This Graduate Student Spotlight highlights Kushan Gunawardhana. A graduate student in Dr. Paul Hardin’s lab, Kushan generated the first adult mutants of a vrille lethal gene mutant in Drosophila, and works in the Biological Clocks field for his research.
I grew up in Colombo, Sri Lanka (the tiny pearl of the Indian Ocean). My high school days was where I developed a strong interest towards biology and from there on continued to pursue a career in it. I have a BS in Bioinformatics from University of Colombo in Sri Lanka, during which I worked with Arabidopsis to study protein degradation pathways which triggered my passion towards molecular biology. While I was searching for a research path to pursue in, I stumbled upon the ideal work I was searching for in the department of biology at Texas A&M and soon moved to Texas to study the circadian rhythm in fruit flies. During the graduate program here at A&M, I am thankful that I had the opportunity to hone my skills and carry out exceptional research. I was also able to develop my teaching abilities and found great satisfaction in it. Outside of lab, I spend time with friends and love to travel as well as try out different cuisines. In the future I would like to be in a position where the knowledge I gathered throughout my PhD would aid the work that I do most preferably in industry.
What inspired you to join Dr. Hardin’s lab?
It was during high school that I first I heard the term ‘biological clocks’, and then when I joined the Biology department I heard it again when professors gave their talks during orientation. When I decided to do my first rotation in Dr. Hardin’s lab I had no idea what a biological clock was. However, during my rotation I discovered that biological clock research is an exciting field with promising opportunities! Also, the techniques that they used in the lab, as well as the lab environment, played a huge role in deciding to join Dr. Hardin’s lab.
What projects are you currently working on?
I study how a transcription factor, vrille, regulates the circadian clock in Drosophila. This gene is essential during development and its mutants are embryonic lethal. I devised several strategies to generate adult mutants of this gene so I could study how this gene impacts the circadian clock independent of development. Currently I am analyzing the phenotypes of these mutants to determine how this gene regulates the circadian clock in Drosophila.
Tell us about a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career.
Since the mutants of vrille are embryonic lethal, characterization of the gene was impossible for nearly two decades. When I joined Dr. Hardin’s lab, I was given the challenge of utilizing a very novel technique, which allowed me to generate mutants and bypass developmental lethality. It was a risky project as it had never been done before but I was fortunate enough to get the project to work with the guidance and patience of Dr. Hardin. And we generated the mutants!
What are your future plans, now that your tenure as a graduate student is coming to a close?
My ultimate plan is to go into industry and work in a research environment. As an entry level scientist, it is rather difficult to get an industry position, so I am planning on working in an academic setting until I can build up the skills necessary to work in industry, and then move to industry later on.
What characteristics do you prize most in a colleague?
A colleague should ideally be a good communicator, have a good work ethic, abide by lab etiquette, and maintain healthy rapport with others.
What advice would you give to new/incoming graduate students?
Choose a field you are genuinely interested in as you will be spending many years studying it, and hopefully you may decide to continue in the same field in your future career. The road may have a bumpy start and the journey maybe rough (but which journey is not?), yet with dedication and pure enthusiasm for the research you do… the many years spent struggling will all be worth it. Also, make sure you keep a healthy balance between your work and your social life.
What undergraduate courses have you taught, and what specifically do you do in your classes to enhance student learning?
I have taught Embryology and Introductory Biology classes. I keep my students interested and involved by including them in class discussions. I prefer to teach by asking them questions rather than just giving them a lecture. In my opinion, this helps students stay engaged, better understand the class material as well as help them to ace their exams!
Do you have any general ideas on how to encourage more minority students and female students to study biology and other STEM fields?
I believe making this field more attractive to minority and female students would be the best way to encourage them into pursuing it. For instance, highlighting the accomplishments of the current minority and female students in biology and other STEM fields. Schools should also promote STEM fields and create academic support programs to encourage students to join these fields even if they doubt their abilities. Also, outreach programs that the Biology department takes part in are highly beneficial in attracting not only minority and female students but all other students.
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
One thing many people would be surprised to know about me is that I am Sri Lankan! Most people think I am from India because Sri Lankans share a similar appearance to Indians and we are a minority on campus.