Marie Curie Lecture Series

Female Chemists from New Zealand reflect on how chemistry improves our lives and society

The Marie Curie Lecture Series was a year-long national tour of talks by female New Zealand chemists in honour of Curie’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her ground-breaking studies in radium and polonium.  Throughout the year, chemists travelled around New Zealand, from Timaru to Nelson and from New Plymouth to Napier, explaining how their research underpins our lives and our society.



Exploring Nature’s Medicine Chest: Professor Margaret Brimble

The intricate chemistry of nature has evolved over millions of years and we are in the exciting position to be able to recreate and craft the compounds that already exist in the world, in the laboratory.

This lecture explores such possibilities and how we can best use these discoveries to create new medicines. It will showcase how natural products derived from microorganisms that live in extreme environments, and natural products produced by algal blooms, can be harnessed to develop novel anticancer, antibacterial and  antiviral drugs and drugs to treat neurodegenerative diseases.

About Professor Brimble

Professor Margaret Brimble FRSNZ, MNZM holds the Chair of Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Auckland. She is Chair of the Rutherford Foundation Board of Trustees and the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships Selection Panel, a Titular Member of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry Organic and Biomolecular Division and a Principal Investigator in the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery.  Her previous roles include: President of the International Society for Heterocyclic Chemistry, a Member of the Marsden Fund Council and Chair of the Physical Sciences Panel  and Director of Medicinal Chemistry for Neuren Pharmaceuticals Ltd.

In 2005, she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK and appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.  Margaret was named the 2007 L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Laureate in Materials Science for Asia-Pacific   was awarded the 2008 World Class New Zealand Award in the Research, Science, Technology and Academia category and won the 2010 Royal Society of Chemistry Natural Products Award and Simonsen lectureship. She delivered the Rosalind Franklin lectures in the UK and the Novartis Chemistry lectureship in 2004.

New Plymouth, March

To most people, the term ‘sugar’ refers to crystals used to sweeten food but to a chemist, it’s the generic term given to a class of compounds which play an important role in a variety of biological events.

This lecture looks at the sugars that decorate the surface of pathogens and how sugar-derivatives and mimics can be used to develop drugs and better vaccines for diseases such as cancer and tuberculosis.

About Dr. Stocker

Dr Stocker was awarded the Victoria University of Wellington Gold Medal for the top graduating BSc(Hons) student across all science disciplines in 2000, and continued on at Victoria University for her PhD, focusing on the total synthesis of several anti-cancer agents. Following a brief period as a lecturer at Victoria University, Dr Stocker was awarded a FRST Bright Futures Post-Doctoral Fellowship in 2004 and spent two years at the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, where she completed the first total synthesis of several complex mycobacterial cell wall components. In 2006, Dr Stocker returned to New Zealand, and currently leads the Immunoglycomics group at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, a programme established in 2007 in collaboration with Victoria University of Wellington and with a focus on understanding the role of carbohydrates in immunology.

FROM MINERALS TO MIRACLES: Associate Professor Kate McGrath
Dunedin, April

When it was discovered that the humble chiton, a member of the mollusc family, can produce minerals in its teeth strong enough to leave marks in rocks- the study of Biomineralisation was born.

The biomineral within chiton teeth is a magnetite similar to the mineral that gives loadstones their magnetic power. But what intrigued scientists is that the magnetite of chiton teeth is tougher than that of geologically formed magnetite despite being essentially the same material.

In this lecture, Associate Professor McGrath will be highlighting the minerals produced by living organisms for the past 550 million years and how close we are to reproducing these materials for use in everything from wound care to engineering.

About Associate Professor McGrath

Associate Professor Kathryn McGrath is a Principal Investigator at the MacDiarmid Institute in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington where she and her team are studying complex fluids and soft matter. She is also an Associate Investigator at the Riddet Institute.  She has made important new fundamental discoveries especially in emulsion research where she has managed to characterise a new class of emulsion behaviours using a wide range of physical techniques. Kathryn is considered to be one of New Zealand’s leading young physical scientists and supervises a number of postgraduate students.

Nelson, May

Why is a leaf green and blood red? They both contain molecules called porphyrins which are found throughout the natural world and are essential for life.
The theme of this lecture will be how chemists can learn from nature’s ingenious solutions to chemical problems and use this knowledge to design new molecules.

