Unique Scientist: Iromi Wanigasuriya

Photo credit: Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

Meet the cheerful Iromi Wanigasuriya (She/her)! Iromi is originally from Sri Lanka and currently a PhD student in the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (@WEHI_research) in Australia!

What kind of scientist are you?
I’m a PhD student at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, which is the department of Medical Biology of the University of Melbourne. For my PhD I look into an epigenetic modifier called SMCHD1, which helps to switch genes off when their expression is not required. SMCHD1 plays an important role in development, and defects in the protein are associated with several diseases such as a form of muscular dystrophy called FSHD, a rare developmental disorder known as Bosma arhinia, and micropthalimia syndrome (BAMS). I’m using advanced microscopy and next generation sequencing techniques to unravel the molecular mechanism of SMCHD1 function. I quite enjoy the microscopy aspect of my project, as you can see in the photos. One of my images is currently on public display as a part of Melbourne Metro tunnel construction project (pictured below).

What made you want to become a scientist?
Curiosity and chance. As a child I was curious about why things are the way they are. If someone couldn’t provide me with an answer I did my own “research”, which interestingly is what doing a PhD is all about. One great example of my curiosity leading to chance is when I knew what I was learning within the four walls of a classroom wasn’t enough and decided to take matters into my own hand by learning from other tools that are available. During my MSc, I was taking an online course at coursera.org called “Epigenetic Control of Gene Expression” because I have just heard the term “Epigenetic” and wanted to know what it was all about. My curiosity made me ask questions in the discussion forums which the course conductor took note of and personally emailed me. She is my current PhD supervisor!

What makes you a #UniqueScientist?
I’m the girl who grew up in a developing country, with a civil war, in a patriarchal society, and with a single mother. All of these accounts for opportunities lost no matter how good or intelligent you are. So, I had to pave my own pathway. From learning English to finding opportunities. Overcoming all of those hurdles to be where I am is rare, so that makes me unique. A year ago it would have been really difficult for me to say that because working at a world-class research institute surrounded by amazing scientists also made me feel like an imposter… and it still does. But I’m slowly coming into terms with it.

Iromi’s microscopy image is currently on public display as
part of Melbourne Metro tunnel construction project (background)

“I’m the girl who grew up in a developing country, with a civil war, in a patriarchal society, and with a single mother. So, I had to pave my own pathway.”

Iromi Wanigasuriya

What’s something cool you do outside of work?
I love cooking and trying out different recipes! Cooking is something similar to science, and it is instantly rewarding. I quite enjoy sharing not only the food, but the recipes. Food brings a lot of joy and it’s a way of connecting and appreciating different cultures.

If you had one wish and could change anything in science, what would it be?
Opportunities. It always makes me wonder what people could do and how advanced the science would be if everyone had equal opportunities. Many aspects in science depend on who you are and where you come from. For example, access to equipment, knowledge, collaborations, funding, and even the opportunities to travel for studies/conferences etc. depends on the strength of ones passport. We need to acknowledge our privilege and make a conscious effort not to take those opportunities for granted.

“[…] working at a world-class research institute surrounded by amazing scientists also made me feel like an imposter… and it still does. But I’m slowly coming into terms with it.”

Iromi Wanigasuriya

Who has inspired you the most in your journey to where you are now?

My mother, not only for showing strength and resilience looks like by bringing me up on her own, but she was the first in her family to have a university education, and truly valued education. Nothing can be more inspiring than that.

Along the way I met a number of friends, mentors and teachers who positively impacted me to be who I am today. Right now, I really look up to a few amazing women in science:

1) My supervisor Marnie Blewitt – Wonderful scientist and a supervisor. I get to witness her on a day-to-day basis, her work ethic, how she makes up time for all of us in the lab, and her inquisitive mind among other things. I’m privileged to be able to learn from her. 

2) My friend and mentor Hasini Jayathilake (@HasiniJT), who is a cancer researcher and a science communicator. She is currently smashing goals as a scientist, she was in the Forbes 30under30 USA list, has given a Ted talk, and is a great advocate for #womeninSTEM. She leaves me inspired every time I speak to her. 

3) Asha de Voss
(@ashadevos) who is a Marine Biologist from Sri Lanka and founder of the Oceanwell organisation. I have always been an admirer of her work. She is very outspoken about science and research in developing countries. Among other things she’s an advocate to fight against “Parachute science” which is to quote “western researchers drop into developing countries to collect data and leave without training or investing in the region, not only harms communities, it cripples conservation efforts”.

Let’s end on a high note! What’s something you’ve done this week that you’re proud of?
I always loved painting, but I found myself “too busy” for the past few years to make time for it, especially after having to leave behind all my paint and brushes while moving to Australia. This week I finally bought new supplies as I realised painting is actually a form of meditation for me. It is important to make time for things that makes us happy no matter how busy we are. I’m proud of myself for prioritising self-care.

#WomenInSTEM #BrownInSTEM

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