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Gaining funding (and trust) for a freshwater algal bloom alert system in Sri Lanka

Ruhuna, Sri Lanka | July 9, 2024

By Milly Sell

Photo collage shows two images of Dr Shirani Widana Gamage, Senior Lecturer, Botany, at the University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka: one doing field work on a boat and the other working in her lab.

From the field to the lab: Dr Shirani Widana Gamage, Senior Lecturer, Botany, at the University of Ruhuna, is developing solutions to critical water pollution issues in Sri Lanka.

As a plant virologist in Sri Lanka, Prof Shirani Widana Gamage is developing solutions to critical water pollution issues. But that’s just part of the challenge.

For female scientists in some developing countries, access to opportunities can present a significant challenge. Dr Shirani Widana Gamageopens in new tab/window, Senior Lecturer in Botany at the University of Ruhunaopens in new tab/window, Sri Lanka, describes the great fortune of pursuing her passion in a country where there is scientific equality:

Opportunities for science education in Sri Lanka is very equal between men and women. If anything, in recent years more women have wanted to continue to postgraduate studies and tend to get more of the scientific job opportunities.

That by no means makes the path for prospective scientists in Sri Lanka simple, however. Getting a space at one of the few public universities is hugely competitive. Just one in five who take the entrance exams are estimated to get a university place due to the limited number of spaces.

For Shirani, gaining a place at the University of Ruhuna meant more than access to studies — it opened opportunities for her career:

“I completed a 4-year degree in Botany, (graduated) with first-class honors and managed to secure work at the university,” she says. “I’m now working in the Department of Botany in the same university.”

This continued association with her place of study has not stopped Shirani from experiencing science in different geographies. As a condition of her first role with the university, it was mandated she do a master’s degree and PhD:

She ended up doing two master’s degrees. For the first, in Sri Lanka, she focused on microbiology and molecular biology. After that, she received a scholarship from the Netherlands Fellowship Programmeopens in new tab/window, which allowed her to study plant sciences at Wageningen University.

Having returned to Sri Lanka for a few years for her PhD, Shirani once again had the desire to have an international experience. She successfully applied for a Faculty for the Future Fellowshipopens in new tab/window from the Schlumberger Foundation, which aims to support women in STEM. This opened the opportunity to study plant virology at the University of Queenslandopens in new tab/window, Australia.

Shirani describes her time at the University of Queensland as having a particularly positive impact:

In my laboratory, there were students, researchers and supervisors from a broad mix of countries. The working environment was very friendly. It was very good to share experiences with people from different parts of the world.

Finding critical areas of focus

Although Shirani’s PhD work focused on plant virology, some of the realities of conducting scientific work in a developing country have informed her research work in Sri Lanka. She explains:

Working with viruses, especially plant viruses, requires some sophisticated laboratory facilities, which we lacked at that time. I thought I should focus on other fields as well, such as other microorganisms.

After looking into key research priorities across the country, Shirani deduced that clean water was a critical area. Sri Lanka has vast areas of freshwater, which are being affected in a multitude of ways. Some of these are common challenges affecting many parts of the world — such as pollution caused by agricultural runoff. But Shirani also discovered some less studied issues.

“The formation of cyanobacterial blooms which is generally referred to as — algal blooms — is a big problem in Sri Lanka,” she explains. “This is the green-colored scum that appears on the surface of water. These blooms are formed by cyanobacteria bacteria that produce toxins that are very harmful to humans and animals. The climate here is warm all year round and our water bodies are nutrient-rich, these conditions promote the growth of algal blooms. We don’t have much research on these in Sri Lanka for controlling, so I thought that was where I should focus.”

“Once the algal bloom is visible, it’s very difficult to control. A monitoring system acts as an early warning alert for the people using those water bodies, whether that’s for drinking, fisheries or domestic purposes. Then they can avoid or minimize exposure to that water.”

Dr Shirani Widana Gamage is Senior Lecturer in Botany at the University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka.

SWG

Shirani Widana Gamage, PhD

Senior Lecturer, Botany at University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka

Securing vital funds

To help get the necessary team and facilities for her work, Shirani and her team wrote a proposal for a research grant from the World Bank Groupopens in new tab/window through the ministry of higher education Sri Lanka. Successfully completing the rigorous application process resulted in a 40 million Sri Lankan rupees grant, which allowed their research work to move forward. Shirani outlines just how important such a major grant was:

The funding public universities receive from the government is more directed towards teaching. For research projects, we must find funding ourselves through grants. Thanks to this grant, I was able to purchase high-tech instruments and chemicals for the laboratory and successfully completed the project. Our research findings were published in high impact journals. But more than that, we were able to train three postgraduate students.

With funding in place, Shirani and the team set about looking for a solution that could control the algal blooms. Having found that chemical controls were not effective, they turned towards biological solutions. With successful control methods proving so difficult, they realized there was a need for a monitoring system that could give advance alert on the appearance of the algal blooms. Shirani comments:

Once the algal bloom is visible, it’s very difficult to control. A monitoring system acts as an early warning alert for the people using those water bodies, whether that’s for drinking, fisheries or domestic purposes. Then they can avoid or minimize exposure to that water.

This sort of system was found to exist in other countries but not Sri Lanka. And the reason, once again, came down to resource:

There is a high labor cost involved in monitoring blooms. It’s time-consuming and the laboratory equipment can be costly. We needed to find less expensive and less time-consuming methods.

The team landed on the idea of monitoring the algal blooms using remote sensing. This bypassed the need to be physically present at the freshwater sites. Shirani explains:

Using satellite images and water quality data, we developed models to estimate cyanobacteria density in water. This enabled us to predict the formation of algal blooms with high accuracy, without the need to visit the location.

“The funding public universities receive from the government is more directed towards teaching. For research projects, we must find funding ourselves through grants.”

Dr Shirani Widana Gamage is Senior Lecturer in Botany at the University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka.

SWG

Shirani Widana Gamage, PhD

Senior Lecturer, Botany at University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka

The challenge of bringing an alert system to the public

Having a system in place that could predict bloom formations was one huge step forward. But that still left Shirani and the team with another challenge: Key to the alert system working is the ability for it to be quickly communicated to relevant communities.

Because of the trust and positive perception of science in Sri Lanka, Shirani describes her interactions with local communities as very positive:

During our research, we held several public awareness sessions and contacted different groups of people using those water bodies. We were able to share the message about what we wanted to do in simple language. They were very happy that we are doing research in their area and water bodies. They liked the fact that scientists were involved and understood that the findings would be to their benefit. They were helpful and supportive of our work.

The more difficult stakeholder group for the team to convince has been the authorities with responsibility for the water bodies:

Researchers cannot directly come to the public in Sri Lanka with their findings, such as the models we developed. We need to contact whichever relevant authority controls water bodies and convince them that our models could be used as an alarm system for algal blooms. This is the part we are still working on.

Supporting the future of science

Shirani describes feeling very happy to have contributed to research findings through her work. Her team’s research findings on cyanobacterial blooms have been published in several journals and presented as conference papers. This year, she was recognized with a 2024 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World.

She is now working on another critical project in the field of water pollution, looking at biological herbicides that can replace extremely harmful chemical versions.

But what also gives a great sense of pride is her mentorship of other scientists:

So far, I have supported six female postgraduate students. One now has completed her PhD, and the others have master’s degrees. Some have already embarked on careers, and others are starting their PhDs. In that sense, I'm very happy that I could support them to become women scientists.

Contributor

Portrait photo of Milly Sell

MS

Milly Sell

Freelance writer