By: Siromi Samarasinghe, PhD
Our guest post by Prof. Siromi Samarasinghe is part of our Role Model series. Siromi describes how she overcame cultural, social and financial hurdles to pursue a research career in tea chemistry at a time when it was highly unusual for women in Sri Lanka to obtain higher education.
For my tenth birthday my father gave me The Pictorial Encyclopaedia of Scientific Knowledge. He was a medical practitioner and was always encouraging me to read and learn about science. I found that book utterly fascinating; it shaped my lifelong passion for learning. It was my very first step on the road that led, decades later, to the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, and my present position on the tutorial staff of the Department of Chemistry.
From that book I learned about the diversity of the plant and animal kingdoms, about rocks and minerals and the Solar System. Another book I loved to read was A Hundred Great Lives, about great scientists and their achievements. I imagined myself making great discoveries and dreamed of becoming a great scientist some day!
However, the path was not to be smooth or rosy.
Path to Learning
Tragedy struck when my father died suddenly and quite unexpectedly when I was still in school preparing for A-levels. The loss left me shattered; and determined to look after my mother, a housewife, and a kid sister barely 5 years old. I would do well in my studies, enter university and get a good job to support them. Everyone assumed I would get into medical college and follow in my father’s footsteps.
I did not make it. (This was fortunate, but only in hindsight.)
I had to face much criticism and negativity from relatives and from teachers at school for my “failure”. Medicine is a most prestigious and respected profession, held in high esteem even today in Sri Lanka. But I refused to attempt a second time and ended up at the 3rd best University in the country (out of the 4 at the time) studying Biology, Chemistry, and Mathematics, a subject combination distinctly different from the traditional segregation of physical science and biological science streams elsewhere. It was a turning point in my life.
I thoroughly enjoyed what I learned. Though we did not have computers, nor access to the Internet during my undergraduate days, I gathered knowledge by reading. Books and journals were the only source of information as Sri Lanka did not even have television at the time.
Journey to Teaching
I began my career as an Assistant lecturer in Chemistry at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, after graduating with 1st class honours. My first lecture was in Organic Chemistry to the first year students, some of whom were around my age. Though nervous at first, wearing a sari and facing a class roomful of students, I found that imparting knowledge on a subject I loved was a pleasure which knew no bounds!
My mother was a tower of strength. She encouraged me to study further. When I received a scholarship from the British government to pursue postgraduate studies in the UK, she gave her blessings and stood firm in her decision, against friends and relatives who advised her to get me married off before I became “too old to find a suitable partner”! “Girls need not do higher studies, it is time she settled down,” they said.
At the time it was very unusual for an unmarried female to travel alone to a foreign country.
It was a big challenge for me, a totally new experience. My scholarship was only for one year, to do a Masters. I wanted so much to do my PhD but could not afford the fees. My perseverance paid off when I got a Distinction in the M.Sc. and won a Leeds University scholarship to do my PhD. I could not afford the airfare to visit home, and was separated from my family for another 3 years, the only source of communication being the weekly letter via Air mail!
I loved the research I did for my PhD, which was related to the chemistry of black tea manufacture. This was a highly relevant topic to my country, the world renowned producer of Ceylon Tea. My research supervisor and I made several trips to Unilever laboratories in Bedford to obtain fresh tea leaves from their greenhouse from which I extracted the enzyme tea polyphenol oxidase, for my studies. I used model oxidation systems to investigate flavour and colour development from tea polyphenols during black tea manufacture. The chemistry involved was fascinating! I went through the laborious task of referring up Chemical Abstracts and taking notes on index cards to do my literature survey. That was long before the launch of search engines!
Return to Research & Family
I earned my PhD, returned home and, to my relatives’ relief got married. It was an arranged marriage, as was the custom here. I was lucky. Though from different professions (he was a lawyer) we had similar interests and shared a love for wild life and nature. How delighted he was with the daughter who joined us a few years after. Together we nurtured in her the love of learning I was overjoyed to learn he shared with me: I think there was no time he was prouder than when he sat with me at her college graduation (Molecular Biology from the University of Bath). Tragedy struck for the second time in my life when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, during our daughter’s 3rd year at University. He passed away the year before she finished her PhD. It was a difficult time. Though living thousands of miles apart, she and I, together we weathered the storm.
I have been a teacher, a mentor and perhaps a role model to many students, guiding them and moulding their young minds in the quest for knowledge. Now an Associate Professor in Chemistry, I will be completing 40 years of service when I retire at the end of next year. Looking back on my career, I am amazed at the progress of science over a period of nearly four decades. I yet continue my research related to tea chemistry.
My journey was neither smooth nor easy. Science has been my strength, it always will be.
Siromi’s inspirational journey demonstrates the pressures of breaking away from traditional roles for women. Despite the Sri Lankan context, similar family demands and unforeseen life obstacles can have a dramatic impact on women in STEM careers all over the world. What’s been your experience of juggling gender expectations in forging your career?
About the Author
Connect with Prof. Siromi Samarasinghe on Google+.