This Month’s Featured Chemist
Browse through our profiles of chemists working in New Zealand and learn about the many career choices on offer.
Science Team Leader - Plant & Food Research
Area/discipline of scienceNatural products and organic chemistry
- PhD at the University of Otago
- BSC (Hons) at the University of Bristol
I lead a team in Plant & Food Research looking for new biologically active compounds from foods, herbs and New Zealand native plants. Current projects include;
- searching for food components to help Crohn’s disease sufferers using cellular assays to detect gene-specific effects then isolating and identifying the active food components;
- studying whether the red colouration of the leaves of the New Zealand native horopito (pepper tree) warns insects not to feed;
- developing new flavours from the NZ native plant manuka, working with local iwi and the Federation of Maori authorities;
- developing better applications of an insect pest control method that we discovered and patented, which is now on sale around the world.
I lead the team, rather than doing hands-on chemistry, so unfortunately I have a lot of emails and reports to do. The best parts of my day are talking with my team members, including the various students working with us about their latest results. I love looking at NMR spectra and trying to recognise the features of the molecules that those reveal. All of our projects are multi-disciplinary, and involve people in different labs around the country, so we have teleconferences and video links for updates and planning, plus exchange visits between labs.
I had a very good chemistry teacher at school, who allowed us freedom to do projects, and illustrated his teaching with stories from his practical experience. I got a job which was mostly chemistry in the holidays- analysing concrete, white line pigments and trace metals. At Bristol University, Professor Michael Whiting got me enthused about natural products, including a story of natural polyacetylenes from herbs collected in meadows by a Norwegian chemist. He had one of these compounds pure in a flask, when it suddenly went from yellow to black as it exploded. So obviously I wanted to work on exploding plants.
The most exciting part about a chemistry career is understanding the complexity and interactions of nature on the molecular scale. For example, walking through the New Zealand bush and knowing that the red flowers of rata are packed with anthocyanins, accumulated to attract pollinating birds. Diving under the ice in Antarctica, collecting dark green sea sponges and identifying the pigments as new compounds with potential anticancer properties. Mountain biking in the Central Otago hills, stopping to smell the taramea gum exuding from the speargrasses and wondering about its chemical composition.
Plant & Food Research is a New Zealand-based science company and Crown Research Institute providing research and development that adds value to fruit, vegetable, crop and food products. Read more about careers at Plant & Food.