Everything else.. 10 Lankan Women in Science You Need to Know of!

10 Lankan Women in Science You Need to Know of!

2021 Feb 10

The earth-shattering outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated the critical role of women scientists and researchers in different stages of the fight against it; from advancing the knowledge on the virus, to developing techniques for testing, and finally to creating the vaccine against the virus.

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic also had a significant negative impact on women scientists, particularly affecting those at the early stages of their career, and thus contributing to widening the existing gender gap in science, and revealing the gender disparities in the scientific system, which need to be addressed by new policies, initiatives and mechanisms to support women and girls in science.

According to the National Science Foundation (NSF) Statistical Handbook for Sri Lanka, female scientists in natural sciences, medicine, and agricultural sciences make for 40%, 46%, and 38% of the current pool. While these proportions may not be too bleak, much larger gender differences existed in engineering and technologies (only 27% female), and social sciences (only 30% female). 

This under-representation is particularly concerning in a country where more than half of the total population (51.1%) is comprised of women.

In order to achieve full and equal access to participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/70/212, declaring 11th February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. 

To celebrate our local queens who have moved the very fabric of discovery and contributed to the advancement of our environment and society, we compiled a list. Without further adieu – here’s a list of ten Female Sri Lankan Scientists you need to know about!

Name: Dr. Champika Ellawala

Specialisation: Aquatic Ecosystem Conservation and Pollution Control

Occupation: Senior Lecturer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering of the University of Ruhuna

Alma Mater: BSc Eng (Hons) in Civil Engineering from the University of Moratuwa, M.Sc. University of Moratuwa, Ph.D. in Science & Engineering from Saitama University, Japan 

Awards: Among five scientists who were named winners of the 2020 OWSD Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing World

Dr. Champika Ellawala started her illustrious career after graduating as a Civil Engineer from the University of Moratuwa. Soon after graduation, she started to work at a construction site as a Site Engineer. But she soon realised this was not her ‘calling’. “Within a few months, I understood that it was not the place for me and I ought to continue my studies. But, I was not interested in following traditional streams open to graduates in Civil Engineering for my higher studies.” It was here that Dr. Ellawala finally found the Engineering Ecology Research Laboratory at Saitama University, Japan. 

“I continued to conduct research in Environmental Science and Aquatic Ecology. My research focuses on control of ecosystem degradation in wetlands and riparian ecosystems reducing nutrient availability, using the biotic resistance from native species in competitive environments and altering the environmental conditions by restoring riparian shade.’’ 

Further to her praise and credit, in a citation, Elsevier Foundation said that her work directly and dramatically contributes to the control of invasive aquatic plants in river ecosystems, as well as, the prevention of ecosystem degradation.

Name: Dr. Hemamala Karunadasa 

Specialisation: Hybrid Organic-Inorganic Materials for Clean Energy and Large-area Lighting

Occupation: Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University 

Alma Mater: BSc in Chemistry and Materials Science at Princeton University, Ph.D in Inorganic Chemistry University of California, Berkeley 

Awards: Harry Gray Award for Creative Work in Inorganic Chemistry by a Young Investigator, American Chemical Society (2020), Terman Faculty Fellowship, Stanford University (2015-2018), Sloan Fellowship, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation (2015), CAREER Award, National Science Foundation (2014), ICCC41 Rising Star Award, 41st International Conference on Coordination Chemistry (2014) Thieme Chemistry Journal Award, Thieme Chemistry Journal (2013) Gabilan Junior Faculty Fellow, Stanford University (2012-2015), BP Postdoctoral Fellowship, California Institute of Technology (2011-2012), Graduate Fellowship, Tyco Electronics (2006-2007), Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award, University of California, Berkeley (2006-2007)

Dr. Hemamala Karunadasa joined the Stanford Chemistry Department faculty in September 2012 and is currently an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the Stanford University. She works in materials science, geology, and applied physics to drive the discovery of new materials with applications in clean energy. Her research targets materials such as sorbents for capturing environmental pollutants, electrodes for rechargeable batteries, phosphors for solid-state lighting, and absorbers for solar cells. They also design discrete molecular centres as catalysts for activating small molecules relevant to clean energy cycles.

Karunadasa grew up in Colombo and walked the hallowed halls of Ladies’ College, Colombo. Prior to joining the prestigious Stanford department, she worked on Electrocatalysts with Christopher Chang at the University of California, Berkeley and was a Postdoctoral Fellow with Harry B. Gray at the California Institute of Technology, where she worked on catalysts for hydrocarbon oxidation.

