Colleague, friend and citizen of the world Lilitha Chamindrani Handagama Dr. Charmi Mendis-Handagama obtained a Veterinary degree in Sri Lanka in 1977 and received the Royal Commonwealth Gold Medal, when degrees for women were not as common as they are today. The struggle did not discourage her, in fact she took up a more daunting [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka



Colleague, friend and citizen of the world

Lilitha Chamindrani Handagama

Dr. Charmi Mendis-Handagama obtained a Veterinary degree in Sri Lanka in 1977 and received the Royal Commonwealth Gold Medal, when degrees for women were not as common as they are today. The struggle did not discourage her, in fact she took up a more daunting challenge when she obtained her PhD in Male Reproductive Biology from Monash University in Australia as an elite World Health Organization Scholar.

A post doctoral fellow and research associate at the Johns Hopkins University, School of Hygiene and Public Health, Department of Population Dynamics, Division of Reproductive Biology, she spearheaded male reproductive research programmes that were responsible for securing multimillion dollar National Institute of Health (NIH) grants in the mid-1980’s.

She joined the faculty of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and College of Veterinary Medicine (UTCVM) in 1991. She rose through the ranks and became a full Professor in record time.

I first met Charmi when we were on an interview team trying to select the best students for the veterinary college. As soon as we learned to decipher each other’s accents; the southern drawl and the Queen’s English, we became best friends.

At UTC VM Charmi engaged in teaching, cutting-edge research and service with at least half of her time instructing the veterinary students in the microanatomy courses of histology and embryology. She also participated in graduate education and lectured on endocrinology and reproductive physiology, and mentored graduate students and post-doctoral associates from the veterinary college as well as other UT colleges and departments. She had international research collaboration and also was a consultant to international organizations. Furthermore she made time to be a member of many editorial boards of prestigious scientific journals.

Charmi was well liked and respected by every student that crossed her path. Our dean of students commented that Charmi cared deeply for students and wanted them to be successful. She was always willing to help those who struggled.

A veterinary student told me- “I remember Dr. Charmi as a lively jovial professor with an enthusiasm for Histology- her favourite saying was- “let’s go high power”.”

Charmi was an outstanding world-class scientist, a skilled mathematician, colleague, teacher and friend who was also devoted to her family.

A colleague who was also her student and post doc wrote-

“I will always remember Charmi’s happy, friendly personality. She was always respectful and easy to work with. As a post-doctoral fellow in her lab there were specific projects she wanted me to complete but she also gave me the freedom to start my own project (own ideas)- She was open minded, supportive, and interested in what I had to say. I appreciated the opportunity she gave me. When I left her lab she continued to collaborate with me and maintained an interest in my work. Occasionally Charmi would host a dinner at her home for those working in her lab( graduate students, post docs, technician). Charmi sure could cook! The food was delicious and she and her family made us feel welcome-what more could poor graduate students and post-docs want?”

I am amazed at all Charmi accomplished! This woman found a way to balance her career with her family life. She was always writing papers, thinking of research projects and looking for funding opportunities along with transporting her children to/from school, going to recitals, and just spending time with her family. Her bond with Kala and Winode was extremely strong. Her family was her happiness.

Charmi was always planning new research projects, devising ways to finance them, thinking about new teaching strategies- but at the same time she was a loyal friend and devoted to her family. She was a great musician that is reflected via her children Kala and Winode.
Charmi published 65 peer reviewed papers-one was published this year-book and four book chapters-two of those in 2012 and also patents. She was actively working on a publication a few weeks before her death instructing Naresh on figures he needed to find from her collection. She was ever the great scientist, ever the tireless mentor. This year at the research symposium Dr. Sashi John, a postdoctoral research associate who still works in Charmi’s lab presented a presentation of the work she and Charmi have been doing this past year. Most of this work was physically done by Dr. Sashi with emails and phone calls of plans and encouragement from Charmi. The week of the symposium Sashi actually practised the presentation with Charmi listening on the phone in her hospital room in TX, giving her advice and instruction. I attended Sashi’s talk and the next day I received an email from Charmi thanking me for supporting Sashi. As a researcher she was highly dedicated and motivated. When Sashi apologized for not winning a prize-Charni replied “that’s ok, but I am happy that you presented and everyone will know that Dr. Charmi is still active and concentrating on research”.

