Take 10 with... Ivanhoe Leung

Dr Ivanhoe Leung from the School of Chemical Sciences, gives us 10 minutes of his time to discuss how his research helps solve challenges such as making agriculture greener and more efficient to feed the world’s growing population.

Dr Ivanhoe Leung, School of Chemical Sciences
Dr Ivanhoe Leung, School of Chemical Sciences

1. Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

Enzymology, protein chemistry, chemical biology and biophysical chemistry.

2. Now describe it in everyday terms!

We study proteins and enzymes. We aim to use our knowledge in enzyme mechanism and protein structure to help solve some of the world’s most urgent challenges, from understanding the causes of diseases to fighting off antibiotic resistance to making agriculture greener and more efficient to feed the world’s growing population.

3. What are some of the day-to-day research activities you carry out?

This is a tough question because not every day is the same. Typically, I spend my day catching up with graduate students, troubleshooting experiments, reviewing written work from students such as draft manuscripts and thesis chapters, and writing grant proposals – and these are just activities that are directly related to my own research. I would love to have more time to read papers and think about science!

4. What do you enjoy most about your research?

Discovering new things and understanding how things work. These were the reasons why I decided to do my doctorate degree back in the day, and these are still the reasons why I am pursuing an academic career today. Sometimes it is easy to get sidetracked in the complex world of academia so whenever I feel distracted, I always remind myself why I wanted to do research in the first place.  

5. Tell us something that has surprised or amused you in the course of your research (it could be a discovery, an anecdote or even a funny incident).

I used to study the interactions between an enzyme and a molecule called mildronate, which (at that time) was a relatively obscure drug from Latvia. It was a very interesting scientific project and I even wrote a Wikipedia page about the drug for public outreach. No one apart from those in the immediate academic circle paid much attention about our findings.

That was the case until 2016 when the media found that Maria Sharapova (and many other athletes) was taking mildronate as a performance-enhancing agent. I am sure my papers and the Wikipedia page have nothing to do with why Sharapova decided to take the drug, but it is still a good story to tell my non-science friends in the pub.

6. How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

It depends on the situation. I usually try to understand a challenge by breaking it down so that I can evaluate what may or may not work step-by-step. I also find it very useful to talk to people. It might sound simplistic, but this is probably the best way - to pick someone’s brain and to learn from their experience.

7. What questions have emerged as a result?

Always expect the unexpected – the most interesting results in my research career so far are from things that are not planned! I get very excited when my graduate students come and tell me they have found something ‘strange’. I always encourage my students to follow through with their observation and do all the control experiments to make sure their observation is real. The most exciting and fun part is to find out why the enzyme or protein does what it is ‘not supposed’ to do.

8. What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

Our research is driven by the desire to understand more about human health and disease. We also want to utilise our knowledge to help improve agriculture. So, we definitely want to make an impact in these areas. However, I also think that all new knowledge is valuable so I give my students the freedom to pursue side projects that may or may not have an immediate and obvious benefit. I also hope that our research will help train and inspire our students to be successful in the career of their choice after they graduate.

9. If you collaborate across the faculty or University, or even outside the University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

Our research is highly multidisciplinary and we cannot do any of our research projects without collaborations. We work very closely with friends and colleagues from Chemical Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering and the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences. We also work closely with colleagues from other New Zealand universities, as well as those from overseas.

Being able to work and share ideas with experts in different disciplines across the world is one of the best parts of an academic job.

10. What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?​

This is a very tough question. An academic career is hard work. There are pros and cons and sacrifices to be make along the way – but it is also a very rewarding career – so go for it!