Please tell us about yourself
Leanne uses computer modeling and calculations to visualize and help understand why reactions or material, behave in a certain way. She was born in Glasgow, Scotland, where she did her Bachelors degree in chemistry. Leanne moved to Germany to do her master’s degree in molecular science, focusing on computational chemistry to understand the processes happening in a nanostructured photocatalyst for the water splitting reaction. She is now a Ph.D. student at the Max Planck Institute for polymer research, where she is developing software to compute the movement of charged carriers through organic semiconducting materials.
What is your scientific background?
I did my Bachelors degree in chemistry at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland. My final project was based on theoretical and computational chemistry, benchmarking various methods and levels of theory for the computation of small model systems. I then moved to Germany where I did my Master’s degree, in molecular science, at the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen, Nürnberg. I worked at the Max Planck Institute for the science of light, in Erlangen, for my master thesis. Where I was investigating a nano-structured material for the use as a water-splitting photocatalyst, using computational techniques to assist with the understanding of experimental evidence. I am now doing my Ph.D. at the Max Planck Institute for polymer research in Mainz, Germany. My work is focused on computer simulations of organic electronics.
Why did you choose to become a scientist? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?
I think the childhood curiosity to wonder why things are the way that they are, never slows down with a scientist. The questions we ask might change with age, but the desire to understand the world around you never disappears. I constantly want to know why something works a certain way or why a chemical reaction happens a certain way. This thirst for knowledge is what ultimately drove me to a career in science. Besides the fact that I always wanted to wear the cool white lab coat, of course!
How did you choose your field of study?
It could have been my first ever chemistry set that acted as the catalyst (a long time ago), but I think aside from science in general, I always had a particularly strong interest in chemistry. I had some great teachers throughout my studies, but my first chemistry teacher will always be the biggest influence, it was already at that point I knew my career would be in chemistry. During my Bachelor degree, I got the chance to try computational chemistry, which I took a particularly strong interest in. I like how computational simulations have the ability to answer questions, which sometimes can be difficult for experiments alone. There is a rapidly growing demand for computational simulations in science, for a number of reasons. And bringing experiments and simulations together allows us to understand things better, which can result in the more specialized design of reactions or materials and ultimately more efficient science.
Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?
I am working on computer simulations of organic electronics, by writing a new program to compute the Kinetic Monte Carlo method. This method, together with other tools, allows visualization of charged carriers, such as electrons, through a material, for example, an organic solar cell. Modeling the transport of these carriers through an organic solar cell is vital for better understanding. The more we understand, the better and more efficient the organic solar cells become. Solar cells, in general, are an environmentally friendly alternative to using fossil fuels. Typically these solar cells are silicon based devices and are often heavy and inflexible. Organic solar cells offer an alternative, being flexible, lightweight and potentially transparent. Which means there can be many more potential applications, such as a surface on your laptop or phone for recharging. The efficiency of these organic solar cells is a major drawback. With the help of computational simulations, understanding the molecular processes and the potential ways to make the devices more efficient, become more accessible.
What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?
I would say my biggest achievement is getting to this point in my career, it was always my ambition to do a Ph.D. in chemistry. I am proud to say that I did stick by this ambition and that I have done all that I can to make it happen.
Another achievement (more of a personal one) for me, was to overcome my fear of public speaking, it would be my worst fear to give a presentation in front of many people. But I was told by a professor at the university, that you can be the best scientist in the world, but if no one gets the chance to hear what you have to say, they don’t know how good you are. The idea that my scientific career could be shadowed by this fear was the motivation I needed to start doing presentations more often. Just as a note, the more you do the easier they become, I started to realize I like doing it (who would have thought), and I can be quite good at it.
I like to think that if there is a challenge or a difficult part of my career, as long as I can learn something from it, then it’s not a failure.
How does your family regard your career choice?
My family have always been supportive and encouraged me to follow the career that I wanted. Since it was my dream to be a scientist already at the age of 5, I think there was only ever one career direction for me. But with my family behind me all the way, it made every step easier, especially when I moved to Germany. My family would always say no ambition or dream was ever too high for me to achieve, and I appreciate that the most.
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
Because I am always on the computer for my scientific work, in my personal time I try to do something different. I love to draw, I make pencil drawings of some of Scotland’s famous buildings and landscapes. I also like to travel, whenever I get some extra free time.
Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?
It can be a challenge to keep a private life going while keeping a strong scientific career. I have an amazingly supportive boyfriend, who helps me with both. It is definitely important to make time for yourself, a scientific career can be challenging.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?
There has to be more of a spotlight on female scientists, science in the media is largely portrayed as a male dominated career. It is important to show young girls that they can be anything they aspire to be, and highlighting female contribution to various scientific disciplines would help with that.
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
Not to worry about the future, because all the hard work will pay off. And to be confident, everything you have to say is worth hearing.