Many colleagues in the veterinary college wrote to me and described Charmi as a rigorous, persistent and dedicated researcher who worked almost until the last day of her life, loyal and respected colleague, happy and optimistic, thoughtful, always remembering to say happy holidays, bring flan to the holiday party and perhaps even bring a small box of chocolates as a gift.

One of the former department heads wrote-“When I think of Charmi the first thing that comes to mind is her smile-it lit up her whole face. Jokes, the success of others especially when conversation turned to her children, she would break out into a big smile. I also remember her beautiful dresses. She was an excellent ambassador of her country’s culture.”

Charmi brought an air of calm and gentleness to conversation but she was also strong when she felt a wrong was done. She was a champion of fairness and equality among colleagues. Her faith was apparent and is a comfort now to those left behind.
She was a colleague, friend and citizen of the world who will be missed by many around the globe.

Jesus said Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and Love your neighbour as you love yourself.
Well done Charmi! Well done!

And as Charmi frequently said-God bless!

Sharon Patton
The University of Tennessee

We walked beside you and found love, happiness and inspiration

A. Wilton de Zoysa

Thaththa, twelve (12) years have passed since our last farewell. I am at a loss for words when it comes to penning my appreciation of you since my thoughts are far too many and crowded with emotion.

I am certain that the sentiments I feel are felt by any child or adult who has lost a parent. As such this is my humble attempt in capturing the essence of a man whose presence I could never limit to words on a page. Over the past years, I have not felt your absence because I realised that every day I continue life as your daughter being true to all that you taught me in life.

The debt we owe you cannot be measured in human terms. You gave us everything a child could wish for. We sought your advice and guidance to help us find happiness in life as adults; we walked beside you and found happiness in your love and understanding.
Thaththa, you had a profound sense of family and attachment to your place of birth (Balapitiya). You were a source of inspiration to us and the whole of my maternal family. You always stood by your principles and what you thought was correct.

Thaththa you were my mentor, confidant, advisor and friend. I laughed with you, cried with you, argued and even fought with you because we were so close and fond of each other. Honesty, integrity and confidence were the hallmarks of your personality. You dealt with every situation relating to family, relatives or at school with utmost honesty and transparency. I am yet to meet someone who outshines you in honesty. You earned lots of friends from all walks of life and treated each and everyone with the same respect.

Thaththa, you said learning was the foundation which no one can take away. You always told me to do my duty with dedication, commitment and integrity. This was but just one lesson that we learnt from you. We grew up with your values and we are glad we did as it has proved beyond doubt what life can give. We note with gratitude and love to you, the positive comments of others of our ability to go through life with zest, honesty, responsibility and accountability.

You were always there to listen, love and defend me in everything and you were my strength. In my triumphs you were always proud and happy. I wish you were alive to share my success in whatever I do. I know you would have been so proud to see what a content person I am today because of your guidance and advice. I miss your voice but most of all I miss you just being there. I will always hold on to the last conversation we had and how you never failed to let me know how much you loved me. Your spirit and what you have given us will always remain and make us better people for having had you as a great father.

Thank you Thaththa for giving me life, a wonderful and caring childhood and a sound education. If only I could turn back the time I would have never let you go. I salute you for surviving the difficult times and holding yourself together as you put us on our feet. You helped us take pride in our place in life.

Although, your demise has created a big void in our lives for the present, you left us with sweet memories that we will cherish. However, the thought that we are on a short journey on this Earth brings us comfort. We know you will be looking over us from wherever you are and pray that you will always be with us.

As practising Buddhists, we are all aware of the impermanency of life but to this day I cannot believe that you are not alive as your voice, firm advice and imposing figure still haunt me. You did your duty to the utmost and made us comfortable in every way. Though not in extremes, you lived according to Lord Buddha’s preaching with the least of wants and I strongly believe that you will be with me forever until I am gone. However, my sincere hope is that your sansaric journey be shortened and you attain the cherished goal of Supreme Bliss of Nirvana.

Loving and affectionate daughter
Damitha de Zoysa

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