Tell us about your upbringing and how that played a part in your passion for research?
My parents always placed a significant importance on education and spoke of it as the gateway to success in the future, for any path we choose. My parents both left Sri Lanka at very young ages, prior to the civil war. They studied abroad in engineering & science and were very ambitious in their 20s. My dad worked in the field of chemistry and my mom worked in science & education for many years. I believe that the careers my parents chose were influential in the decisions my 4 siblings and I made about our own careers. I was always fascinated by science and had a huge imagination. I wanted to discover things that would advance human health and knowledge. I believe that my parents fostering a very open and expressive approach to understanding the world allowed me to really discover my interests in research and further develop my interest in cancer prevention.
Doing a PhD is no joke, as it takes a lot of dedication and time. Why did you decide to do a PhD?
If you asked me this 10 years ago, I would have had no idea that I was going to complete a doctoral degree. In my final years of completing a bachelor’s degree, I had the opportunity to work with various professors who later became my mentors. I applied to different graduate programs and was accepted to medical schools abroad and the chiropractic school in Toronto. But I knew that these programs were not the best fit for me so I explored health science graduate programs. There were so few in the province that were specific to cancer epidemiology and community-based research, which is what I was keen on exploring. I met with a professor at UOIT, now known as Ontario Tech University, and we instantly connected. I wanted to work with him and was accepted into the program within weeks of applying. Near the end of my master’s degree, my supervisor repeatedly encouraged me to apply to a PhD program because he felt I would be a perfect fit for it. I never imagined I would end up doing a PhD, and like many other students who go through this process, I was on the fence about doing another degree for an extensive period. I took a year to teach and work in research before deciding to apply to doctoral programs. I knew I wanted an epidemiology focused PhD program because I loved studying disease patterns across populations, specifically in cancer. I researched the programs offered at the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa and applied to both. PhD programs are exceptionally competitive so I made sure to solidify a supervisor at both universities so that I could submit a strong application. I was accepted by both Universities, but I was thrilled to accept the offer at the University of Toronto, which was a better fit for me and where I wanted to be long-term.
What was your PhD experience like? Why should somebody consider doing one?
The journey to complete my PhD was some of my best years of life and truly an unforgettable experience. We focus so much on getting to the end goal when initiating something, but it really is the journey that matters in the end. I spent four and a half years working on meaningful research with an incredible supervisor, who is my mentor and colleague today. I had the opportunity to travel the world, met some of the renowned cancer scientists worldwide, created networks and partnerships along the way, and met some of my life-long friends through this.
If you are considering a PhD, think about the journey you want to take in life. It can feel like a lengthy process but think about what it is you want out of this experience and what your end goal is. Is this something you feel passionate about? Can you use this work to gain a rewarding career in the future that you will love? Are you willing to commit to this and put the time and discipline required?
What do you do as a Scientist with the OCRC (Ontario Health)?
As a Scientist in surveillance and occupational epidemiology, I work primarily with examining cancer risks, such as breast, prostate, nasal etc., and other disease risks (e.g. chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, opioid-related harms, COVID-19) in the working Ontario population. My work is focused on understanding the epidemiology, patterns of disease in the population, and how these findings can change workplace health and safety, public health policy, and ultimately lead to prevention efforts in the province and nationwide. Think about it this way – people spend a third of their adult life working and most of their daily hours in a work environment. If we spend this much time working, imagine how important it is to understand how diseases are related to our occupation. For example, with the pandemic, we need to understand how individuals in different jobs were affected and how this can be used for future prevention strategies and pandemic preparedness.
What is the process of becoming a professor? What are you most excited about in eventually becoming a professor (at the University of Toronto)?
It is a lengthy process and I am fortunate to have the opportunity to teach alongside colleagues at the University of Toronto. I never imagined teaching here, it was definitely a ‘pinch me’ moment. I know I can look forward to a long and rewarding career here while also continuing my research. I am most excited to make an impact on students.
Where do you see yourself professionally in 5 years?
