STEMM Profile: Dr Anushi Rajapaksa | NHMRC Early Career Fellow | Senior Research Officer | Pneumococcal Research | Murdoch Children’s Research Institute | Melbourne | VIC

“Believe that you can make it! I feel that the first step is achieving your goals, whatever it might be is to believe that you can do it!”

I am an academic Biomedical Engineer and an emerging leader in the field of novel bedside technologies for newborn babies at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI). I graduated with first class Honours from Monash University with degrees in Bachelor of Science and Electrical and Computer Systems Engineering. In October 2013, I was awarded a PhD by Monash University where I successfully demonstrated a new platform for “inhaled DNA vaccines”.

My contributions to the field of biotechnology have been recognised both nationally and internationally, and I was named 2010 Young Biomedical Engineer of the Year (Engineers Australia). I joined MCRI in 2012 and in 2015, my research featured in the Channel 10 News, syndicated nationally and the SBS World News. I was recently featured the MCRI 2016 Brilliant Minds handbook and acknowledged as having the “potential to change the face of child health” (one of 30 faces to celebrate MCRI’s 30 years anniversary).

I currently lead the activities within the biofluidics facility at MCRI, which I have established for novel engineering research. This cutting-edge laboratory is equipped with state-of-the-art engineering tools to make discoveries that will transform child health. The biofludics facility is under the broader pneumococcal research group, led by my mentors Professor Kim Mulholland and Associate Professor Paul Licciardi. As a senior research officer, I am team leader on two distinct projects involving the application of cutting edge engineering solutions for clinically relevant problems effecting newborn infants:

(1) Team leader for the Jaundice Point-of-care (POC) technology research program.

(2) Team leader for large animal respiratory vaccine program.

My research skills in both as an engineer and a molecular scientist makes me unique as an early career post-doctoral researcher. I have been recognised throughout my career for delivering high-quality results as evidenced from the production of two international patents (three confirmed licencing deals) and 14 publications in three research active years. I am responsible for the management of five research staff, laboratory and environmental safety, management of financial research budgets (>AUD$1million) and reporting and external stakeholders (industry and academic collaborators).

In 2017 I was a Victorian Public Sector and Academia Award Finalist in the Telstra Business Women’s Awards.

What would you say is your most valuable personal attribute that has helped you succeed?

It is a combination of “going-for-it” coupled with a deep commitment an inner mission, in my case bettering lives of others. In a funding scare environment, I always take the view of “let’s just go do things”, and “the funding will come”, and fostered ideas that require very little funding for execution. So far this has worked for me.

How can we change the scientific work culture to improve work/life balance?

Firstly, “Lead by example”. Create a flexible work culture that works hard but importantly plays hard. Make ample time for family and friends, especially taking weekends off such that you can refresh.  Think of it like, “it is my job to make sure I do a good job so allow yourself to reset”.

What advice would you give early career researchers – especially women – in science today?

Believe that you can make it! I feel that the first step is achieving your goals, whatever it might be is to believe that you can do it! Infest the time to find out what is it that you are really good at and fill your environment and team to complement those skills.

What is the most important advice you have ever been given?

My mentor who is a renewed woman professor and a passionate gardener once said to me “Weed but don’t over-weed, as you may kill the ‘good’ seedlings”. This has stuck with me since. You want to invest time to develop a good research team (like the fine garden) but if you over-do it, you might just cripple the independence. Be hands-on but know when to be hands-off.

How can we foster a culture of STEMM innovation?

Foster “child-like imagination” and “consider the impossible”. The greatest advancements of today have come from pushing the mindset. Create culturally diverse teams that are not afraid to “doubt their own thinking”. True innovation begins when you are ready to push your own thinking.

Twitter: @DrRajapaksa

LinkedIn: Anushi Rajapaksa

Leave a Reply