About Professor Penny Brothers

Penny Brothers completed BSc and MSc(Hons) degrees at the University of Auckland and a PhD in chemsitry at Stanford University (1985). After returning to Auckland for postdoctoral work she was appointed at the University of Auckland in 1988 and promoted to Professor in 2009. She has been a visiting scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Universities of California at Davis, Heidelberg, Burgundy and Münster. She was awarded a Fulbright Senior Scholar Award in 2007.

LIVING WITH OXYGEN: Professor Christine Winterbourn
Palmerston North, June

Oxygen is vital for life. During respiration we harness the energy released when it is converted to water and use it to drive chemical synthesis, movement, brain activity and maintenance of cell function. However, some of the oxygen is only partially reduced and is released as hydrogen peroxide and free radicals. These are reactive and biologically damaging species, and the only reason we can survive is that we have an elaborate array of antioxidant defences to handle them. Free radicals are generated in a wide array of biological processes. In some cases this is associated with toxicity, however, the body also makes use of these toxic species by generating them in white blood cells for the purpose of killing bacteria and protecting against infection. This lecture will discuss the good and the bad aspects of the biological chemistry of free radicals.

About Professor Winterbourn

Professor Christine Winterbourn is an Auckland University chemistry graduate who received her PhD in biochemistry from Massey University and now has a personal chair in the Pathology Department, University of Otago, Christchurch where she directs a Health Research Council Programme. Her research interests are in the biochemistry of free radical reactions and the involvement of oxidants and antioxidants in health and disease.  Her work encompasses mechanisms of antioxidant defence, understanding how white blood cells kill bacteria, and free radical involvement in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

Rotorua, September

A hundred years since Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of new chemical elements, ongoing efforts continue to expand the limits of the periodic table.

This lecture will explore the beauty and complexity of the periodic table of elements, including theoretical predictions of the properties of its newest member, Copernicium.  It will introduce the ways in which the theories of quantum mechanics and relativity, in combination with modern supercomputers, allow us to make predictions about the behaviour of unknown atoms, molecules, and materials.

About Nicola Gaston

Dr Nicola Gaston is a Principal Investigator in the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology and a Senior Scientist at Industrial Research Ltd.

She obtained her PhD from Massey University in 2006, completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden before returning to New Zealand as an NZ Science and Technology post-doctoral fellow at Industrial Research Ltd in 2007. Nicola has also been an Adjunct Research Fellow with the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences at Victoria University Wellington since 2010.

Listen to Nicola on Nights with Bryan Crump

PROMISCUOUS PROTEINS: Professor Juliet Gerrard
Timaru, September

Dr Juliet GerrardInsights Into Antibiotic Design, Nanodevices, Counter-Terrorism and Fluffy Croissants…

Most biological materials are assembled from proteins carrying out the day-to-day business of cells. We understand these molecules in great detail but have little understanding of how and why they gather into larger assemblies to carry out their individual functions.

This lecture will probe how protein structures assemble into remarkable molecular machines and explore how a fundamental understanding of these processes opens up exciting applications in a wide range of fields.

About Juliet Gerrard

Professor Juliet Gerrard trained at Oxford University before moving to New Zealand in 1993. She was appointed as a research scientist at Crop & Food Research Ltd prior to joining the University of Canterbury in 1998 as a Lecturer in Biochemistry. Professor Gerrard now leads an interdisciplinary research team, cutting across biochemistry, chemistry, health, food science and biomaterial design and Co-Directs the new Biomolecular Interaction Centre.  At present, a major focus of her research is the understanding of the quaternary structure of proteins and how this may have influenced the evolution of oligomeric proteins.  This work has potential application in the design of novel therapeutic agents, food science and also in the assembly of novel materials. Professor Gerrard has over 100 publications including book chapters and three books, two of which have been translated into other languages.  She also won a National Teaching Award for Sustained Excellence in Tertiary Teaching in 2004 and is currently Deputy Chair of the Marsden Council.

FROM THE BOTTOM UP: Professor Alison Downard
Napier, October

Professor Alison DownardTake electrochemistry, materials chemistry and surface chemistry, and mix in some nanotechnology and biology and the possibilities are endless. In electrochemistry, electrical energy is used to force oxidation and reduction (redox) reactions to occur at electrodes. The materials and surfaces of electrodes are the starting point and with the techniques of nanotechnology, we can get right down to the surface to see what is happening and maybe even take control.

