Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Use forensic science to drag Mugalan’s killers into court

December 16, 2018

Top expert urges rethink on wildlife crime investigation. Published on SundayTimes on 09.12.2018 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/181209/news/use-forensic-science-to-drag-mugalans-killers-into-court-323990.html

[Note: this was published alongside of article investigating the slain of the Udawalawe Tusker ‘Mugalan’ http://www.sundaytimes.lk/181209/news/investigations-reveal-elephant-killed-for-its-tusks-2-suspects-remanded-323993.html]

Investigations into crimes against animals should be handled as forensically as normal criminal investigations, a top animal crimes expert urged as sadness and anger swept the nation over the killing of the Udawalawe tusker, Mugalan, last week.

Ravi Perera is regularly engaged in solving wildlife crime cases in Africa, especially in Kenya

The maximum penalty for the culprits was urged.

“A proper crime scene investigation is the first step in tackling wildlife crimes,” said Ravi Perera, an international expert in wildlife crime who has offered, using his Serendipity Wildlife Foundation, to train Sri Lankan personnel to investigate such incidents.

Mr. Perera has nearly 25 years’ experience in forensic investigation, with special expertise in wildlife crime. Now based in the United States, he is regularly engaged in solving wildlife crime cases in Africa, especially in Kenya where organised gangs of poachers hunt elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns.

“While the method of investigation is the same, a wildlife crime scene is very different to everyday crime scenes in cities’ Mr. Perera explained:

investigators are dealing with possibly a decomposing carcass or a carcass that has been partially or completely devoured by another animal.

“Very often, we have to work in harsh surroundings, rough terrain, and even in dangerous situations where elephants and rhinos could return to the location to protect the dead,” Mr. Perera said.

While a crime scene in urban areas could be sometimes worked with one or two personnel, a crime scene in the wild would require armed guards to secure the scene as well as personnel to take photographs, gather evidence and search the crime scene.

The crime scene itself is much larger in the wild, where a suspect’s shoe or footprints or a tyre track from a vehicle could be located several hundred meters away.

The animal could have been shot at one place but have succumbed to its wounds a distance away. The location where the animal was shot is as important as the place it died as key evidence could be found at either location or in between them.

“In shooting cases such as Mugalan’s it is important to focus on key evidence such as the projectiles (bullets) recovered from the carcass. If the projectile is not severely damaged, there is equipment in forensic labs to determine the type of weapon it was fired from,” the expert said.

Most projectiles found in animals remain intact due to body mass and bones unless there is an exit wound and the projectile is unrecoverable.

Mugalan shot at close range in Udawalawe. Pix by Rahul S. Hettiarachchi

“We also search for the casings that have been ejected from the weapon. Should a weapon be recovered, these casings can be matched in the lab to a test-fired casing from the weapon. Very often, a perfect match is enough to convict a criminal.

“If a suspect is found, a suspect’s clothing that he wore at the time of the shooting can be examined for gunshot residue,” Mr. Perera said.

Poachers in Sri Lanka also use wire snares and “hakka patas” – improvised explosive devices embedded in food that blow the animal’s head apart.

“Unfortunately, obtaining evidence from snares is almost impossible,” Mr. Perera said. “You have catch the culprit in possession of the device to even consider prosecution.

“Hakka patas too would be very hard to analyse for evidence as it is often discovered after the damage is done, and gathering DNA evidence to match to the suspect is impossible due to the fact that it has been severely contaminated with the baited fruit and is then mixed with the elephant’s saliva and other body fluids – not to mention that the explosion further destroys your evidence.”

Mr. Perera, who works with international agencies in curbing wildlife crime, raised the need for Sri Lankan authorities to use new tools and technology.

“Forensic tools and technology have increased in leaps and bounds within the last eight to 10 years,” he said. “When it was previously impossible to do so, presumptive blood tests, gunshot residue-testing, thermal imaging, infra-red photography, fingerprint analysis and much more can now be done onsite and the results obtained within a few minutes.

“Forensic crime labs are also equipped with laser imaging and various light sources to analyse fingerprints and machines to process DNA and obtain results in about an hour,” he said.

Ravi with the last remaining Northern White rhino Sudan before its death

How the public can aid investigations
People often gather at the site of an animal killing to satisfy their curiosity but wildlife expert Ravi Perera said vital evidence is destroyed when the site is indiscriminately trampled over.

Mr. Perera urged the public to support wildlife crime investigations by not disturbing the evidence.

“Our aim is to prevent contamination of the crime scene. If a crime scene is contaminated, it could compromise the entire case,” he said.

This is the reason that we secure an urban crime scene with yellow tape – to keep investigators in and keep all others out.

“Every single item located in that crime scene is regarded as important. Cigarette butts, discarded and crushed receipts, bus and train tickets, clothing, blood, water bottles, tyre tracks, shoe/foot prints and drink cans can be potential evidence. A receipt from a shop (with a date and time printed) can be used to identify a suspect on the shop’s video surveillance system, and then we have a ‘face’ to work with.

“In Sri Lanka, I see crime scenes totally destroyed when villagers and curious onlookers come right up to an animal carcass, and sometimes even touch it. It is important that a secured perimeter be established before work commences at the scene.”

Science puts Lanka in headlines for all the right reasons

December 2, 2018

While power-greedy politicians vociferously tarnish the image of country through their undemocratic fights, scientists silently bring some dignity to the name of Sri Lanka.

Marine biologist Asha de Vos

Marine biologist Asha de Vos and cancer researcher Hasini Jayatilaka brought honour to the country when they were internationally recognised this month for their tireless efforts and groundbreaking discoveries.