Her publications include; “a layered hybrid perovskite solar‐cell absorber with enhanced moisture stability”, “a molecular MoS2 edge site mimic for catalytic hydrogen generation” and “reversible photo-induced trap formation in mixed-halide hybrid perovskites for photovoltaics”. Her work was featured in the Journal of the American Chemical Society Young Investigators Issue in 2019. Further, she impressively serves on the editorial board of Inorganic Chemistry.

Name: Dr. Hiranya Peiris

Specialisation: Interdisciplinary Collaborations at the Interface of Cosmology with Particle Physics and Condensed Matter Physics 

Occupation: Astrophysicist at University College London, Director of the Oskar Klein Centre for Cosmoparticle Physics in Stockholm 

Alma Mater: Natural Sciences Tripos at University of Cambridge, Ph.D. at Princeton University from Department of Astrophysical Sciences 

Awards: One of 27 scientists who received Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics in 2018, Max Born Medal and Prize (2021), Fred Hoyle Medal and Prize (2018), Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (2018), Gruber Prize in Cosmology (2012)

Dr. Hiranya Peiris known for her work on Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation aims to test fundamental physics using large cosmological datasets, including the cosmic microwave background and galaxy surveys, using an interdisciplinary approach combining observations, theoretical physics, and advanced statistical methods. If one were to simmer it down to as simple as it could possibly get, Hiranya Peiris is a Scientist who studies the Big Bang. And that’s just putting it lightly!

She began her tenure at the University College London in 2009. Prior to beginning a faculty position at UCL in 2009, she was an STFC Advanced Fellow at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge and a Junior Research Fellow at King’s College Cambridge. She was a Hubble Fellow in the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago. She then moved back to Cambridge as a Halliday Fellow at the Science & Technology Facilities Council.

To add to her already impressive standing in 2016, she was elected fellow of the American Physical Society and Vice President of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Name: Dr. Asha de Vos 

Specialisation: Research on Blue Whales in the Northern Indian Ocean

Occupation: Marine Biologist and Founder of Oceanwells

Alma Mater: Undergraduate Studies in Marine and Environmental Studies at University o St. Andrews, Masters in Integrative Bio-Sciences at University of Oxford and Ph.D. in Marine Mammal Research from the University of Western Australia 

Awards: Joined BBC 100 Women list (2018), Named Sea Hero of the Year by Scuba Diving Magazine (2020), President’s Award for Scientific Publications (2013), Marine Conservation Action Fund Fellow (2015), Pew Marine Fellow (2016), WINGS WorldQuest Women of Discovery Sea Award (2018).

Dr. Asha de Vos was born in 1979 and when she was just six-years-old her parents would bring her second-hand National Geographic magazines and she would look through the pages and “imagine that that would be me one day – going places where no-one else would ever go and seeing things no-one else would ever see”.

Asha de Vos says the moment that launched her career was a floating pile of whale excrement off the coast of Sri Lanka. “That was my eureka moment,” she recalls. “I realised that these whales had figured out how to feed in these warm waters, how to feed in a place that we believed they couldn’t feed in, that wasn’t productive enough, that didn’t support them. And that was kind of where everything began.”

Dr. Asha is the Founder of Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education organisation, Oceanswell, which works to change the trajectory of the world’s oceans by empowering and inspiring people to be custodians of the oceans. She is a pioneer of blue whale research within the Northern Indian Ocean and the Founder of the Blue Whale Project.

De Vos holds distinction as the first and only Sri Lankan to have a Ph.D. in Marine Mammal Research and first Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation from Sri Lanka. Her conservation efforts and research has brought her many international accolades and recognition, including featuring in BBC’s 100 Women in 2018.

Name: Dr. Kamini Nirmala Mendis

Specialisation: Malaria Research

Occupation: Professor Emeritus at the University of Colombo Malaria Researcher

Alma Mater: Medicine University of Ceylon,  Ph.D. – M.D. in Microbiology University of London in the UK (1980)

Awards: National Presidents Award for Outstanding Citizens in 1983, Chalmers Medal from the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 1991, and the 1993 Bailey K. Ashford Medal from the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene

Dr. Kamini is a pioneer and a trailblazer in the field of Malaria Research and Prevention. Currently a member of the WHO Malaria Policy Advisory Committee and a former Malaria expert at the World Health Organisation, she established the Malaria Research Unit in 1988 within the Department of Parasitology of the University of Colombo and led them for 17 years. In 1993, the labs of Mendis and Dyann Wirth published the first successful use of the electroporation method to insert new DNA sequence into a malaria cell, in this case, Plasmodium Gallinaceum.

”If you talk to any malariologist, they will say it is the most interesting disease. There must be some truth to it! What makes it interesting is the complexity of the disease. It manifests differently in different parts of the world. In Africa, the disease occurs mostly in children and is associated with higher fatalities, while in Asia and Latin America, it tends to affect adults more. From a scientific point of view, it’s a very rich disease to study.’’