The lecture will showcase some of the ways we make electrodes, enzymes and bugs work together for us, how we can use carbon nanotubes to give us new electrical devices and how electrochemistry may play a role in a future world of nanoscale devices.

About Alison Downard

Professor Downard obtained her BSc(Hons) and PhD degrees at the University of Otago, beginning her research career in electrochemistry and surface chemistry.  Following her PhD, Alison did a year’s postdoctoral research on conducting polymers at the University of Southampton and then took up a two-year postdoctoral position at UNC-Chapel Hill,  examining the construction and function of artificial photosynthetic systems. Since joining the staff at the University of Canterbury, Alison has worked in several areas of electrochemistry, surface chemistry and most recently, nanotechnology. She has a particular interest in surface films which can be only a few nanometers thick (extremely thin!) but have dramatic effects on surface properties. Alison is a Principal Investigator with the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology and leader of the Institute’s Molecular Materials theme. She is currently the chair-elect of the Analytical Electrochemistry Division of the International Society of Electrochemistry.


Christchurch, November

De Cather SimpsonLight is essentially a wave that carries energy. Though scientists have known this for hundreds of years, we are still striving to meet the challenge of converting that energy into a form that we can readily use – electrical energy, mechanical motion, heat and even to treat cancer.

This lecture, given one year after the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser, will explore the use of light to better our lives. In particular, it will focus upon the ‘holy grail’ of harnessing the sun to generate electricity. Research by Dr. Simpson and her collaborators in the Photon Factory at the University of Auckland is making advances at both the very basic and very high-tech applied ends of this effort. Ultrashort pulsed lasers probe the chemical physics of how substances ‘decide’ what to do with the light energy they absorb. The same laser pulses also enable the high value manufacturing advances needed to make solar energy harvesting a technological (and economical) reality.

About Cather Simpson

In 2007, Cather Simpson joined The University of Auckland to establish and direct a new multi-user ultrafast laser spectroscopy and microfabrication facility, the Photon Factory.  Her appointment is held jointly in Chemistry and Physics.  In addition to her research in chemical physics, she lectures in the departments of Chemistry, Physics, and English.

Cather earned a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Virginia, then a Ph.D. in Medical Sciences at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine as a Howard Hughes Predoctoral Fellow. During her Ph.D. studies, she became increasingly interested in physics, chemistry and maths, and by the time she graduated, she had switched from studying receptor recycling in immune responses to exploring the fundamental interactions of light with molecules. After a Department of Energy Postdoctoral Fellowship at Sandia National Labs, she joined the academic staff in the Chemistry Department at Case Western Reserve University to pursue research in ultrafast (femtosecond) phenomena in the condensed phase.  There, she earned tenure and promotion to Associate Professor and became dedicated to promoting innovation in undergraduate teaching, women in science, ethics in education and research, and in growing postgraduate numbers in her multi-disciplinary field.

THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF ENZYMES: Associate Professor Emily Parker
Auckland, November

Emily ParkerEnzymes are nature’s catalysts – they are responsible for making the reactions that support life.  Enzymes are proteins, which are complex, large macromolecules, and it has taken recent developments in technology and techniques to begin to unlock the secrets of how they operate.

This lecture will examine how these remarkable biological molecules work.  This knowledge can be used to design new enzymes and to find new strategies to selectively target pathogenic micro-organisms.

About Emily Parker

Emily Parker is an Associate Professor in Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Canterbury where she leads a research team that uses chemical and biochemical techniques to explore the evolution and molecular details of enzymic catalysis.

Emily completed her undergraduate training in chemistry at the University of Canterbury, and her PhD at the University of Cambridge, UK.  She returned to New Zealand in 1998 to take up a lectureship at Massey University.  In 2005 she was awarded the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry Easterfield medal. In 2006 Emily moved to the University of Canterbury to take up a position in the Chemistry Department. She was awarded the Applied Biosystems Award by the New Zealand Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 2008, and in 2010 Emily received a National Teaching Award for Sustained Excellence in Tertiary Teaching.  Emily is a principal investigator of the Biomolecular Interaction Centre, and serves on the board of directors of Landcare Research.