Ms. de Vos, known worldwide for her research on blue whales and for campaigning for the conservation of oceans, was named in “BBC 100 Women 2018” – a list of 100 inspiring and influential women chosen from 60 countries.

“Asha works in the area of marine conservation to increase diversity, inclusivity and opportunity in the field” BBC stated on November 19.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am to keep putting Sri Lanka on the world map for all the right reasons!” Ms. De Vos said, when notified of the honour.

Marine biology is usually dominated by males but Ms. De Vos’s trailblazing marine research has made her an idol for Asian women.

“I fight for the people in the developing world because 70 per cent of coastlines are around our shores, but because of the exclusive nature of marine conservation very few people have gone into the field. That is what I am changing,” the determined scientist said.

“I will not rest until I see people from all corners of the globe empowered to look after their patch of ocean, so together we can save not just this big blue tank of water but also ourselves.”

The other Sri Lankan scientist honoured few weeks ago, Hasini Jayatilake, was named in the prestigious Forbes Magazine’s list of “30 Under 30” young innovators, entrepreneurs and risk-takers who are changing the world and have been identified as leaders for the next generation.

Dr. Jayatilaka, just 28, discovered a signalling pathway that controls how cancer cells metastasise (multiply) through the body and a way to block that pathway. This has led to the development of new treatment targeting tumour growth and metastasis.

Currently a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University in the United States, Dr. Jayatilaka was born in Australia and raised in Sri Lanka, studying at Ladies’ College, Colombo.

Her education is international: she engaged in undergraduate studies in marine and environmental biology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, gained her Masters in integrative bio-sciences at the University of Oxford and has PhD from the University of Western Australia and Johns Hopkins University in the States.

Meanwhile, last week the annual President’s Awards for Scientific Publication hailed 338 scientists for publishing high

Cancer researcher Hasini Jayatilaka

-impact scientific papers.

The awards were started in 2001 to recognise Sri Lankan scientists with a Sri Lankan institutional affiliation whose work reached international standards.

The publications are peer-reviewed and are awarded after a two-year gap to allow scientific scrutiny for the academic work’s validity and accuracy. This year’s awards recognised work published in 2016.

The awarding scheme is organised by the National Research Council (NRC), set up under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Research.

“This award scheme was initiated in 2001 because of the perceived need to create a better research culture in our country by encouraging Sri Lankan scientists to increase their research output both in terms of quality and quantity, which was, at that time, at a very low level,” NRC Chairman Professor Janaka de Silva said.

Published on SundayTimes on 02.12.2018 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/181202/news/science-puts-lanka-in-headlines-for-all-the-right-reasons-322870.html

 

The smart three-wheeler that doesn’t ‘tuk-tuk’

August 6, 2018

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180729/news/the-smart-three-wheeler-that-doesnt-tuk-tuk-304677.html Published on SundayTimes on 29.07.2018

An electric three-wheeler with a Lankan heart and a Japanese soul is planning to make travelling eco-friendly
A plan to manufacture an electric three-wheeler in Sri Lanka was revealed this week, with its prototype showcased in Colombo for the first time. The Samurai three-wheeler, built with Japanese technology and currently being tested in Sri Lanka, could be launched in 2020.
The vehicle is powered by two batteries. It has a maximum speed of 60kph with test results showing a more powerful thrust than the normal fuel-powered three-wheeler. At normal cruising range, its batteries could last for about 80km.

Prof.Monte Cassim

The new kid on the block will be silent so the traditional “tuk-tuk” sound will be absent if it is introduced to the roads. Currently being tested at the University of Ruhuna, the Samurai will move to Peradeniya University for test runs on mountain terrains.

Designed by T-Plan Inc., a Japanese engineering consulting company that provides technical support for automobile giants such as Toyota, Daihatsu and Subaru, the Samurai is slightly larger than a conventional tuk-tuk and is designed differently.

The first notable difference is that it has two wheels in front and two at the rear. Japanese engineers say this design is a safety feature that gives the driver more control of the three-wheeler. Sudden turns while driving often result in conventional three-wheelers toppling over but the new design would be more stable. The two wheels in front would hinder reckless and haphazard turns, the designers said.
The changed front shape also provides more space for the driver’s legs, which will help reduce leg injuries in crashes.

One of the major advantages of the electrical three-wheeler is that it is emission-free, which would help achieve climate change-related emission targets. Sri Lanka pledged to make a 10 per cent reduction of emissions in the transport sector, yet the country has large fleet of vehicles that consume fossil fuels. There are more than a million three-wheelers according to the Department of Motor Traffic, and this number is rising.

Electrification of transportation is an urgent task for Sri Lanka because the country spends a huge portion of its foreign reserves on importing fossil fuels, pointed out Professor Monte Cassim, an academic based in Japan who helped initiate the Samurai project. While some question the Samurai’s environmental benefits if electricity is largely generated from fossil fuel, Prof. Cassim has an answer. “Demand for electricity goes down from 10pm-5am and in this period the excess capacity for electricity generated from hydro power etc. goes wasted,” he said.

“Hence this time should be utilised for charging the batteries of vehicles to get the maximum eco-friendliness from the ‘electric vehicles’.” A basic problem with electric three-wheelers is the time it takes to recharge the batteries, with the Samurai’s batteries taking six hours to fully charge. The Samurai team came up with a unique solution: a battery exchange system.

