Merry New Molecular Year! Upulie Divisekera curating for Real Scientists

Greetings, Real Scientists followers!

Welcome back after our little hiatus, we hope you managed to have a little end-of-year-break before you headed back to work after the holiday season.  In Australia and in many research institutions, this often means a shutdown over the Christmas period and many are going back to work tomorrow.  Warm New Year greetings and wishes to you! We at Real Scientists hope this year will be a great one for you.

Which brings us to our first Real Scientists curator for 2014, another Real Scientists admin staffer, Upulie Divisekera. Yes, that’s me.  You may remember me from such posts as “the ones James didn’t write” and “sorry I haven’t replied to your email yet.”  I’m James’ New Year period equivalent.  We estimate the official end of the graveyard shift as next week, when we will be joined by star biologist Ethan O. Perlstein.

As James said in his post, between the Real Scientists curators of Sarah Keenihan, James Smith, Renee Webster, and silent partner Bernard, there’s a wealth of bench, administration, communication and writing experience between us. I’m a molecular biologist currently moonlighting in a chemical engineering lab (the engineers wouldn’t touch the biological project) who’s been through a variety of research labs as a research assistant, in everything from parasitology to cancer immunology and nanotechnology.  I’ve also had a brief stint in evo-devo like James, for my Masters.  And now I find myself doing a lot of science communication on the side.

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So I will have a go at my least favourite things:  writing a bio for myself!

I’m an Australian of Sri Lankan descent and grew up in Hobart and Melbourne, Melbourne is very much my home town. I spent a few years in Sri Lanka from the age of 10-13. I’d always been crazy about science, from a young age.  Like most kids I started out with a fascination for space exploration and fossils and dinosaurs, and while I’ve ended up in molecular biology, these things have always been side interests that have never left me.  My parents trained in economics and were unable to answer my questions about all things scientific, much to my despair, but always encouraged me in my interests and even bought me a toy microscope which I treasured as a 10 year old. When I was 11, my father ended up working for a research institute which was the best thing to ever happen to me, because it meant there were people I could ask questions from and actually have them answered.  The newly created Institute of Fundamental Studies in Kandy, Sri Lanka, was under the Directorship of Sri Lanka’s most famous scientist at the time: Professor Cyril Ponnamperuma, who led the team that studied the moon rocks bought by Apollo 11.  This made him a god in my eyes: he had worked for NASA!  Prof. Ponnamperuma was a biochemist and it was the first time the word entered into my vocabulary.  Not only was he a great scientist, but he was a great communicator and strongly believed in making the institute a place for all kind of people. He set up outreach programs and seminars on science and the arts, installed a poet laureate for the institute, and created free programs for high school students which included field trips. And I was allowed to go to a lot of these programs.  So as an 11 year old I got to see my first Atomic Force Microscope and X-ray Diffractometer, though I didn’t fully understand what they were for. He was a great role model and mentor.

I was always interested in astronomy and planned to be an astronomer, to follow in Prof. Ponnamperuma’s footsteps, but someone put a book on molecular biology in my hands at 13 and I was hooked. I stopped thinking about spectra and started dreaming about genetic engineering.  After moving back to Australia, I ended up sticking with molecular biology, and completed my Honours in molecular parasitology at the University of Melbourne with Prof. Malcolm McConville.  Molecular biology turned out to be a great set of tools that I could take to any field of biological research. I worked at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute with Dr Lorraine O’Reilly and Prof Andreas Strasser for a few years on the molecular genetics of cancer and apoptosis before heading off to Canberra to work with Prof. Robert Saint on fruit flies.  I ended up converting the PhD I started there and returned to Melbourne.  Most recently, I worked at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, where I worked on cancer immunology and therapeutics with Assoc. Prof John Stagg and Prof. Mark Smyth, some of the most rewarding research I’ve ever done.  Now I’m based at a university where I work on bioengineering, changing my research spots again, I guess, with some very challenging work.

In the past few years, I’ve branched out into science communication on the side, finding myself writing articles, doing a TEDx talk and other things which has made me an enthusiastic advocate for training scientists to communicate with their work and to increase our engagement with the public. I look forward to your questions this week!

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