As part of our Role Models series, our team are sharing their inspiration for becoming involved in STEM. In this post, STEM Women creator, Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe, shares the creative inspiration for following her passion in molecular biology. Buddhini’s tale shows the importance of popular culture in igniting the scientific spark amongst young people.

Buddhini profileI was 13 years old when I first read Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. I hadn’t seen the movie, so I had no preconceptions what to expect with the book. But it was enough to hook me. It wasn’t the dinosaurs that fascinated me, but rather the description of DNA, the sequencing machines, the cloning…I was entranced. Looking back, it’s rather ironic considering Michael Crichton was notoriously anti-science, and his characters are often very critical of scientists. Yet, it was my gateway into molecular biology and I knew that this was what I wanted to do someday.

A few years later, I borrowed my mom’s copy of The Double Helix by James Watson. Although at the time I was unaware of the sad story of Rosalind Franklin, I was still fascinated by the narrative of what things were like at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, the birthplace of molecular biology. From then I ravenously consumed books about science, ranging from Richard Dawkins to Thomas Kuhn; Stephen Hawking to Simon Singh.

STEM Parental Support

My mom is also a scientist. She is an organic chemist who has dedicated her life to teaching. Having a role model like her from an early age helped me feel that my dream was achievable, and not crazy. Growing up in Sri Lanka, I had a strong science background and found the subject easy because I was so interested in it. I had very supportive parents who were clear that an education was the most important thing I could achieve, instead of the traditional arranged marriage and motherhood that many of my friends prioritized because of cultural pressures. I consider myself incredibly lucky because of this.

I had a difficult time in school, because I went to an all-girls Buddhist school, where obedience was valued and questioning the status quo was not encouraged. I quickly developed a healthy disrespect for authority so I was frequently in trouble with my teachers. The problems continued but my love for science didn’t go away, despite the abuse I suffered at the hands of these teachers who would constantly tell me I would amount to nothing while beating me. When my parents found out what was going on they were horrified, and I switched schools. Things improved, and I put in the necessary effort and got the grades I needed to get into university abroad and escape.

Passion for Public Science

At 18 when I was applying for admission into universities in the UK, I had no doubt that I wanted to study molecular biology. I wanted to learn how life works, what our DNA means and understand how a single cell can carry the instructions to build us, and how that development takes place. If I take a step back, these things still fill me with wonder.

Translating that knowledge and wonder to the public has become one of the most rewarding aspects of being a scientist. I feel privileged to be able to share it with interested people. This is why I got into STEM and this is why I will stay in STEM for as long as I can.

Buddhini Samarasinghe
Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe is a molecular biologist currently working on cancer research. She is also a passionate science communicator, describing science minus the jargon! Buddhini has authored a series of articles in Scientific American, titled “The Hallmarks of Cancer.” She provides science outreach through broadcasts on YouTube. Buddhini is a community moderator for Science on Google+ and Advances in Medicine and Biology; and she is a co-curator for Science Sunday.

Her science writing can be found at