Elena Liles

UVic Women in Science presents an interview series highlighting women in the scientific community on Vancouver Island. Here, we target women who are brainy, creative, and passionate. Elena Liles is an undergraduate honours student in the Department of Chemistry at UVic. 

What level of your education are you at? It's my 4th year in the Chemistry Honours Program.

What brought you to Victoria? UVic – I didn’t take a second language in high school so I couldn’t apply to some of the universities in Vancouver, but I prefer Victoria anyway.

When did you first become excited about science? When I graduated high school I ended up working in retail for a couple of years which I didn’t really like – it’s kind of crappy as a full time job. I didn’t know what I wanted to do otherwise, so I went back to school and upgraded my grade 12 math. I felt like I was headed in the right direction but I honestly had no idea. Taking some classes at community college helped me figure out that I was good with the math-y subjects and I eventually found myself in science. It happened on a bit of a whim.

Describe the research focus of your honours project. Right now I’m working on catalytic hydrophosphination, so I’m looking at designing a complex that will speed up hydrophosphination reactions. My group (Rosenberg) has had a lot of success working out catalytic cycles for Ruthenium based systems. Now I’m interested in modifying the catalyst to favour one cycle over another. A lot of the potential catalysts I’ve been making are new complexes, which is pretty exciting.

Do you have plans for after you graduate? Nope! I knew you were going to ask questions like this. I’m looking to grad school and applying to NSERC grants (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) for this summer to check out other fields of research and see what’s right for me. A cool industry job would be nice, but otherwise grad school is probably the plan.

What are your research aspirations? I’m not stuck with the research I’m currently working on, but I love what I’m doing right now. I’m interested in materials but that’s a whole different ballgame.

Have you felt that being a woman in science prompted you to overcome obstacles? The obstacles women face in science are kind of hard to describe. In a group setting it sometimes feels like you don’t necessarily get the feedback you need, but just keep on asking for it - that's what I've done.

What has been the most rewarding part of your education? The research that I’m working on! You spend a lot of time learning theory and technique and sometimes it’s hard to see what it’s all for. When you get into research labs it starts to come together and you get to contribute to actual science. It’s kind of incredible.

I’ve learned to be better and better at managing school and now it causes me less stress than it used to. Stick through it and don’t worry too much.

What are your interests outside of university life? Haha, I have a life?! It’s all tied in to academics I guess, but right now I’m really interested in programming and coding. I don’t have a lot of spare time but I’m trying to teach myself a bit about Python and LaTeX. I enjoy it, so it’s considered a hobby for me.

Any major goals you have your sights set on in the next, say, 5 years? It’s all up in the air. It depends on whether I do grad school or head out to seek industry experience, but the plan is that I definitely want to have developed skills in a field that’s employable and engaging. I don’t ever want to be just pressing a button and writing a number down. That’s not my speed.

What advice would you give to students and young females interested in science? Just to keep going, especially if you’re in the early stages of starting out. There are lots of different first year experiences and that year was really difficult for me. I've learned to be better and better at managing school and now it causes me less stress than it used to. Stick through it and don’t worry too much. Early on I didn’t have a lot of focus – the courses I took eventually made me feel more specialized. Don’t be stressed out if you don’t know what’s going on, it works itself out.

Karen Lithgow