Chemistry Graduate Student Outreach Highlight: Viranga Wimalasiri

Compiled and edited for clarity by Hannah Musgrove

Viranga W. Wimalasiri
Multi-outreach Leader
Biophysical Chemistry/Biomolecular Spectroscopy
Cafiso Lab, 6th Year

Since 2020, Viranga has served in multiple roles across the Chemistry and A&S communities, including as the former GSC Secretary and DGS Ambassador, former Co-VP and President of LEAD, and the Founder and Former President of the Sri Lankan Student Association, as well as the Vice Chair for Graduate Students, University Judiciary Committee. ChemSciComm had the opportunity to learn more about Viranga’s experiences and his perspective on leadership and outreach as a graduate student in Chemistry. 

What brought you to UVA Chemistry?

“I came to UVA as an International Student from Sri Lanka. When I checked for possible schools in the US for my PhD, I remember that there was only one Sri Lankan student at UVA Chemistry at the time and that my undergrad university did not have any student attend UVA Chemistry. I wanted to experience different cultures, meet new people and experience American culture during my time as a grad student so I wanted to be at a place outside my comfort zone with less Sri Lankan community. Also, I was heavily drawn to the beautiful nature of UVA and most importantly, I was attracted to the unique research and chemistry that’s being performed by the Chemistry Department Faculty. All these reasons combined made me think of UVA Chemistry as my possible graduate school.

As for my interest in Chemistry, I did know that I wanted to do chemistry all my life, probably because that interest is trapped somewhere in my genes. My family is comprised of my mom, dad, elder brother, and myself. All four of us received our Bachelor of Honors in Chemistry from the same undergrad university in Sri Lanka, and all of my family members have a PhD in Chemistry. As for my interest in the area of Chemistry, in the beginning I was comfortable with Physical Chemistry as I was good in Mathematics but my parents suggested me to try Biochemistry probably because both my mom and dad have PhD’s in Biochemistry and they know how interesting that area of chemistry is. Therefore, I tried biochemistry related research and found myself to be completely mesmerized by the beauty that is the structures and functions of biological systems. From that, I realized that I am also drawn to Biochemistry. Currently, I am studying the structural and functional dynamics of Gram-negative bacterial outer membrane proteins using site-directed spin labelling coupled with Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR) Spectroscopy.

 I am always inspired by my parents because they have struggled all their lives to provide me with the life that I have right now. Coming from a third-world country to a very prestigious university as UVA in the US to do my PhD studies was not an easy task, but they gave everything they had for me and my brother and I am forever grateful for that. They always inspire me in everything that I do as a person. I consider whatever the appreciations/accolades/awards that I receive as theirs, not mine because I couldn’t have obtained any of them without my loving family.”

Can you please describe some of your roles within Chemistry outreach?

“At Chemistry GSC, I was the Secretary and was in charge of keeping minutes/notes from meeting while supporting the GSC in events organized by GSC as an Executive Member. As the DGS Ambassador, I had the opportunity to communicate with the Chemistry DGS in graduate student matters that require his attention resulting in many positive changes in events organized by the department that represents graduate students (Graduate Student Recruitment/Graduate Student Orientation) as well as drafting up the Graduate Student/Advisor expectations document together with the DGS using the feedback obtained from faculty/students which is currently on the UVA Chemistry website and grad student handbook.

As Chemistry LEAD, not as a Vice-president/President but as a passionate member of the organization, I participated in multiple events involving going to Elementary and Junior High Schools in the County of Albemarle to demonstrate chemical principles for many years, participated in the BLAST program at UVA for multiple years motivating students with difficult backgrounds towards a career in STEM, performed science experiments for children at the Virginia Discovery Museum for multiple years as well as assisting in organizing one day/two-day Chemistry Camps at UVA for children with wide range of ages. As a Co-vice-president in 20/21 and President during 21/22, mostly communication with schools at the County was done since the organization struggled deeply to re-initiate school visits which was heavily impacted due to COVID-19 pandemic.”

What inspired you to start, lead, and participate in various outreach roles during graduate school?

