ResearchTSSG News

A day in the life of a PhD student

By 25th February 2021 No Comments

Samitha Somathilka joined TSSG in January 2020 as a PhD student funded by the VistaMilk SFI research centre.

What did you do before joining TSSG?

I completed my bachelor’s degree at the University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka, where I followed computer science, mathematics, and physics as the main streams. Then, I completed my master’s degree in cybersecurity from Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology with the thesis titled “Active Authentication for Mobile Platform Using Behavioural Patterns”.  I joined academia right after the completion of my first degree, and it’s been over six years now. I have worked with several academic institutes teaching various disciplines such as Artificial intelligence, Data analytics, Computer programming, Cybersecurity, Information systems, and Computer networking. Apart from teaching, I craved to find myself in the research field as I am intrigued with knowledge generation over knowledge dissemination. Hence, I have been involved in multi-disciplinary research on the knowledge graph of the brain. Then, in January 2020, I could join TSSG, which is one of the most significant turning points of my life.

How and why, did you pursue a career in research?

Being a researcher has been a childhood dream of mine. I’m obsessed with research field mainly because of the following reasons.

  • I believe it is the best path to make your imagination a reality.
  • I admire newness entangled with the research field, owing to the opportunity to work with cutting-edge knowledge, tools and applications.
  • As I mentioned before, I wanted to get involved in generating new knowledge that pushes the boundaries of the existing knowledge bases.
  • I perceive research is also a great way to contribute something to the betterment of the world.
  • The involvement in the research field paved the path to network with experts in the area, and I consider it a massive opportunity.

Briefly outline the research projects you are currently working on

I’m working on the project VistaMilk funded by Science Foundation Ireland. The base of my research is Molecular Communication; in which the molecules are considered as information carriers, especially inside cells and microbial organisms such as bacteria. To be more specific, I’m currently working on a bacterial molecular network of the human microbiome, which can be considered a ecosystem of bacterial populations. They communicate with each other through molecules and perform metabolic functions in which the products are vital for the host. Collectively, all these interactions form a complex Molecular Communication network. The disruption of this network results in the imbalance of gut microbiota composition and metabolite production, causing diseases, including type 2 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease. In this research, I try to understand the causes of these disorders and identify the treatments. Moreover, to overcome the limitations of experiments, I introduce an in-silico simulator of the human microbiome a testbed to minimize the time and effort.

What areas do you see yourself working on in the future?

In the future, I hope to get involved with research which enables high dimensionality data extraction from inside the body and novel therapeutic approaches using Molecular Communication. Moreover, I witness a range of opportunities with the Internet of bio-nano things, leading to even smarter devices that can communicate through molecules. Additionally, I expect to broaden the analysis of the communication aspect of the microbiome to the genetic level targeting intra-cellular communication which has a significant impact on discovering smarter diagnostics and effective treatments.

The big and little wins you have had in this role

I got the opportunity to learn about how communication takes place inside the body and even inside the cells. Further, with the progression through the research, I was able to identify bacteria as exceptional sensors of various compounds, concentrations and other bacteria around them. This ability is a feature that we can use for the extraction of data important for accurate diagnostics. Moreover, I could identify the possibility of using Molecular Communication manipulations as a therapeutic approach which can be used for a range of disorders; starting primary metabolic disorders to more complicated situations such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson and depression. More interestingly, I am motivated in personalized food because of the ability to use it as treatments for many diseases. Further, research in the molecular signal processing aspect helped me to realize the possibility the cells for biocomputing and data storage.

What are the challenging and enjoyable aspects of being a researcher in your field

For me being a researcher, itself is an enjoyable challenge. I highly appreciate the support I get from my supervisors; Dr Daniel P. Martins and Dr Sasitharan Balasubramaniam, I genuinely enjoy working with them. Nevertheless, putting pieces in the puzzle together to develop better solutions is always challenging in research. But at the end of the day, once you are through it, the feeling of achievements is far more satisfying. Similarly, the idea of the possibility of introducing new therapeutic applications through the contribution of my research is the most important feeling that I have.

Outline why your research is necessary for the end-user

The simulator I introduce allows to reverse-engineer the microbiome’s behaviours, leading to precisely identifying the causes of disorders. The detection of the causes lay the foundations for better treatments and personalized food. Hence in the near future, I hope to suggest new therapeutic applications for metabolic diseases by appropriately altering the communication of the microbiome. As the first component of my research, I explore the bacterial communication of the microbiome against the various inputs. This stage of the study will be completed by the end of February 2020.