Meet Sri Lankan Researcher — Dinithi Sumanaweera

Dinithi Sumanaweera is a PhD student in the Faculty of Information Technology, Monash University, Australia. Her thesis involves developing an information-theoretic framework for protein sequence-structure alignment. Dinithi is the recipient of the prestigious 2019 Ian Lawson Van Toch Memorial Award for the best student paper, at the joint 27th Annual Conference on Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology and the 18th European Conference on Computational Biology.

What are you currently working on and What encouraged you to pursue this topic?

I am working in the area of Computational Biology under the supervision of Dr Arun Konagurthu and Dr Lloyd Allison. Proteins are molecules of life that mediate cellular and biological processes. Understanding one-dimensional sequence and three-dimensional structural relationships between proteins provide clues to how proteins are formed, how they function and how they evolve. I started on my PhD project largely owing to my initial curiosity for Genetics and Protein Science, combined with my passion for computing (in which I am formally trained). My thesis involves developing computational methods to accurately identify evolutionary relationships between distantly related protein macromolecules. Once I joined the Laboratory of Computational Biology at Monash, I got the chance to collaborate with my supervisors on this problem. Often the first step of experiments involving proteins performs protein alignment: a computational technique used to infer how proteins have evolved from a common ancestor while conserving structural components crucial for their function.

Where do you find your best inspiration for your work?

I am part of a highly inspiring research group where I receive necessary guidance, mentorship and training from my supervisors. It is a place where open and stimulating intellectual discussions are nurtured and encouraged. In addition, the recent, as well as historical advances in molecular biology, have always inspired me.

What do you hope to achieve with your research?

I want to contribute my best towards understanding proteins and their involvement in diseases, so as to facilitate disease prevention and targeted treatments.

What’s one of your biggest personal achievements so far?

I was humbled to receive the prestigious 2019 Ian Lawson Van Toch Memorial Award for the best student paper, at the joint 27th Annual Conference on Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology and the 18th European Conference on Computational Biology.

What motivates you to be a researcher?

My parents always motivated me to pursue my passion for science since I was very young. It is about understanding what we already know and then taking a step beyond to explore the unknown. This very idea motivates me to continue as a researcher in the STEM discipline. Being a researcher enables a person to become influential and active in improving the current knowledge and solving problems in the world. My supervisors have taught me the values and skills essential for not only developing into a careful researcher but also a conscientious one. Moreover, women scientists like Margaret Dayhoff have shown us how we can become influential in science.

What are the changes the Sri Lankan education system needs to meet the requirement of high tech industries?

Everyone has their own learning style. The system should be able to accommodate and improve all such learning styles, identifying abilities of students and directing them towards pursuing their interests, rather than forcing them to pursue what the system wants. Also, it is important that theoretical learning goes hand in hand with learning their practical aspects. In my opinion, our SL education system should encompass a teaching-and-learning culture that encourages an independent and creative learning process, by making the necessary changes to the traditional exam-oriented approach.

How do you find life as a PhD student?

A PhD student needs to work hard with perseverance. Our capacity to learn and improve ourselves greatly matters. I see it as an incremental learning process from basic theoretical concepts to their practical application.

The research basically involves seeking currently unsolved problems to solve and places to improve. This also involves communicating our findings and solutions to the global research community through technical presentations & publications. Every day we learn something new, gaining a new career and life perspectives.

PhD does not have to be a lonely endeavour, especially when you are part of an inspiring research group with a culture that encourages regular intellectual discussions and achievement. Such an environment is influential in developing ourselves as independent researchers. It is a truly satisfying journey of learning and training when you are under the right supervision, guidance, and mentorship. So choosing the right supervisors & the right place for your PhD is crucial. You will see yourself gradually growing as an individual with diverse skills and a creative mindset.

Can we have a work-life balance as female PhD students?

Pursuing a PhD is a strong commitment, yet there is still space for managing our time to relax and enjoy life outside work. Your lifestyle is a decision you make. Especially for us as female students, this is a perfect period to realize our daily work capacity given all the other important aspects of life (e.g. family and friends, health and wellbeing), and put time management into practice suitably as to achieve the best work-life balance as female researchers. Moreover, we do have a PhD student community with whom we can make new friends, share our experiences, participate in many refreshing activities outside research and enjoy life as a grad student.

What kind of preparation is preferable before applying for a PhD?

A good sense of the research area will help you realize your passion, make informed decisions when choosing the right place to be, and also have an effective beginning to your PhD project. Undergraduate studies prepare us to grasp the existing basic knowledge on the main field of our interest and the relevant research areas.

During this time, learn as much as you can. Make the most out of research related modules. Research internships, Masters research programs are good ways to obtain more exposure to your interested field prior to applying for a PhD. When we get to understand the nature of literature and go through all the essential stages of a short term research project, it will help you get a flavour of the life as a researcher, while shaping your skills desirable for a PhD candidature. It is also a perfect way to get self-realization when deciding the next step of your career.

PhD is a journey to undertake for the right reasons. It is about getting trained to become an active researcher and scholar in a particular field. In research, we carefully look at current knowledge, select a topic and go deeply into identifying places where we can push boundaries.

When searching for an opportunity…

The general process of applying for a PhD in an Australian university is to first find a potential supervisor with whom your research interests align well with, and contact him/her with a brief description of yourself and CV. Initially, spend time exploring carefully all places to apply and whom to reach out. Once a potential supervisor interviews and sees you as an ideal candidate, you will be able to apply to the corresponding university. Generally, a university would look at your grades and performance in previous degree program(s), research project experience, publications (if any), related work/industry experience (if any), and recommendations by your previous supervisors, when evaluating a PhD scholarship application. I wish you all the best in preparing yourself and applying for a PhD!



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