“Even as an undergraduate student in Sri Lanka, I was always interested in participating in extracurricular activities. Apart from sports, I find a sense of satisfaction and happiness by getting myself involved in these activities and it gives me an indication that I was able to give something back to this department/community for all that it provides for me. At first, I was skeptical about leading organizations because of the language barrier since I am not a very proficient speaker in English, but as my language skills improved, I thought it would be a good opportunity to further improve my leadership skills and provide my expertise and support for the betterment of the Department.

On an outside note, seeing the organizations at the Chemistry department and what they do inspired me to create a contract independent organization (CIO) for the Sri Lankan Students here at UVA with the help of Sri Lankan faculty/staff members/students of UVA to provide an opportunity for all the faculty/staff members/students at UVA and the broader Charlottesville Community to experience Sri Lankan culture, heritage and traditions. We were able to host some events where the UVA and broader Charlottesville Community got the opportunity to experience Sri Lankan cuisine as well as our traditions and cultural events.”

Are there any outcomes from your involvement that surprised you?

“It is customary back in Sri Lanka to always follow a faculty member’s lead in everything that we do. There is very little opportunity to raise concerns and give voice to our opinions. To me, it was very surprising that there are so many student run organizations at UVA and in the Chemistry Department and the faculty has little to no influence on the decision-making progress. It shows a sense of trust from the faculty towards the students exhibiting the capability of students to be responsible and effective while bringing joy and pride to the department as representatives.”

What challenges have you overcome while leading and participating in different roles?

“When it comes to outreach programs, it is always challenging to get positive responses during times of crisis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we wanted to make sure that we still inspire the younger generation towards STEM and it was apparent that we cannot do it effectively due to certain restrictions clashing with our usual scheme of outreach events. However, we were able to find alternative methods to fulfill that target to some extent. Though it wasn’t perfect, it was still effective.

It can also be challenging to ensure that there is strong understanding and transparency on expectations between graduate students and faculty. This is an important connection point to keep up with as the student mindset shifts over the years. Being involved in GSC and with the DGS, I have to concur that the current leading faculty members (Past and Present DGS, Chair, Faculty Advisors of Organizations) are admirable in making sure that they do get the opinions and suggestions from the current student body, making sure that events [such as, Grad Student Orientation and Recruitment] are organized in a way that caters to the need of new/prospective students while being fruitful and welcoming to all parties.”    

Has there been a particularly memorable or rewarding aspect of your outreach experience?

“The most important reward that I have received by participating in outreach programs and experiences in department involvement is the happiness that I gained knowing that I was able to assist/criticize certain instances that changed the life of someone for the better and made someone else happy. It can be teaching something new to someone and inspiring them, being a helping hand in any event organized by a departmental organization so that the event is successful, or even standing up to the leadership of the department on behalf of graduate students (international and local) and raising concerns which should be portrayed in order to make sure that the students in the department are best represented.”

What does it mean to you to be a part of the Chemistry Community, either in the department or in a broader sense?

“I enjoy each and every moment that I spent with this wonderful Community. What I have noticed about the Chemistry Community here at UVA is that we are all considered equal. We can have the assurance that if a certain situation arises where you require help/support, that support can be found within the department itself due to a wonderful student body and an encouraging faculty. I truly appreciate the capability of going to leadership of the department (DGS/Chair) to raise concerns without having doubts as to whether I will be ignored or heard. I believe that as scientists, we are all equal and what each person does is crucial for the betterment of living beings.”

What advice would you give to students wanting to get more involved in relevant outreach or coming from a similar experience?

“Go for it! You will never know what you can do until you do it. It can be scary and doubtful in the beginning, but once you get involved, you will be surprised as to how much happiness and joy it will bring to you. If you go with an open heart filled with enthusiasm and dedication, the experiences you will gain, the teachings you will learn, and the memories you will make will last forever.”

Sharing our unique journeys through STEM enables us to connect and grow as a community. We are grateful to Viranga for sharing part of his graduate school story with us!

If you’re a graduate student and are interested in any of the outreach opportunities listed here, more information can be found on the Graduate Chemistry Program Clubs & Organizations page on the UVA Chemistry Department website. Students are also invited to reach out to the faculty advisors and leading members of the organizations for additional information.