The new kid on the block: The Samurai three-wheeler,

According to this plan, pre-charged batteries would be kept in strategically located exchange stations. Drivers could exchange their used batteries for fully-charged units at these stations in a matter of minutes, in the time it takes to fill up a three-wheeler with petrol.

For the battery-swapping model to be successful a mechanism was needed to inform the driver when the battery is running low and where the nearest exchange station is located.

Fujitsu Group, a well-known, innovative company in Japan, proposed customising its existing cloud-based information exchange system for the Samurai. The Samurai project is one of the initiatives nurtured through the Japan-Sri Lanka Comprehensive Partnership (JCP) set up with a mandate to stimulate science, technology, and innovation-led development in Sri Lanka through Japanese technology.

All-Island Three-Wheeler Drivers’ Union head Lalith Dharmasekara is positive about the electric vehicle. “The drivers are happy about most of the features and if practical issues can be minimised, the new three-wheeler would be popular,” he said.

Norwegian research vessel sail in to probe fish stocks

June 24, 2018

Nansen will address 38-year gap in marine surveys. Published on SundayTimes on http://www.sundaytimes.lk/180617/news/norwegian-researchers-sail-in-to-probe-fishing-stocks-298464.html

The long-awaited Norwegian research vessel, RV Dr Fridtjof Nansen, which sails around the globe helping developing countries set up ecosystem-based fishery management, will reach Colombo on June 22.

The Nansen, regarded as the world’s most advanced marine research vessel, will sail around Sri Lanka for 26 days, surveying oceanic conditions and fish stocks.

The ship is named after Norwegian scientist, explorer, diplomat, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930), who became famous for his North Pole expeditions. The Nansen Research Programme commenced in 1974.

This is the third consecutive research vessel dedicated to surveying marine resources in developing countries. The ships have made the equivalent of 60 voyages around the globe since the programme’s inception.

The first Nansen vessel surveyed Sri Lankan waters in 1978 and 1980. Since then, no such comprehensive survey on Sri Lanka’s marine environment has taken place.

In the last decades, depletion of marine fish stocks has been rampant. A major aim of the Nansen Programme is to help scientists understand the reasons for such depletion and provide data to help to lessen pressure on fishing.

“Most of the data about fisheries are extractions based on catches by fishermen. An independent study is required to assess depleting fisheries stocks and find out new fishing grounds. There can also be under-utilised fish stocks that can be harvested successfully, and research would help us to identify such opportunities,” said National Aquatic Resource Research Development Agency (NARA) Deputy Director-General Dr. Palitha Kithsiri.

While sailing on a pre-defined path around the Sri Lankan coast, the Nansen will lay nets and carry out experimental trawling at various points. The fish and other creatures caught in the nets will be analysed for detailed information on species, sizes, and catch quantity. As well, acoustic methods will be used to estimate the quantity of fish found in those waters.

Sampling will be undertaken on plankton, fish egg and larvae, jellyfish, top predators and marine life in the main oceanic zones: demersal (bottom-feeding fish in deep waters and on the seabed), mesopelagic (fish found in the intermediate ocean layer, 200-1000m deep) and pelagic (fish that swim largely in open water away from the seabed).

The onboard researchers will collect data on water parameters, sea temperature, and salinity, and will map the sea bed using powerful eco-sonars.
“So, in a nutshell, the research will collect data that will help to implement an Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries (EAF), which is more than simply assessing fish stocks,” Dr. Kithsiri said.

The Nansen Programme is executed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in close collaboration with the Institute of Marine Research (IMR) of Bergen, Norway, and is funded through the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD).

The Nansen’s 2018 research campaign began in January in Durban and, after taking in Sri Lanka, is expected to end in mid-October in Thailand, FAO program officer Roshini Gunaratne said.

“The overall objective of the programme is to strengthen regional and country-specific efforts to reduce poverty, create optimum conditions for achieving food security and nutrition through the development of sustainable fisheries management systems” Norwegian Ambassador Thorbjorn Gaustadsaether said.

“Norway, as a maritime nation, believes in sustainable development and plays a leading role in battling marine litter,“ the ambassador added. Plastic pollution of the oceans has become a huge problem: plastic and plastic microfibre being ingested by fish is killing them and has the potential to enter the human food chain through the fish we consume.

Global warming will change the dynamics of the ocean but we know very little about such changes. One obvious example of climate change is the coral bleaching caused by ocean warming.

While sea temperature fluctuations disrupt oceanic currents, excess carbon dioxide, believed to be the triggering fact of global warming, could create acidification by dissolving additional carbon dioxide in seawater from the atmosphere.

Fish species are particularly sensitive to these parameters, so it is expected that changes in acid levels in the seas would change fish movement patterns.

Changing temperatures in the seas could make migratory fish such as tuna, sardines and squid could shift their paths of migration and this would affect fishing catches.

Capacity-building is central to all the activities of the Nansen programme. Twenty Sri Lankan scientists active in the fisheries sector will gain the opportunity to be part of the Nansen programme according to NARA’s Dr. Prabath Jayasinghe, who has been nominated the local cruise leader of the Nansen.

A conference on sustainable development goals linked to the oceans will also take place as part of the visit of the Nansen.