It’s funny you ask this question. I always had a vision of what I would do until I was 30 years old. I then imagined my 30s would be focused on excelling my career. I imagined teaching at a university and conducting meaningful research. But I already do this now so I feel very fortunate to continue in both roles for the next 5 years. The pandemic was a game changer for workplace health and it has made the work I do even more meaningful. I hope to make a significant impact in disease prevention and public policy in Ontario over the next few years.
Do you have any mentors that have helped you in the progression of your career? Do you think everybody needs mentors? How does somebody find a mentor?
I have been fortunate to have incredible mentors along the way who have become my lifelong friends now. The 3rd year of my bachelor’s degree was a pivotal year, it was when I met some of the professors that I ended up working for who then helped kickstart my career. Everyone needs mentors, whether it be personally or professionally. These are your guides to help you when making tough decisions in life. To find mentors, you need to break out of your shell and really network. It’s not about finding the perfect mentor but rather finding inspiration from the experiences and knowledge that others bring. I remember making the effort to go meet with different professors and learn from their experiences. That’s when you click with a few people and they end up becoming your long-term mentors. Meet with people who are in positions you some day hope to be in or meet people who share a similar passion so that you could learn from their experiences and follow their guidance. I make a conscious effort to always be there for my students and when students do reach out to me, even if they are shy or hesitant, I make it a point to encourage them to speak up more. For me, the impact that my mentors had on me and continue to have, is something I want to give back to students I teach. Take in experiences, knowledge, and perspectives from others – this will be your guide.
Did anybody ever try to discourage you from going down your current path with doing a PhD?
I have only ever valued my parents’ opinion, above anyone else. My parents always encouraged my siblings and I do to what we are passionate about and to aim for the stars. The rest is just noise and that’s how you should think of it. Most people who knew I was starting a PhD were excited and supportive, and many didn’t really know what a PhD entailed at that time. I have always felt strongly about the decisions I make by following my instincts and planning out how I would accomplish this goal. I also got married two years into my PhD, and some people were worried that this would impact the completing of my degree. For me it was important to be the example that if you set your mind to it, you can excel at a career and your personal life. It has always been about learning to balance different aspects of life. So I never really felt impacted by anyone who may have been negative towards completing a PhD.
What role has your family played in the choices that you’ve made in your life so far?
My family has been of paramount importance in the decisions I made. My parents and my 4 siblings, who are also my best friends, are my greatest supporters. My parents have always celebrated the tiniest accomplishments and have been there through challenging times. My dear husband whom I met at the age of 18, has been a pillar of strength and has provided unwavering support through my personal and professional life. He has been essential in maintaining a positive mindset.
When I was 21, I decided to move from Ottawa to Toronto to start my graduate studies. I lived alone and was thrilled to start in a new city. Aside from my immediate family, my cousin Ranjith was the other person who continuously supported and encouraged me to take on new opportunities that ultimately helped me make some of the best decisions in my life.
Can you tell us about a failure you’ve experienced in the last 3 years and what you learned from it?
I have always disliked the word ‘failure’ because it was never said in our household growing up and it is a word you won’t hear me use. I think this is integral to a positive mindset because as an adult, you realize that if things do not go as planned, they are not failures but rather just setbacks that will be overcome.
Over the past few years there have been challenges and I would say that the biggest challenge was balancing motherhood and a career that was kicking off. I had finished my doctoral studies and I was starting my career, but I was also pregnant with my first daughter. I knew I had to pause my career which was difficult for me to wrap my head around. I would often reset my thinking by telling myself that this period of being a first-time mother was short lived and something I would miss years later. Fast-forward a few years and two children later, I feel like the time really does pass by too quickly. I learned that the journey we take to get to our goals is the best part of life and when you accomplish the goal, that’s just the icing on the cake. Life can feel so short and it’s important to be in the moment and take the time to enjoy the things that may only ever happen once in a lifetime. Learning to balance motherhood and a career is the journey of life.
What do you do outside of work for fun?
Most of my time outside of my work is spent with my daughters, family, and close friends. Pre-pandemic, I loved traveling which I cannot wait to get back to, but in the past few years I’ve tried my best to make time for family and friends and really connect with them on a deeper level. With a busy career and social commitments, it’s important for me to spend time making memories with my family and friends, regardless of what activities we’re doing.