Dr. Christine Le
What do you do?
I have spent the last 10 years of my academic career conducting research in organic chemistry. My research is geared towards developing environmentally sustainable methods for the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, materials, and other commodity chemicals. Due to the global warming crisis and the depletion of the Earth’s natural resources, I am motivated to design greener chemical processes that reduce or eliminate the production of hazardous waste. I specifically work in the area of catalyst development, as well as the application of these catalysts in the synthesis of medicinally relevant molecules. Much like the enzymes that regulate our daily bodily functions, catalysts speed up chemical reactions in the laboratory to enable chemical transformations that would not otherwise be possible. Developing new catalytic reactions is important because catalysts can often be reused on the industrial scale, making manufacturing processes more efficient— saving time, money, and valuable resources.
Why did you choose this field?
When I was growing up there were a few educational shows that sparked my initial interest in science, such as Bill Nye the Science Guy, The Magic School Bus, and Popular Mechanics for Kids. These TV programs made science seem more approachable and fun. In my senior year of high school, I was privileged to have a very engaging and enthusiastic chemistry teacher. She would speak highly about her previous research experiences, which motivated me to specialize in chemistry when I started university. Having studied and conducted research in different areas of chemistry over the course of my undergraduate degree, I developed a passion for organic chemistry — both in the classroom and in the laboratory. The ability to discover new reactions every day is, in my opinion, the most exciting aspect of organic chemistry and the potential application of these molecules as life-saving therapeutics makes this research area even more rewarding.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
I used to convince myself not to apply for certain scholarships, awards, and research opportunities because I thought I wasn’t good enough. I’ve struggled with imposter syndrome for a good portion of my academic and professional career, but I now know that I can be my worst critic at times and that I am not alone in this battle. Opening up to my colleagues, friends, and family was the most important step I took in overcoming this personal barrier. I can now speak confidently about my abilities and I hope I can be an advocate for other women in STEM experiencing the same challenges.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I love working in STEM because it is a career where curiosity and creativity converge. I like to think of myself as a “molecular architect” with the ability to design novel ways to break down and build up complex molecules in an efficient manner. I’ve always been interested in art and design, and being in a STEM field allows me to marry these interests to my curiosity about chemical phenomena. Another reason why I love working in STEM is that my research interests and directions are dynamic. Being a professor at an academic institution gives me the freedom to work on various projects and not knowing what kinds of discoveries each day will bring motivates me to wake up each morning.
Best advice for next generation?
Find what you are passionate about and then look for mentors that can help you find your dream job. There will be inevitable challenges along the way, but use them as opportunities to learn and grow. There are limitless career options with a background in STEM, so do not let the status quo deter you from pursuing interesting opportunities.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
Aside from being a chemist, I consider myself to be an avid food enthusiast. Outside of the lab, you can find me watching the Food Network, watching documentaries on the science of cooking, experimenting with new recipes, and trying out new restaurants in the city. I find molecular gastronomy, which is the study of the chemical reactions of food ingredients, to be incredibly fascinating!