The Nansen vessel docked at Colombo

Nansen’s gear used for experimental fishing

The State-of-the-arts equipment inside the ship

Even fish favourites threatened with extinction
When we visit the market to buy fish from the “malu lella” we seldom think about how these fish that are free-living creatures can face extinction if we continue to catch them without set limits.Some fish, such as sharks, are slow breeders that cannot stand over-fishing. The increasing price of some fish varieties is an indication that they are becoming rarer.Sri Lanka’s favourite fish, the yellow-fin tuna (kelawalla) and seer fish (thora) are categorised as “Near-threatened” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Fauna – only two steps away from the more dire “Endangered” category.Some coral-inhabiting fish such as the hump-head wrasse are “Endangered”, along with elephants and leopards – but fish rarely gain the attention its terrestrial counterparts attract in conservation.

The ocean has different zones based on depths and particular fish inhabit each regions. NARA’s Dr. Palitha Kithsiri said the Nansen’s research will focus on studying the mesopelagic (200m-1000m deep) region, which is currently not much targeted in fisheries.

Tsunami alarm network makes island feel safe than sorry

January 1, 2017

Prof. Samantha Hettiarachchi

Sri Lanka will never be fully protected from a tsunami, but at least people can feel  safer than in 2004, when 36,000 Sri Lankans who perished had not been warned even though they had a two-hour window to reach higher ground.

This week, on December 26, 2004, Sri Lanka along with many other Asian nations, was hit by a tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people. The mammoth wave was generated by an undersea earthquake off Sumatra Island and it took two hours to reach the southern and eastern shores of Sri Lanka.

“Unlike in the past, Sri Lanka is now equipped to issue an early warning in a short period of time,” assures Anusha Warnasuriya, the deputy director of forecasting at the Department of Meteorology. It is responsible for issuing tsunami warnings. An accurate forecast can be made with the assistance of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (IOTWMS), she said.

By 2004, other oceanic regions already had a tsunami warning system. But the Indian ocean region did not have such a mechanism. So the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System was agreed to at a United Nations conference in January 2005. The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System became operational in late June 2006 with the leadership of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC).

A Sri Lankan expert made a major contribution to the warning system.

Moratuwa University Department of Civil Engineering Professor Samantha Hettiarachchi was elected vice chairman of the IOTWMS in 2015 and in October 2016 appointed acting chairman.

“This warning system consists of several seismographic stations relaying information and Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunami buoys that are capable of sensing an upcoming tsunami wave. By also assessing rises in sea-level recorded by the tidal wave gauges, the computer simulation models in regional tsunami service providers can predict of a tsunami,” Prof Hettiarachchi explained.

Currently India, Indonesia and Australia serve as regional TSPs and when an earthquake occurs, the central agency of each country receives an alert. “TSPs issue warnings only to designated bodies and not to other agencies or the public. In Sri Lanka, the met department and the Disaster Management Centre receives information about a tsunami. The met department is the official designated body to receive and disseminate information in consultation with the Disaster Management Centre,” Prof Hettiarachchi elaborated.

The met department’s Warnasuriya said alerts are received from all three TSPs. “Assessing all these warning issued by IOTWMS, our director general in consultation with other stakeholders take a quick decision to issue a warning according to the risk level. The rest of the ground level work such as evacuations are then mainly taken care of by the Disaster Management Centre,” she said. Since 2005, the met department has been tasked with being the central agency to receive tsunami alerts.

Sri Lanka is separated  into 13 coastal forecast zones and sirens have been setup at highly vulnerable places. Tsunami-related evacuation drills had been done on March 29, 2005, September 17, 2007, and April 11, 2012.

“Education, awareness, preparedness, early warning, and response at the country level is essential. Evacuation plans, too, need to be clear. Regular drills are important,” Prof Hettiarachchi advises.

He points out that Sri Lanka is definitely safer against a tsunami threat than in 2004. But due to the nature of the tsunami threat Sri Lanka can never be completely safe, so the island must remain vigilant, he added. Sri Lanka had been slow to conduct national vulnerability studies, but it is an exercise that can help to save lives and property, Prof Hettiarchchi recommended.

He also points out need to protect natural coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, coral reefs and sand dunes to help minimise potential damage from tsunami and other ocean waves.

Published on SundayTimes on 01.01.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170101/news/tsunami-alarm-network-makes-island-feel-safe-than-sorry-222503.html

Multiple tools used to warn of tsunami

All mobile phone users can be alerted by text messages in the event of a tsunami, a disaster management official says. This is in addition to a warning towers in coastal areas. 

“Now we have setup 77 tsunami warning towers covering the most vulnerable coastal areas of Sri Lanka. There is also one on Delft islands and these can be remotely activated to issue a warning with a siren and message in all  three [main] languages,” said Pradeep Kodippili, the deputy director of the Disaster Management Centre. “But tsunami towers are only one mode of disseminating information to the public.’’

The centre said it has set up a network linking all the key government agencies and assigned pre-defined tasks to be able to act quickly. “We have our own radio frequencies to communicate with all the key agencies and also have the ability to issue an SMS similar to the ones issued by the President to all mobile users,’’ Kodippili said.

“The centre also has a vehicle equipped with communications channels and other necessities, so even if our building is damaged, we are in a position to coordinate management of a disaster,’’ he added.

Any person can register with the centre’s alert system by dialling #117 and by following the instructions. An app called ‘Disaster Early Warning Network – DEWN’ can also be downloaded.

Dream big, major science forum urges Govt.

November 20, 2016

Shehan Rathnavale of COSTI presenting
the Colombo Resolution at STS Forum 2016

Published on SundayTimes on 18.09.20http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160918/news/dream-big-major-science-forum-urges-govt-209002.html

Sri Lanka, near the bottom of the world ladder in inventions, is paying a heavy price for overlooking science in decision-making, a leading scientist warned at a symposium of almost 700 scientists, inventors, science managers and students.

“We are trying to make incremental steps in embracing science and technology but that is not good enough. We need to dream big,” said Professor Ajith de Alwis, Project Director of the Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation (COSTI) in the Ministry of Science, Technology and Research.

“To make a real difference in the economy, we need to embrace science. For example, by applying technologies, we can bring the cost of food down and enable more disposable income to people,” Prof. de Alwis said.

The high-level forum, Science and Technology for Society Sri Lanka 2016 (STS), ended last weekend with adoption of the eight-point “Colombo Resolution” that stated economic development should go hand-in-hand with social and environmental progress.

The resolution also calls for the country to foster innovation, build resilient infrastructure and follow sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation. Participants repeatedly pointed out that 14 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals stressed the importance of technology.

The message carried by the forum – the largest gathering of scientists in the country, with participants from 24 countries – would not have been lost on the ministers who were directly involved in it: Deputy Ministers Dr. Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne delivered keynote speeches while the Minister for Science, Technology and Research, Susil Premajayantha, was active on all three days, personally marshalling his men to make the event a success.

Fellowship dinners for the participants were organised by invitation at President House and Temple Trees, giving time for both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to interact with participating scientists.

“The STS Forum would have injected a good dose of science even to the leaders of the country, so let’s hope that the event helps to foster some change,” Prof. Ajith de Alwis commented.

According to the Global Innovation Index 2016 (GII), Sri Lanka ranks 91st out of 128 countries assessed over their capacity for and success in innovation. Among South Asian countries, India is in 66th position, Pakistan 119, Bangladesh 117, Nepal 115, and Bhutan 96.

The index also ranks Sri Lanka at 102 on annual spending on research and development. The STS Forum noted the very low investment in Sri Lanka on R&D – under 1 per cent of the budget.

Speakers emphasised the importance of getting the private sector involved in research funding but experts cautioned that Sri Lanka’s private sector is extremely conservative and that it has been a challenge to encourage its involvement in R&D.

The forum also had a stream for “Citizen Sciences” that included discussion on science communication. Senior science writer Nalaka Gunawardane commented that social media was both a boon and bane for scientific information, saying, “Peddlers of pseudo-science, anti-science and superstition are faster in adopting social media platforms than actual scientists, science educators and science communicators”.

Astrophysicist Dr. Kavan Ratnatunga, taking a radical stance, objected to a two-minute video on religious observances shown at the forum’s opening ceremony.

“When will the science community of Sri Lanka realise that developing a scientific literate society can’t be done while pandering to religious and astrological beliefs?” he demanded.

“It is unfortunate that the otherwise very well-organised STS Forum started with a two-minute video for religious observances. I hope COSTI will go beyond the talk and take science to our society via a science centre … and regular science programming on national television, which does not have any science programmes at present,” Dr. Ratnatunga said.

The Colombo Resolution and videos covering STS Forum sessions may be viewed soon athttp://www.costi.gov.lk/

Malaka Rodrigo was a panellist in the Communicating Science session

Lanka underlines science-based development at Colombo symposium

November 20, 2016

Published on SundayTimes on 11.09.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160911/news/lanka-underlines-science-based-development-at-colombo-symposium-208306.html

A three-day symposium on “Science and Technology for Society” ended yesterday with the adoption of the ‘Colombo Resolution’ – a blue print aimed at incorporating Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) in Sri Lanka’s Sustainable Development programme.
Commonly referred to as the STS Forum, the event — organised by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Research — drew more than 700 local and foreign scientists, inventors and students.

The decision to hold an STS Forum in Sri Lanka was taken following the success of last year’s Japan Forum, where Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe delivered the keynote address.Speaking at the opening ceremony of the Colombo event, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said science and technology-driven innovation was the enabling force in Sri Lanka’s sustainable development programme.

Science and Technology Minister Susil Premajayantha said the Sri Lanka would take forward the message of the symposium and would try to make it a regular event. The symposium discussed topics such as nanotechnology, STI for Sustainable Development, Innovation ecosystems, Citizen Science and Emerging Technologies.

The STS forum was organised by the Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation (COSTI) with the help of 12 institutes coming under the Ministry of Science Technology and Research Ministry.

COSTI director Ajith de Alwis said the knowledge gained from the forum should be applied in policy making.

Note: I have been a panelist of this forum under the session ‘Communicating STI’.

Doing presentation on Communicating Science at STI for Society Forum

Doing presentation on Communicating Science at STI for Society Forum

Science needs strategic direction, says UNESCO chief

October 12, 2016

Published on SundayTimes on 21.08.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160821/news/science-needs-strategic-direction-says-unesco-chief-205533.html

UNESCO chief Irina Bokova

UNESCO chief Irina Bokova

“Science holds answers for many of the key questions of sustainability we face today and science needs to be more strategic and tightly connected with national strategies,” UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova, told a forum of about 200 scientists in Colombo.

The event last week was organised by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a dialogue between Sri Lankan scientists and the visiting DG of UNESCO. Ms.Bokova acknowledged the talent of Sri Lankan scientists and invited them to use UNESCO platforms more effectively for their work.

Participating scientists spoke out about barriers to research in this country, saying lack of funds and high-calibre science projects hurt the quality of research in Sri Lanka.

Taking oceanography as an example, Professor Ruchira Kumaratunga, who established the country’s first university Oceanography Department at the University of Ruhuna, said, “The equipment and other services needed to carry out oceanography research is costly. We have buildings, but it is difficult to get these fully equipped with the funds we receive. We also have research vessels, but fuel is costly. Even a diving licence is costly”.

The Minister of Science, Technology and Research, Susil Premajayantha, said the government is to set up a National Science Centre in Colombo to exhibit and celebrate the beauty and wonders of science. Such centres exist in most South Asian countries as well as in the developed world. Ms.Bokova pledged that UNESCO would support the project.

It was essential to attract more talented Sri Lankans to science, Minister Premajayantha said. “You don’t find as many scientists of very high calibre as we had in the past so we have a duty to popularise science, technology and innovation,” he said.

Ms.Bokova also visited three of Sri Lanka’s eight World Heritage Sites, including the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the Sigirya Rock Fortress, and the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. She had to face a barrage of questions relating to the status of the Dambulla Rock Cave Temple, a UNESCO Heritage Site.

Asked whether it would lose its status due to unapproved development work carried out by a local monk, Ms.Bokova said a UNESCO technical team that inspected the site in March 2015 had made a number of recommendations and UNESCO was working with the government in order to improve the conservation and management of the site. At the moment, there are no plans to delist Dambulla, she said.

Ms.Bokova, who met President Maithripala Sirisena and other leaders, said she was “impressed by the strong political will to move forward and go through the reconciliation process”.

Young Lankan scientist makes life-saving snakebite discovery

July 20, 2014

A landmark discovery by a Sri Lankan scientist could save thousands of lives lost through snakebite the world over.

A snakebite victim’s life often hangs in the balance in the minutes during which doctors watch for symptoms of poisoning before injecting the person with anti-venom as the remedy itself could cause severe allergic reactions that can cause immediate death. Not every snakebite sends poison into the bloodstream: sometimes the fang fails to inject the venom; sometimes the snake had engaged in a recent attack that depleted its venom sacs and the new bite fails to carry enough venom to harm the victim.

Unfortunately, the wait of a few minutes to ascertain such information could mean life or death. It could also cause permanent damage to organs or nerves as once signs of paralysis and muscle damage begin to appear they cannot be reversed by antivenin.

The good news is that scientists have found a blood test that could be successful in detecting whether venom entered into the bloodstream even before symptoms appear.

This breakthrough was made by Dr. Kalana Maduwage of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Peradeniya, who is currently doing his PhD at Newcastle University, Australia, in snake venom science.

He and a team of researchers tested a common enzyme in snake venom called Phospholipase A2 (PLA2). They had collected blood samples from those who had symptoms of snakebite and measured these against blood from people who were not bitten. This particular enzyme was found in high levels in snakebite victims who had the venom penetrate their blood stream.

Dr. Maduwage says that both Sri Lankan and Australian victims of snakebites were tested for this new method. Bites of four venomous Sri Lankan snakes – cobra, krait, Russell’s viper and hump-nosed viper – were tested successfully. Sri Lanka records one of the highest levels of snakebite in the world. According to the Health Ministry nearly 39,000 snakebites are reported to government hospitals every year, ending in approximately 100-150 hospital deaths.

Dr. Maduwage paid special tribute to the supervisors of his study, Professor Geoff Isbister and Dr Margaret O’Leary at the University of Newcastle. Dr Isbister is a world expert on snakebite research and has published more than 250 scientific papers on snakebites and spider bites. Dr. Maduwage said he was lucky to have Professor Isbister as his supervisor.

The work, previously published in Nature Scientific Reports, was presented last month at the Australian Society for Medical Research Annual Scientific Meeting in Sydney. Dr. Maduwage is working hard with the team to develop this concept into a bedside test kit that can be easily available around the world.

Dr. Maduwage has more than 10 years’ experience in the study of snakes, especially the hump-nosed pit viper. In addition, he has also discovered and scientifically described 10 varieties of fish, three new snake species and one lizard species. Dr. Maduwage, who is still in Australia doing his PhD applauds the research-friendly environment in Australia but says he will return to Sri Lanka to serve his country upon completion of his PhD and will keep on developing techniques that can save more lives.

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140720/news/young-lankan-scientist-makes-life-saving-snakebite-discovery-107840.html

How anti-venom is produced  A simplified explanation of how snake antivenin is produced is that extremely small amounts of snake venom are injected into mostly horses on a regular basis over a long period of time. The amounts are so small that the horses are not affected except that their bodies produce antibodies to counteract the foreign substance in their system. After about 10-12 months of this immunological “conditioning” a small proportion of each horse’s blood is removed and the plasma is extracted. This plasma contains the antibodies which, when injected into a snakebite victim, will neutralise snake venom.
Hump-nosed Viper

Hump-nosed Viper

Beaming in from space on ‘silent killer’ drought

July 6, 2014
Lanka to benefit from Indo-Chinese satellite aid 

Sri Lanka has been selected as the first regional country along with Cambodia to benefit from space technology in early predictions of drought – and political rivals India and China are co-operating with the United Nations to develop the mechanism.

News of the initiative came from a two-day forum on Space Technology Applications for Drought Monitoring and Early Warning this week with the participation of local and international scientists together with professionals in agriculture, water management and meteorology.

If drought warnings can be issued earlier, local authorities could take immediate action such as informing farmers to switch to more drought-resistant crops or implementing water management strategies. But drought warnings usually come too late for farmers – after they have put their efforts in the ground, when seeds and plants are growing.

Ground-level data is currently used to predict droughts, but signs of drought can be observed from space long before they are visible to the human eye, and advances in space technology allow monitoring of indicators such as the condition of crops or the availability of water by analysing satellite images through special computer applications.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) together with the Arthur C. Clarke Centre Institute for Modern Technologies (ACCIMT) organised the forum this week to discuss how to use the space technology to predict droughts in Sri Lankan conditions.

Addressing the forum, the Director of ESCAP’s Information and Communications Technology and Disaster Risk Reduction Division, Dr. Shamika Sirimanne reminded that drought is a ‘silent killer’ that does not get the attention that other natural disasters attract. “Over the past three decades, it is estimated that droughts in the Asia-Pacific region have affected more than 1.3 billion people and caused damage of more than $US53 billion,” she revealed.

Advanced satellite technologies have been used by developed countries but local regions, highly dependent on agriculture and suffering from droughts as the severity of extreme climatic events worsened with climate change, lacked such assistance. To bridge this gap, ESCAP launched its Regional Drought Mechanism Programme last year as a platform to provide timely and free satellite-based data, products and training to regional drought-prone countries with ultimate aim of transferring the technology to developing countries.

The region’s giants, China and India, with their own space programmes, have come forward to assist this effort to provide the pilot countries with satellite imagery, services, expert training and capacity development. Dr. P.G. Diwakar of Indian Space Research Organisation said Indian scientists had already analysed some of the data collected for Sri Lankan droughts and his country was willing to give technological and other support for this venture. Dr. Diwakar said data extracted from three Indian satellites will to be helpful for this region. A Sri Lankan team is already having training sessions with India and another team will fly to India at the end of this month for further training on how to use computer applications to issue early warnings based on satellite imagery.

Arthur C. Clarke Institute research scientist Chandrima Subasinghe said initially vegetation change will be used as the indicator to monitor the onset of drought. The Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) is used to monitor changes in the “greenness” of Earth as viewed from space. NDVI is calculated from the visible and near-infrared light reflected by vegetation. Healthy vegetation absorbs most of the visible light that hits it and reflects a large portion of the near-infrared light. Unhealthy or sparse vegetation reflects more visible light and less near-infrared light, yielding a lower NDVI.

The implementing agencies should develop the best data indices in order to do make effective predictions, ACCIMT Director-General Sanath Panawennage said. Addressing the inaugural session, Minister of Technology and Research, Patali Champika Ranawaka warned, “This year may witness the beginning of another El Niño period affecting Sri Lanka – possibly with serious implications for agriculture.

“We have great hope that ESCAP’s Regional Drought Mechanism will help Sri Lanka address this issue by expanding our options for monitoring and responding to agricultural drought, effectively harnessing the potential of space technology applications towards this end.”

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140706/news/beaming-in-from-space-on-silent-killer-drought-105985.html

Raining fish‘n’frogs instead of proverbial cats‘n’dogs

December 24, 2012

Not a sign of doomsday but a tornado/twister sucking aquatic life in its path of destruction and ditching them once powerless – By Malaka Rodrigo

Raining of fish is not a doomsday prophecy, but a normal meteorological phenomenon, experts assured.
‘Fish-rain’ was reported at least from two places in Embilipitiya and Kamburupitiya this week, while a prawn-rain was reported from Tissamaharama on Thursday, raising concern among residents.

The Ruhuna University Agriculture Faculty in Mapalana, Kamburupitiya, experienced ‘fish-rain’. On Monday, a number of small fish were found on the ground and on the roofs of the University’s office premises following a shower.

Officials of Ruhuna University’s Faculty of Fisheries, Marine Sciences & Technology on being informed, rushed to Mapalana to investigate the phenomenon. Faculty Head Ashoka Deepananda who had studied the ‘rain-fish’ and said the specimen he had checked were freshwater fish species Lula (Snake-head fish) and Hunga (Asian Stinging Catfish).

However, fish falling from the sky is not supernatural nor is it a doomsday prediction as some people made out, assures the expert.

Raining fish is a relatively common meteorological phenomenon, with occurrences reported on many instances in the past.

Tornadoes created by violently circulating winds, which suck things in its path, move across a body of water and suck the water into it, creating a water sprout. Fish and other organisms too could be sucked up in these water columns. They can then be carried away by the strong winds and come down to in another place, near or far, along with the rain, making it a ‘fish-rainfall’. If dropped close to its place of extraction, there is the possibility of the fish surviving.

No live fish were found by the Fisheries Faculty team, but Mr. Deepananda confirmed that the fish, though dead, were fresh, indicating that they had died a few hours before. He said the bodies of the fish were crushed and carried external wounds. Mr. Deepananda confirmed that fish samples on investigation showed that the fish had also suffered internal damage.

The expert told the Sunday Times that these kind of wounds are possible when the fish fall from a great height, or also at the time they are sucked into the water column – believed to be by a mini tornado that was experienceed in the area.

A small body of water called ‘Lenabatu wewa’ is located closer to the faculty, but Mr. Deepananda said the fish could have been extracted even from a small stream. Though only specimens of common freshwater fish in the area such as Lula and Magura were found, he believes there could be other fish species too among the species that were sucked up.

Kamburupitiya: “It’s raining fish”. Pic by Krishan Jeevaka Jayaruk

A few weeks ago, similar ‘fish-rain’ was also reported from Kantale. ‘Fish-rain’ was also reported from other parts of the world where even frogs and birds dropped with the rain that came about through the same phenomenon.

In certain instances where frogs fell with the rain, the animals seemed startled, though healthy, and exhibiting relatively normal behaviour, shortly after the event. It was also reported that, in other instances, the animals were frozen to death or completely enclosed in blocks of ice. These occurrences may be evidence of the thrust of the victims to very high altitudes, where the temperature is below zero, indicating how powerful meteorological forces can be.

Met. Dept Meteorologist Ananda Jayasinharachchi said that tornado-type phenomena are more common during the inter-monsoon period. This can create dense, towering, vertical cloud forming from water vapour carried by powerful upward air currents. The tip of these clouds can get close to land or water bodies, sucking organisms such as fish.

Experts point out that this kind of raining of animals could have occurred in the recent past too, but because people are alert and more observant these days, looking for signs of doomsday, they tend to see these and report.

Published on 23.12.2012 on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/121223/news/raining-fishnfrogs-instead-of-proverbial-catsndogs-25769.html

‘Lost’ shrub frog turns up after 100 years

April 1, 2012

Pseudophilautus semiruber (Tiny-Red Shrub-Frog) is one of the smallest frog species in the world. So far, out of the total of 5000 plus species of frogs in the world, only 46 species   smaller than 15 mm are known; these are referred to as diminutive species. These species are so small that they can rest on the tip of your small finger, comfortably. With the new discovery, Sri Lanka has three such species (P. simba and P. tanu, in addition to P. semiruber).

A scientist called N. Annandale in 1911, found a 12 mm long individual, with a nondescript sex, from Pattipola, at an elevation of 1850 m above sea level. It was formerly described in 1913, using only this single specimen. For the next 95 years nobody ever saw this species again. But in 2005, a single female was discovered by Dr.Madhava Meegaskumbura and Mohomed Bahir, from amongst the wet leaf litter, under the cover of a misty montane forest canopy, close to the Horton Plains National Park.

This specimen was subjected to rigorous scrutiny, both using morphology and molecular techniques to determine its systematic relationships. Its morphology was compared to asimilar species, Ps. simba, from Rakwana Hills (Morningside Estate) and the Knuckles Forest Reserve, and to the 1913 description of Annandale. This specimen had been deposited in the collection of the Zoological Survey of India in Kolkata. However, this specimen was later found lost. Due to the unprecedented lack of data, the IUCN Redlist considers this endemic frog to be Data Deficient. The rediscovery was announced and a new description was presented in the March 2012 issue of the journal ZOOTAXA clearing the doubts.

This tiny red frog is at the edge of extinction, so immediate conservation measures should be taken, calls the researchers. Sri Lanka is already named as an Amphibian Hotspot with many species new to science, but 21 species of them are already categorized as extinct. This background makes the new re-discovery an important finding as otherwise it could eventually be listed into the list of Extinct Amphibians.

Sri Lanka has a wide diversity of Shrub frogs. Dr. Madhava Meegaskumbura (University of Peradeniya) who has been the leading researcher of this discovery has also discovered many other Shrub Frogs, and even an endemic genus Taruga that are endemic to Sri Lanka. Presently he is involved in another research in Knuckles region together with another young scientist from the University of Peradeniya, Ruchira Somaweera, to study the ecological correlates of Horned Lizards, so that these highly forest adapted lizards can be better conserved in the face of impending climate change resulting in continued habitat degradation.

However some elements have recently misinterpreted this work as  an act of biopiracy, which discourages the students and the conservation biologists conducting the work. The  researcher takes this as an example to emphasize the importance of all elements, including the public, in supporting legitimate research in the country so that Sri Lanka’s endemic fauna can be better understood and conserved.

Sri Lanka’s Shrub frogs are a special group of amphibians that are different from other frogs. Frogs usually have a tadpole stage and also needs water for their survival. But these shrub frogs are known as ‘Direct Developers’ that gets baby frogs directly from eggs that they lay on soil after digging a hole or on leaf surfaces. They do not need water or a pond to survive, however they require moisture in the ecosystem such as the cloud forests in Sri Lanka’s central highland.

Published on SundayTimes on 01.04.2012 www.sundaytimes.lk/120401/News/nws_034.html

Top scientists brainstorm on ways to propel Lanka into the future

January 1, 2012

More than 50 expatriate Sri Lankan scientists were in Sri Lanka last week to attend a forum to discuss ways to boost the country’s economic and social development. The arching theme of the event was “Empowering Sri Lanka through Networking and Sharing Scientific Knowledge.”

National Science Foundation chairperson Professor Sirimali Fernando addressing the forum

The three-day event, held at the Galadari Hotel, Colombo, between December 13 and 15, brought together 50 overseas-based Sri Lankan scientists and academics and 170 Sri Lanka-based scientists, industrialists, and science educators. The forum was organised by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the United Nations Educational Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

The participants discussed nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, advanced design and manufacture, natural resources and food and water security, among other topics. The idea of the global forum of Sri Lankan scientists was first mooted by Professor Tissa Vitarana, when he was Minister of Science and Technology. Prof. Vitarana, who is now senior Minister of Scientific Affairs, said science and research should have high priority on the national development agenda, and that the technology gap was a reflection of the poverty gap in poor and developing countries.

Pavithra Wanniarachchie, Minister of Technology and Research, said the government had adopted a national science and technology strategy to underpin the country’s economic development. National Science Foundation chairperson Professor Sirimali Fernando said China was overtaking the conventional powerhouses in science, a trend that was also being seen in many Asian countries, such as South Korea, Singapore, India and Malaysia. She said Sri Lanka should not fall behind in this Asian rising, and that the country should “harness all resources and take up the challenge.”

Prithi Perera, Secretary-General of the National Commission of UNESCO, said forums like the present one would help mobilise the international community to assist in building up Sri Lanka.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.12.2011 http://sundaytimes.lk/111218/News/nws_07.html