It was a justifiably proud moment for him. Not only was Prof. Athula Sumathipala on the podium but it was cause for a double celebration as his team was there as well. The prestigious event on December 19 was the ‘National Awards for Science & Technology Achievements (NASTA) – 2018’. Prof. Sumathipala who is a [...]


Commitment to research and ethics blossoms into recognition

IRD has a robust ethical and governance framework, says Prof. Athula Sumathipala

It was a justifiably proud moment for him. Not only was Prof. Athula Sumathipala on the podium but it was cause for a double celebration as his team was there as well.

Prof. Athula Sumathipala being presented the NASTA trophy by President Maithripala Sirisena with the National Science Foundation Chairperson Prof. Sirimali Fernando looking on

The prestigious event on December 19 was the ‘National Awards for Science & Technology Achievements (NASTA) – 2018’.

Prof. Sumathipala who is a Consultant Psychiatrist was honoured with the National Award for ‘Individual outstanding leadership in promoting and developing science and technology’.

His team including Dr. Godwin Kodithuwakku, Dr. Nihal Abeysinghe and himself from the Institute for Research & Development (IRD) was presented with the Merit Award in the category ‘Excellence in international collaboration for the advancement of science & technology’.

“These plaudits are not personal gains for us. They encourage us to be committed to our work,” says Prof. Sumathipala, adding that IRD was set up as a “local demonstration project” to prove that Sri Lanka can do solid research, away from the universities where usually research is conducted.

Prof. Sumathipala, while heading the IRD, is Professor of Psychiatry and Director, Internationalisation of the Research Institute for Primary Care & Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences, Keele University, Staffordshire, United Kingdom (UK).

This is a post he has been holding since 2014, after a competitive interview, prior to which he was part of King’s College, London, which he still visits as an Emeritus Professor in Global Mental Health.

While holding these eminent posts abroad, there has been one condition from the side of Prof. Sumathipala – that he be allowed to continue his work in Sri Lanka.

Before he speaks of his research work, Prof. Sumathipala discloses how he earns his bread and butter. “I am an Honorary Consultant at the Midland Partnership of the National Health Service (NHS) Foundation Trust which pays me my salary.”

President Maithripala Sirisena presenting the NASTA Merit Award to the IRD team. In the picture (from the right) are President Sirisena; National Science Foundation Chairperson Prof. Sirimali Fernando and Director-General Prof. Ananda Jayawardane; and IRD’s Prof. Athula Sumathipala, Dr. Nihal Abeysinghe and Dr. Godwin Kodithuwakku.

The Midland Partnership, meanwhile, has invested £ 350,000 per year for mental health research at Keele University and Prof. Sumathipala and team based there have launched the Global Mental Health Research Unit.

It is not just this and that on paper, research is something very close to Prof. Sumathipala’s heart and it is with much satisfaction that he says that over the last few months they have gathered evidence of the impact of their work over a period of 25 years.

The recognition has also kept coming – Prof. Sumathipala was vested with the honour of delivering the N.D.W. Lionel Memorial Oration at the 131st anniversary of the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA). It was based on his pet subject of ‘Medically unexplained symptoms’.

This is also the topic on which he has been lobbying very hard with the Health Ministry, for inclusion in the ‘Essential Health Services Package’ in Sri Lanka.

“To me,” he says, “the most significant aspect of research is when it benefits the people and has an impact on policy.”

Prof. Sumathipala is “humbled” but at the same time “very proud” that his personal research in his home country has made a difference to the people. “It is a personal achievement,” he says, but which has a “huge” team behind it.

Among Prof. Sumathipala’s other achievements are:

  •  Setting up the IRD where a dedicated group is conducting research.
  •  Establishing the largest Twin Registry in the developing world.
  •  Establishing a state-of-the-art Genetics Laboratory along with a biobank.

Cutting-edge genetic research has been a passion for Prof. Sumathipala whose strong belief is that no genetic material should be taken out of Sri Lanka.

Reiterating that ethics are a crucial component in all research, Prof. Sumathipala points out that he has been striving to protect vulnerable people who are participants in research protocols.

In this effort, he has initiated the development of ethical guidelines and conducted many capacity-building programmes in Sri Lanka. “We have a rigorous research programme at IRD and we have a robust ethical and governance framework,” says Prof. Sumathipala, adding that they research into ethics as well.

Post-disaster intervention based on Buddhism & Kisa Gotami
‘Medically unexplained symptoms’ have been the foundation of Prof. Athula Sumathipala’s MD and PhD and for him other crucial successes are developing and testing an intervention designed by him and based on the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) Principle for this condition.

This intervention is relevant because it is founded on Buddhist philosophy and Prof. Sumathipala points out that the Father of CBT, Aron Beck, conceded that he was influenced by Buddhist philosophy.

Citing an example, he says that Kisa Gotami went to the Buddha in despair over her dead son and gently, the Buddha sent her to bring back a mustard seed from a house where there has been no death. It was a behavioural intervention – where she realizes that there is no house where nobody has died. Kisa Gotami’s thinking was changed using behaviour strategy.

The intervention for medically unexplained symptoms has been something that Prof. Sumathipala has been pushing for a long time in Sri Lanka and it has been taken up internationally as a “frontline” intervention post-disaster.

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.