Chemist fighting for equal opportunities

In her research career, she is not just pleased with her own success. She is at her happiest when the whole research team is developing and making progress. She stresses that it must be possible for women to combine a research career with having a family. Gender equality and equal opportunities are important to medicinal chemist Alesia A. Tietze.

She was born in southern Russia, and then grew up in Minsk in Belarus, where her extended family were also living. And it was there that Alesia’s interest in medicines and chemistry was kindled when she was young.

Why did you choose to become a chemist?
“My maternal grandmother, like my mum, was a pharmacist. Grandma was responsible for pharmacies in our region of Russia when I was young. At her pharmacy there was a lab where creams and medicines were produced, and because I was so interested I was allowed to make my own vitamins there when I was about nine. I already knew about the most common medicines and what they were used for at that age. So becoming a pharmacist was my dream from an early age!

“There was tough competition for places at the university in Minsk. I was delighted to be one of ten applicants selected for the joint degree programme for chemists and pharmacists, and received a government grant to cover the costs. But that particular year the quota for the pharmacy programme was full, so the Dean asked me if I could start by studying chemistry and switch to the pharmacy branch of the degree a year or so later. But when the time came for a switch, I had become so interested in chemistry that I did not want to change.”

How did you end up in Gothenburg?
“I was recruited here through the Wallenberg Centre for Molecular and Translational Medicine (WCMTM) at the University of Gothenburg. I was lucky enough to get a whole career package. It came with large grants and collaboration with AstraZeneca. Today, I have generous grants, interesting research projects, stimulating teaching, great colleagues and excellent opportunities for development. Contact with clinical work and with AstraZeneca are crucially important to me. So I have been very happy here so far. We will have to see how it develops.

Everyday life as a researcher is not particular dependent on fixed times. That has its benefits and drawbacks. My husband is also a researcher in chemistry, so I can definitely say that we take our jobs home with us. We can work evenings and even nights when the children are asleep. So sometimes it feels as though a 9 to 5 job would be great,” says Alesia with a laugh.

What is your research focus?
“I conduct research in chemical biology and study compounds that are found in nature. We then try to synthesise these compounds in the lab so that we can study their functions. The focus is on peptides – membrane proteins, which are chains of amino acids. These are vital elements in ion channels, which have various functions in the human body. Chemical information is transported through ion channels to our brains, for example when we have burnt ourselves. There are also peptides in nature that cannot be produced chemically. We aim to find methods to make this possible.

“I have a team consisting of researchers, postdocs and doctoral students. Two doctoral students are going to be recruited, and the Master’s students are also contributing.  In one project, we are studying how natural biological compounds can be used and produced chemically to find new materials,  for example to find sensor materials for synthetic artificial pores that could transport ions through a synthetic ion channel to be able to alter the ion selectivity. That’s something that would be of benefit to pharmaceutical research.”

When do you feel most content in your work?
“When my research group is doing well, when my students are successful and when the research is moving forward, of course. I like to see Master’s students and postdocs growing in their tasks and becoming independent. We have recently developed a method for synthesising membrane proteins and have produced ion channels artificially. The method has been published in Chemicals Science. Membrane proteins are difficult to handle and difficult to dissolve in water, so it has been challenging for us. Few labs in the world are able to do it. Being able to develop a functioning method was a real success.

“Teaching can also be fun if you have enough time to prepare. I am currently the course coordinator for a second-cycle course in medical chemistry. It’s a very communication-intensive course with lots of different components: lectures, seminars, laboratory assignments and projects. I really like this course, but wish I had more time for preparation.”

What are your driving forces, Alesia Tietze?

What is it that drives you most?
“Ideas are probably my biggest driver. When I look back at how my field of research has developed, I can see that the thoughts and ideas I had early on are frequently the kinds of things drug companies have worked on many years later.”

What is it like being a woman in academia?
“During my doctoral studies, and later as an independent researcher, I have worked the whole time for greater equality of opportunity and gender equality in the research world. So it came as a pleasant surprise to me to find that in Sweden conditions for women are better than in Germany.”

Do you have to work hard to be able to be a researcher?
“Being optimistic and positive helps me in my research job. I work hard, but I want to stress that I’m not a workaholic. Being easy to work with is also crucially important to me.”

Alesia Tietze

Family: Married for 14 years. Her husband Daniel, whom she met in Germany, is also a researcher in chemistry. Two boys, aged 8 and 3.
Position: Associate senior lecturer
Leisure interests: Sewing clothing, upholstering furniture, jogging and going for walks with her family in the countryside at weekends.