BS in Agricultural Sciences and Management from Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka, MS in Natural Resources from the University of Missouri, and currently a PhD student at the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign with a primary focus on environmental water quality.
Briefly describe your career path from college until today.
In Sri Lanka, we have a competitive exam (GCE A/L) to get into the medical college, and I was studying to take it, but I fell short in my marks and ended up studying agriculture. Initially, I was so discouraged, but then I realized that it was something I might be really interested in. There are so many things that I can learn and contribute, and I really fell in love with soil science. In the last semester of your senior year, you are required to work in industry or at a research station to gain experience and training. I selected a site where they were focusing on horticultural crops. I ended up working with a brilliant scientist, Dr. Priyantha Weerasinghe, who inspired me to learn more about soil science. One year later, during my search for higher studies opportunities abroad, I was able to connect with Dr. Ranjith Udawatta at the University of Missouri - Columbia to pursue a master's degree. After my graduation, I started my PhD program under the guidance of Dr. Laura Christianson at the University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign. So that’s my career path in brief.
What was the best advice you received regarding your career?
This is something I really treasure still today. This was told to me by Dr. Priyantha Weerasinghe. In his words it was “If you want to be a scientist/researcher, act like it.” If you want to change the world, start changing yourself first. My personalized version is if you are a scientist studying natural resources, try to minimize your carbon footprint. I will give you one example. If you’re a researcher studying water or pollution and have a prestigious career, but at the same time you apply more than the required nitrogen to keep your lawn green, which ultimately may leach into your stormwater, you might need to think twice about your role as scientist.
Describe the best choices that you’ve made along your career path.
The best choice I’ve made was to come to the United States for my higher studies. Since I’ve come here I’ve realized how interconnected agriculture is. I see the opportunities, I see how the different areas of sciences interconnect with each other. Back home, it’s a little more one-dimensional. If you think of agriculture you only think of farming – and farming is all about more crops and higher yields. But when I came to the United States, I saw the interconnection between the agencies, universities, and farmer groups and how they work together and the effort they make to take the science to the farmers.
What have you done to continue your education and professional development following college graduation?
I am a member of the Soil and Water Conservation Society and the Soil Science Society of America. I try to attend the annual conferences organized by these societies whenever possible.
The networking is the best part because you get to know the people you’ve cited in your own work and whose research you’ve followed. I’m actually a shy person, but I’ve made an effort to talk to people during the conference and get to know new people. I do a lot of reading and am familiar with the researchers in my field, and when I meet them at conferences I’m able to show that I’m familiar with their work and ask questions. It’s a great way to break the ice. That’s how I made the connection to find my PhD position in Illinois. Outside of school, a really beneficial thing I have done for me and the scientific community is reviewing papers, I do that for the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. I learn a lot from those papers.
How has SWCS impacted your career, or contributed to your continued education and/or professional development?
The first conference I attended, after coming to the United States, was the Soil and Water Conservation Society. I presented some of my master's research work, and I remember a professor came up to my poster and was asking me questions. And now, several years later, I’m taking classes that he teaches. So I now realize how small the conservation science community is, and the Soil and Water Conservation Society really triggered that connection.
What advice do you have for college students or early career professionals who might want to work in a job similar to the one you have right now?
The thing I really want to share is, you always have to remember that you don’t know everything. You need to keep your mind open. Even though I think I know science, whenever I read a paper or an article I come across new concepts and information. This is overwhelming and frustrating sometimes. Because you know that you have an understanding and all of a sudden you feel like you don’t know anything. I try to be openminded. When you have an open mind, it’s easy to gain knowledge and absorb it. My advice to anyone doing a masters or a PhD is to keep an open mind, be open to new knowledge, don’t resist it. Specifically, to international students, don’t be afraid to talk to people to get resources and knowledge.
The mission of SWCS is to foster the art and science of natural resource conservation. Describe what impacts you have on fostering the art and science of natural resource conservation in your current job.
My current research is on drainage water quality, how to mitigate nitrogen and phosphorus export through drainage water to the Gulf of Mexico. To do that, we are trying to figure out the best and most feasible methods for farmers to adopt, while also protecting cropland and improving their yields. Two of the methods we are investigating are saturated buffers and drainage water management. In the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, saturated buffers and drainage water management are not included yet. So the findings from our study will help policymakers to include those two practices.
What are your plans for the future?
So my first goal is to finish my PhD, then I’d like to do a postdoc to expand my research experience. My goal is to stay in academia. I’d like to find a job that I love where I’m able to do research and teach about soil and water science. My primary goal is to become a professor; I would grab any opportunity that leads to that with both hands.