I met Cecilia when I took a job at the start of 2017 handling marketing for the University of Illinois Materials Science and Engineering Department. Going in, I knew nothing of materials science—and even less of the faculty that would touch my life going forward, even as I left the job to pursue other opportunities. Professor Cecilia Leal had her office right next to mine, and was a friendly face to answer my many questions—and an inspiring force, conducting life-changing research, teaching courses, taking on graduate students in her labs, raising two adorable children, and making it look easy (and fun). I was so glad when Cecilia agreed to be on the blog and let me visit her new office and chat.
Professor Cecilia Leal, Ph.D., is a materials scientist and engineer, focusing on biomaterials, with a focus on materials for medicine. She is also a music-loving mother of two, who has traveled the world in pursuit of her passions.
Morning workouts are a fairly recent thing for Cecilia. “I used to think, there’s just no way I have time to work out. But I just started doing it, waking up at 6:30 for an hour-long workout, and after that’s done, I feel like I can get my life going. I thought for sure I’d be losing out on time by not sleeping in during that hour, or by not being productive on other fronts… but the net is positive. It gives me that energy to start my day and believe that I can do it all.”
One or two mornings a week, Cecilia will run or bike. “Otherwise, I go to the gym—especially when it’s cold!” Then she’ll wake up the kids (“They’re hard to wake up!” she shares, “I have to poke them, they love to sleep.”), get them their milk, and while they’re drinking that, she’ll pack their lunches for school and daycare, then make fresh oatmeal with cinnamon and brown sugar. While they eat breakfast, she’ll get ready for her day, as her husband does as well. “By 8:45, we’re out the door, dropping Amy to school, Max to the daycare, and I have just enough time to grab a coffee and then get to my office by 9:15.”
I’m always interested in what people do at gyms, having never felt “good” at navigating a gym myself. “I run around the track and do core exercises, with many reps of the same thing,” she laughs. Cecilia has diastasis recti (abdominal separation) after the birth of her son, Max. “It’s been emotionally very difficult,” Cecilia says. “It’s surprising how much I have thought about it and been so upset by it… I’m definitely better with it now… but there’s just a lot of exercises I can’t do, that would make it worse. I’ve been working with someone to help it.”
As for what keeps Cecilia motivated throughout the day (besides coffee), it’s thinking about what her driving purpose is. “I am always thinking, ‘what is my purpose?’ It’s definitely my children, and my students… not to provide for them, not to buy more stuff, but to give back and inspire.” Cecilia grew up in a small town in Portugal and was the first of her family to go to college. “When my father died, we were very poor, really… but in Europe, college is free, no tuition, so I knew I could do it. Throughout that process, my teachers and mentors kept saying to me, ‘you should do research,’ and that really changed my life… I want to be that person… when my students go to the classroom or the lab, I want to inspire them. Inspire them to do what they want to do, especially people who don’t necessarily think that they can. I feel so lucky that I do what I love. Looking back, I can see so many points that it could have broken down… steps that it all could have failed. Along these time points, each time, someone—a teacher, a colleague—would serve as my inspiration to keep going. Serving that role for others inspires me.”
(Side note: She is one of two Ph.D.’s in her hometown, and they were classmates. “I’m much more average than they think, though!” she laughs.)
Leaving her hometown changed her a lot, she says, but also highlighted her appreciation of where she came from. “My father was one of seven children, and started working at age 11. He didn’t go to college, but instilled a great focus on education in me… his stance was always, do whatever you want, fulfill your dreams—but get your education first. He was always saying, ‘Education won’t make your head bigger.’ He was a self-taught man with lots of books in his home, he ended up managing our town’s library… because it’s a small town, I was surrounded by a lot of people who, yes, didn’t have a college education, but they were well-intended in helping the next generation, and I’m grateful for that.”
Cecilia was fairly certain she wanted to be a professor early on; but if people would have told her at age 16 that she would be a professor in the United States at a top institution, she never would have thought those specifics were possible. “It’s so much different than I would have thought possible, but wow—I’m grateful.”
She did her undergraduate studies in Portugal, and was encouraged by a few key professors to do research. She went to Sweden on a recommendation by a professor. “I went to Sweden for a few months, and was completely fascinated by the labs and equipment during undergrad. I met a Swedish professor who ended up being the chairman for the Nobel prize for Chemistry… he asked if I had considered a Ph.D., and my answer was yes. Once I did my Ph.D., after a brief stint at a cancer hospital, I was in the loop, reading papers, researching how to pursue an academic career… and that led me to California. And California led me here,” she smiles.
This is her first semester not teaching any courses; when you have children, the university allows for a semester off each year to balance home, research, and class.
“This career requires a positive attitude… I foolishly believe I can do it all,” she laughs. “And because I do and I’m in it, I have to somehow… if class is at 10, I have to be there. It’s a mixture of planning, self-motivation, and pressure—both internal and external… but motivation is the main ingredient. I wake up in the morning thinking, ‘I can do this.’ You can’t stretch too thin, for sure… but humans are highly stretchable. I’m not everything, though, I’m just one element in getting things done.” Cecilia delegates to her students and shares a lot with her husband. “A supportive spouse is so important,” she says.
Cecilia, while from Portugal, lost both of her parents at a young age and her husband’s family is from Australia. “We don’t have any family nearby… we’re all we’ve got… but then, being positive, I think, I can do all these things, but I don’t have to physically do all of them myself. Delegating is key.”
She has always considered herself a very positive person. “One of my favorite quotes goes something like, stay away from negative people… they’ll find a problem for every solution,” she laughs. “But my mother was a very positive person, and I think that influenced me… but I also make the choice to cultivate it. You have these moments of setbacks, regardless of what kind of career you’re in… and it works best if you don’t take the setbacks as personal. If everything went your way all the time, the way you think it should, the world wouldn’t make sense… without boredom, there is no creativity. I had an issue Friday, even, that I was hurt over, it felt like a setback… but then this morning I woke up, and thought, wait—this is the opportunity to start something new! And an idea I’d been considering popped into my head, suddenly I’m emailing people, having a lunch meeting, and starting it and all about it… call it luck, call it serendipity, but it is true that I could not have pursued both of the options… you’ve got to look at your setbacks as opportunities.”
“Music is so important for my mornings and my life,” Cecilia says. “When writing papers… when at home with the kids… working out… it’s always present. I’m into all sorts of Indie bands and sometimes fast and loud music, but it’s always there.”
A book that has really impacted Cecilia’s life is Arch of Triumph, by Eric Maria Remarque. “Just the people being able to survive and go about their daily lives with very little needs… simple homes, good coffee, bread and cheese, and you’re good. They’re going through intricate times… and the simple lives they lead, it just inspires me to live more simply. I strive for simplicity in my home and life.”