Rajitha has presented her research on surface chemistry in parliament as part of the national poster competition SET for Britain.
Q: What inspired you to study science?
A: I was always interested in knowing how things work and how changes could affect them. I was curious and started reading science books at a very young age, so when the time came to choose the subjects in school I knew I was going to study science.
I had two great chemistry teachers at school; one of them took the time to do every practical in the lab and it was great – she even showed us demonstrations which are not in the syllabus, and would explain what happens. The other chemistry teacher took me out of a lot of trouble; I was struggling with moles and concentrations and he had a lot of patience to explain. Once I understood logically what happened, things were much better. Both teachers have gone the extra mile in supporting and inspiring me – they were really fantastic!
Q: Did you have a chemistry kit as a child or was there a specific event that made you like chemistry?
A: I didn’t have a chemistry kit as a child. I spent my childhood in Sri Lanka and I used to play a lot outside. When you are outside, you have a lot of things to see and do. I was fascinated with the different kinds of sap in trees. I did have a magnifying glass so I used to catch insects and observe them; sometimes I would try and draw them.
Q: What did you enjoy about studying chemistry at school and at university?
A: What I enjoyed most was the chemistry labs. I started finding answers to the questions I had as a child and even now I learn something new every day, which is great. I studied biotechnology for my undergraduate, which at the time seemed the right thing to do, but it wasn’t as interesting as I thought it would be. So I did a Master’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences, which had a bit more chemistry and less biology in it. During my Master’s I was exposed to a lot of chemistry because I did a project on nanoparticles.
It was at this stage that I decided to pursue a career in research, so I did a PhD in surfaces chemistry with applications in medical diagnostics. Half way through, I took up computational chemistry as well. I enjoyed learning and gaining skills across different disciplines so I could transfer the technology to different applications.
Q: Now that you have your PhD, what do you have in mind for your future career?
A: I would like to be in a research and development role, focussing on analytical techniques for forensics, pharmaceuticals, diagnostics and materials. I am interested in improving techniques that would allow chemical and imaging identification, particularly ones that are portable and easy to use. I would also like to use my computational chemistry background and build up libraries which can be installed on the instruments for efficient interpretation. I would like to explore areas such as semi-conductors, nanoparticle arrays, holography and biomaterials.
Q: What would you have done if you hadn’t been a chemist?
A: I appreciate art a lot and I took art as a child in school. My dad is a quantity surveyor and always had house plans laid on the table – he used to explain the layout of the house so design had a big influence on me. I would probably have done architecture if I hadn’t been a chemist!
Q: Do you think it is more difficult for certain groups of people to work within the scientific community?
A: I think it is difficult but it is the perception of individuals. Sometimes it is hard to prove that you are good enough for the job and other times you don’t need to prove yourself: everyone treats you the same. There is nothing that women are incapable of – we have great examples in the past and it can only get better!
Q: What more could be done to help promote diversity and help minority groups to advance in science and technology?
A: Organisations could help minority groups by making them realise the bigger picture in science and technology. Spread the word about careers in science and technology, give examples of role models and show them how to get there.
Interview by Jenifer Mizen
Images courtesy of Rajitha Hanarasinghe
Published April 2014