Upcoming scientists

Name: Dr. Pushpi Paranamana

Specialisation: Mathematical Modelling and Analysis

Occupation: Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Notre Dame

Alma Mater: Ph.D. and MSc in Applied Mathematics from Texas Tech University, USA and BSc (Hons) in Mathematics from the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka

Hailing from Devi Balika Vidyalaya, Dr. Pushpi Paranama garnered her Ph.D. and MSc in Applied Mathematics. She researchers on developing mathematical models to capture the dynamics of physical and human systems. She uses theories and tools in partial differential equations, integrable systems, data science and machine learning to analyse as well as interpret mathematical models that provide a way to understand natural, physical and social phenomenons.

As a child, she developed a love for mathematics and wanted to pursue a career in it. For her, there was no one turning point that led her to this career but she always found beauty in math and logical reasoning. Prior to her Professorship, she was a Postdoctoral Research Associate, Rutgers University-Newark, USA.

Name: Dr. Marini Dinusha Fernando 

Specialisation: Adolescent Health, Family Medicine, Allergy and Immunology

Occupation: Doctor, Research Assistant at Molecular Medicine Unit, Faculty of Medicine, University of Kelaniya

Alma Mater: M.Phil.Paediatric Immunology – Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Kelaniya, Paediatrics – Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo, Bachelor of Surgery – Faculty of Medicine, University of Kelaniya 

Awards: Gold medal for her presentation on her research at the SLAY’s International Conference 

Dr. Marini Dinusha Fernando of Faculty of Medicine, University of Kelaniya is a young Scientist and Medical Doctor. Marini Dinusha research on Clinical Immunology, Adolescent Health, Mental Health and Pediatrics. 

She is currently an invaluable frontline healthcare worker dealing with COVID-19. Her publication on the socio-economic impact on Sri Lankan families managing a child with cerebral palsy was groundbreaking in terms of bridging the understanding of handling children with special needs and the effect on their family’s social-economic well being and survival.

Name: Hemavaruni Fernando 

Specialisation: Anticancer Effects of Garcinol Mediated Metal Nanoparticles 

Occupation: Research Assistant at the Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Applied Sciences, University of Sri Jayewardenepura 

Alma Mater: Master of Philosophy University of Sri Jayewardenepura 

Hemavaruni Fernando is currently a Research Assistant at the Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Applied Sciences, University of Sri Jayewardenepura. Her research is mainly focused on the determination of in-vitro antimicrobial, antioxidant and anticancer activities of garcinol-mediated metal nanoparticles and garcinol metal complexes. Garcinol is a chemical compound extracted from the Goraka plant, but possible applications have been limited due to the pant’s lower solubility in water. 

Currently, Miss Fernando’s research work achieved three abstract publications in national and international conferences including the Best Poster Presentation at the 74th annual sessions of Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS-E3) and one full paper publication in the journal of microbiology and biotechnology (JMB). She also won a People’s Choice Award for her research on Antimicrobial Activity of Garcinol mediated metal nanoparticles and metal complexes.Name: Gayani Imathika Dias

Specialisation: Utilising Local Plants to Develop Food Products for Diabetics

Occupation: Food Scientist Research Associate at Sabaragamuwa University 

Alma Mater: BSc. and M. Phil in Food Science and Technology from Sabaragamuwa University 

Gayani Imathika Dias specialises in utilising local plants to develop food products for diabetics and is a Food Scientist Research Associate at the Sabaragamuwa University. She coincidentally got her BSc. and M. Phil in Food Science and Technology from Sabaragamuwa University and is currently working on her Ph.D. to understand the potential effects of selected local plant varieties – to develop food products for diabetic patients.

Name: Dr. Maheshi Ramasamy

Specialisation: Clinical Medicine, Infectious Diseases and General Internal Medicine

Occupation: Consultant Physician at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Clinical Lead for Ambulatory Outreach teams, Principal Investigator at the Oxford Vaccine Group, Honorary Senior Clinical Lecturer at the University of Oxford.

Alma Mater: Bachelor’s Degree in Medicine at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, D. Phil in Investigating B Cell Responses to Conjugate and Polysaccharide Meningococcal Vaccines at Wadham College.

After obtaining her Medical Degree at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, she trained in Infectious Diseases and General Internal Medicine in London and Oxford. Her interest lies in Antimicrobial Stewardship at her current role as Consultant Physician at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

She acts as a Lead Tutor for graduate medical students at Magdalen College, where she is a Florey Lecturer. Her research interest lies in Adaptive Immune Responses to Vaccines, thus making her a principal investigator at the Oxford Vaccine Group.