For Women’s Day 2021, Groundviews interviewed Dr. Theshini Perera, a professional in the field of science who has broken stigmas held against women, proving that not only can women drive change and succeed but that they can do so within fields conventionally dominated by men.
Theshini Perera is a professor and researcher in Chemistry at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura with a special interest in synthesizing new metal complexes having biomedical relevance. She went to Ladies’ College, where she was awarded the most outstanding girl of the year award in 1996. She is a graduate of the University of Colombo and received her PhD in Chemistry from Louisiana State University, USA, under the guidance of the world-renowned bio-inorganic chemist Professor Luigi Marzilli. Dr. Perera was awarded the outstanding research scholar award in 2009 and 2010.
Since returning home in 2010, she makes every effort to popularize science and inspire young minds to engage in science and has served the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS) in many capacities.
Below is the interview with Dr. Perera:
What is your professional background and current work?
I am currently working as a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. I did my doctoral studies under the world-renowned bio-inorganic chemist, Professor Luigi Marzilli, at Louisiana State University, USA, and since getting back, I have been engaged in a research career in science. My current work involves making new compounds that can have applications in many different fields, for example, metal complexes that can have anti-cancer activity against breast cancer and lung cancer and metal complexes that can help to diagnose cancers. Although this type of work is difficult to do in a Sri Lankan setting, we find that our research findings are gradually finding their way on to the international arena.
I am also involved in giving my best to students, so I am involved in teaching and being an advocate of improving soft skills in undergraduates as well as taking the message of science across to rural school children through my involvement in the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science. I am trying to get across a science kit (Little Scientist) across to students and teachers in remote areas. We had a setback due to the pandemic last year but we are all set to do it this year.
Why did you choose to be a scientist? What makes you passionate about your work?
I guess science came to me easily. The fact that I did well in science effortless certainly helped! Also the fact that my family all had science backgrounds made me naturally comfortable in choosing to study science. My father even had a physics laboratory at home to teach his students.
Even being in a developing country, we have opportunities to be on par with the rest of the world where knowledge is concerned. The face that new findings or innovations can benefit the world and the thought that we need to give back to our country without always taking what is hers, have made me passionate about my work. I am educator and I simply love being that.
What is the hardest part about the work you do?
The hardest part is seeing something through to the very end. We come up with ideas and projects but many just fall by the wayside on due to unforeseen hands or not being able to convince others about the need to change or not having equal believers.
The hardest part for a career woman is balancing work and family. Having to tell my daughters that their mother is editing something or needs to finish up some work or running for meetings leaving them behind is tough.
What are your biggest achievements?
Being where I always wanted to be career wise is indeed an achievement. From a very young age I always knew that I wanted to teach. And now being in a position where I contribute towards making others become intrigued by science is wonderful.
I also think that not having compromised my family life or my personal beliefs on my way to achieve whatever I have achieved professionally is, in itself, a big achievement. Women play diverse roles in society; my students invariably see me sorting out a kid’s issue while being engrossed in something highly academic and vice versa! It has been rewarding to have mentored many young undergraduates and to see more and more women interested in science and on the path of becoming globally recognized scientists.
Being head girl of Ladies’ College was one of the biggest achievements that I cherish to date because with it came the belief that your natural talents are recognized and nurtured as well as the belief that you are recognized based on your merit, which I think that it is a good model for many of our institutions where this recognition is sadly lacking.
If you were completely free to choose any topic to work on, what would it be and why?
I would like to see if there was a possible way to actually gauge the strength women, including women from all walks of life across the country, that would make them feel, that no matter who they are, they are contributing in a bigger way than is actually perceived by them. It is important because there are people we come across who have no idea of their worth and have given up.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier if you were male?
The biggest obstacle which could have set me back is a personal experience – that of losing my mother just before my final examinations at university and my father having a myocardial infarction shortly after. It was something that made me grow up suddenly from an otherwise carefree life.
Having had my primary education at Ladies’ College, where girls are taught to stand up for themselves, I can safely say that I have never felt that things could be different if I were a man. I am also privileged that I grew up in a close-knit family, where I was made to feel special because I was the only girl! And my mother instilled in me the fact that a girl needs to be independent in every way, be it financial or otherwise. It was different from what you typically expect to hear from a woman. I believe that as a girl, you should know the power of being a girl very early on.
If you could give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would it be?
I would say be more accepting of people for who they are.
In your opinion what can attract more women to the field of science?
What you ask is already happening in Sri Lanka. The era of male dominance in science is no longer there. When you look at the university entrants to those in high positions in science, from COVID-19 vaccine development to NASA space explorations, we hear names of Sri Lankan women. If we can re-enforce in our young girls the thought that, irrespective of gender, everyone can contribute towards scientific discoveries and innovations, that would attract more women to science.
Images of the Little Scientist tool kit below: