Archive for the ‘Scientific Research’ Category

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

 

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.

Sri Lankan elephant families don’t have a dominant figure, study finds

January 16, 2017

Dominant behaviour: Trunk-over dominance gesture between
two adult female elephants.

The accepted norm is that elephant society comprises distinct family units dominated by the oldest female, or matriarch, who adopts a central role in co-ordinating group movements and responses to threats. But recent research has revealed that this is not so with elephant families of Sri Lanka.

“We found out that unlike African savannah elephants, the Asian elephants (elephas maximus) do not exhibit clear dominance hierarchies or matriarchal “leadership,”’ researcher Dr Shermin de Silva told the Sunday Times.

Adult males are expelled and it is the females, calves and young bull elephants that form social groups. Dr de Silva studied how elephants interact within these social groups particularly observing dominance behaviors in Udawalawe National Park.

Researchers interpret ‘dominance’ as a concept indicated by behaviours such as one individual threatens, shows aggression toward another, or interferes with the other’s actions. Subordinates can be indicated by behaviours such as one individual allowing themselves to be manipulated, actively avoiding another, waiting to approach a resource until the other has moved away etc. “We have also observed specific dominance behavior such as the trunk-over gesture where the dominant puts its trunk over the head/neck/back of the subordinate,” Dr de Silva explained.

The African savanah elephant (loxodonta africana) has a matriarch, usually the oldest female. The whole group depends on the experience her wisdom to locate food and water particularly during droughts. In Africa the elephant also has natural predators such as lions that could kill young calves, so having a leader is an advantage.

But in Sri Lanka, the environment is more stable compared with Africa where food and water historically had not been difficult to come by. The elephants in Sri Lanka do not have a threat from wild predators such as tigers or lions. The researchers think that this frees up elephant individuals to make their own movement decisions, without needing to rely on the knowledge of others, or tolerate being dominated by them.

Having a clear leader also has other benefits. It will prevent unnecessary confrontations or unrest within a group.

“We suggest that in the absence of a dominance hierarchy, the Asian elephants must rely on spatial separation to avoid direct competition and conflict. When two completely unfamiliar groups meet, there can at times be physical aggression (although this is rare). So if they are constrained by being squeezed into smaller bits of habitat where they can’t get away from each other, it might lead to greater stress and conflicts,” Dr de Silva points out.

The findings also challenge other beliefs.

“It has also been sometimes assumed that social units consist of only those individuals observed together at any given time and that capturing the “matriarch” will draw other family members, ensuring their capture or cooperation. Our findings do not support such assumptions.”

These findings can be useful in elephant conservation and management. They may be important for interpreting results of previous management actions such as translocations and elephant drives that alter the social organization of populations of elephants.

Such displacements would not only disrupt long-term social bonds because social affiliates may not be close together at any given time but result in difficulties for the displaced individuals if habitats are already saturated with other elephants. Forced displacement could result in crowding and competition, with likely disproportionately negative impacts to the displaced individuals, the research found.

Dr. de Silva is now attached to the Colorado State University and the Smithsonian Institution. The study was done between 2007 and 2012 in Udawalawe and the findings were published last year. Other experts George Wittemyer and Volker Schmid too, were part of the study.

They say preserving the remaining range and its connectivity for elephants to have healthy, stress free lives should be a priority.

Researcher Shermine de Silva with elephants at Udawalawe

Researcher Shermine de Silva with elephants at Udawalawe

Published on SundayTimes on 15.01.2017 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/170115/news/sri-lankan-elephant-families-dont-have-a-dominant-figure-study-finds-224870.html

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

Study shows problems with snake antivenom

October 1, 2016

Published on SundayTimes on 14.08.2016 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160814/news/study-shows-problems-with-snake-antivenom-204880.html

Russell’s Viper’s fangs

Research shows one of two kinds of antivenom imported from India might not be very effective against some venomous snakes in Sri Lanka, where 40,000 people are hospitalised due to snakebite each year.

The research team checked several batches of Indian antivenom from the VINS and Bharat brands, the only antivenom (antivenene) available in Sri Lankan hospitals for many decades. They are made to counter bites by four major venomous snakes in India, the cobra, Russell’s viper, saw-scaled viper and common krait.

Dr. Kalana Maduwage, senior lecturer at the University of Peradeniya’s Medical Faculty, who recently returned to the university after completing his PhD in Australia, led the research.

The study showed only the VINS antivenom neutralised the neurotoxicity of krait venom. Both antivenoms partially neutralised cobra venom and did not neutralise Russell’s viper venom.

VINS antivenom neutralised the toxic effects of Russell’s viper and saw-scaled viper venom more effectively than Bharat antivenom.

The researchers conclude VINS is a better product that could help save more lives compared to Bharat but stressed the need to have locally manufactured anti-venom.

Both antivenoms lead to high rate of allergic reactions. Past studies have shown a 35-85 per cent chance of allergic reactions to Indian snake antivenom, a high figure compared to the allergic reactions reported in antivenoms used in the United States and Australia which are under 5 per cent.

Dr. Kalana Maduwage

The study also found a wide variation in the protein content and effectiveness of the different antivenom batches manufactured from 2008 to 2012, an inconsistency of quality that is a worry for medical practitioners fighting to save the lives of snakebite victims.

Snake venom is a complex mixture of toxic proteins that act against different vital organs, leading to life-threatening complications and death. Snake venoms harm the blood-clotting system, nervous system and kidney functions.

Snake antivenom is produced by injecting horses with small and repeated doses of snake venom to produce antibodies that are extracted from horse blood and made into antivenom.

There can, however, be other horse proteins in this extraction that need to be filtered out.

Contamination through unwanted horse proteins and impurities in snake antivenoms lead to allergic reactions to antivenom.

“The best option is for us to develop our own antivenom to cover all medically important venomous snakes in Sri Lanka,” Dr. Maduwage said. A group of scientists at the Peradeniya Medical Faculty is working on developing antivenom.

There is currently no antivenom available against the hump-nosed viper, the commonest type of highly venomous snakebite in Sri Lanka.

Listed along with Dr Maduwage as authors of the antivenom research paper published in the international journal Nature Scientific Reports last month are Anjana Silva, Margaret A. O’Leary, Wayne C. Hodgson and Geoffrey K. Isbister.

While researchers normally use mice in order to test the effectiveness of antivenom on snake venoms the team’s study reveals this method can be faulty.

“How snake venom attacks mice and human are different. The results of the mice study in our research are inconsistent with what happens to humans,” Dr. Maduwage said.

Saw scaled viper