Meet Sri Lankan Researcher — Anuradha Ekanayake

What are you currently working on or worked on before?

I am currently working as a Ph.D. student at Hull York Medical School, the United Kingdom, investigating the human respiratory microbiome. Simply put, I look at microorganisms in our respiratory tract, how their diversity change with different factors and circumstances of health. The field of the microbiome is one of the key areas that is anticipated to play a major role in personalized medicine in the future.

I worked as a full-time research assistant for four years at the National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Sri Lanka while working towards my MPhil degree, which was also focused on the respiratory microbiome. During my time as a research assistant, I was engaged in a variety of research (air microbiome and human health and tuberculosis research).

You can find my publications here.

What encouraged you to pursue your research topic?

Five years ago, I was someone who did not like microbiology. Under certain circumstances, I started as a volunteer research assistant at my previous lab which was engaged in molecular microbiological work. I was offered to do a master’s there and I had to design something accordingly. After a lot of paths (I was a cancer biology enthusiast at this point!), I linked my interest in biomedical research with the microbiology aspect and pitched a proposal which turned out to be the first of its kind in Sri Lanka.

As you go into the subject, you would understand that the respiratory microbiome is a complex subject which is still in its infancy and there are so many paths you can take to solve this puzzle.

Where do you find your best inspiration for your work?

My mentors. I was and am lucky to be surrounded by amazing people (not just scientists). I see people who are passionate about what they do, who struggle with problems thrown at them, yet find ways to successfully tackle them. Extraordinarily brilliant minds and human beings. It is hard not to be inspired when you are surrounded by people like this!

What lessons would you share with a budding researcher?

“It is never too late”.

Research is a path which has A LOT of ups and downs. It can certainly scare you away if you let it. Sometimes, you must take a step back and change directions, which is OK. If you are genuinely interested in research just because you like science or like to explore the unexplored, instead for the titles, understand that things do not always work as planned. This is research. Hitting a wall and finding ways to go around it. Make sure you do not stop, and it is better to be late than never.

Make sure you help others just like you, be it friends or strangers you never met. If you have figured something out, help when you see someone who would benefit from it. Build your tribe.

What motivated you to be a researcher?

I dare say this, I never imagined that I would be a researcher. I did not know what the word ‘researcher’ meant 10 years ago. Through the past 10 years, I have seen how real scientists work, how they think and what it takes to be one. I was someone who could not study for hours but would spend hours finding answers to problems (be it any!). When working in research laboratories, I found it very much interesting and exciting to play with different ideas.

As a researcher, you do not go by the book. Instead, you expand your limits, take on challenges, and find gaps in your world (mine is respiratory medicine) and try to fill those gaps. By doing these, you help your fellow humans and future generations.

According to your opinion, what are the changes that the Sri Lankan education system needs to do, in order to meet the requirement of the international industry and academia?

The secondary education curriculum in Sri Lanka needs revising. In my opinion, students do not know their passion and get forced into selecting a subject path after Ordinary levels. If they are not selected for the university, many have no clue where to go from there. Rather than passing an examination, students should be made aware that it is important to pursue what they are passionate about.

The time it takes to complete tertiary education also needs revising. In addition, research during undergraduate studies should be more encouraged and students should be made aware of and encouraged for international opportunities like summer internships/workshops.

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