal New Zealand.

“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.

“It gives us great pleasure to present her with the L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science New Zealand Fellowship for 2016.”

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 is targeted at making molecules and materials containing predominantly carbon atoms.

Erin 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.”

Canadian-born, Dr Leitao is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Auckland working in the School of Chemical Sciences on catalysis in inorganic and main group chemistry.


Issued for L’Oréal New Zealand by Pead PR

* L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science New Zealand Fellowship 2016

In 2016 Australasia’s premier women in science award awards NZ$25,000 fellowship specifically for early-career female scientists in New Zealand. The L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Australia & New Zealand Fellowship programme comprises four $25,000 awards, three for Australian scientists and one dedicated to a New Zealander, totalling $100,000. The L'Oréal-UNESCO Fellowships have been open to New Zealanders since 2012 when University of Otago, Christchurch, senior lecturer Dr Suetonia Palmer and Otago Geologist, Dr Christina Riesselman was awarded a Fellowship in 2015.


For the past 18 years, the L’Oréal Foundation and UNESCO have supported women researchers throughout the world who contribute to moving science forward. Each year, the For Women in Science Programme highlights scientific excellence and encourages promising talent. Since 1998, the L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Awards have recognised 92 Laureates, exceptional women who have made great advances in scientific research. Two of them have gone on to receive the Nobel Prize. In its aim to promote and encourage women throughout their scientific careers, the For Women in Science partnership has also developed a global network of International, Regional and National Fellowship programs aimed at supporting young women who represent the future of science. To date, Fellowships have been granted to more than 2438 women in 112 countries, permitting them to pursue their research in institutions at home or abroad. The programme has become a benchmark of scientific excellence on an international scale.





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