Clear and strong are the calls for STEM, gathering momentum from across the globe. STEM or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics has been the very focus of a group which got-together to promote just that in Sri Lanka not yesterday or today but 75 years ago. Buried in the dim mists of time are the [...]


Making a buzz with science

Not wanting Sri Lanka to lag behind global trends in all scientific fields, the new President of SLAAS Prof. Preethi Udagama has long term plans to bring more youth into the fold as the association marks 75 years

Clear and strong are the calls for STEM, gathering momentum from across the globe.

STEM or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics has been the very focus of a group which got-together to promote just that in Sri Lanka not yesterday or today but 75 years ago.

Schoolchildren captivated by a programme being held by SLAAS

Buried in the dim mists of time are the foundations on which Sri Lanka has built up its science programmes, beginning in 1944 with the birth of the Ceylon Association of Science, which had been mooted by the Chemical Society which many believe is the “oldest” science society in Sri Lanka. The first meeting of the Ceylon Association of Science had been held on July 29, 1944.

“Taking leadership as the 1st General President was an Indian Geologist Dr. D.N. Wadia who had been working here,” says the 78th President and just the eighth woman to hold the post, Prof. Preethi Udagama, as she speaks of the metamorphosis of the association to the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science in 1952 and finally the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS) in 1972, before looking forward into the future.

Its main aim is simple as the premier scientific organization – to promote and advance science in Sri Lanka, having begun with 160 members and growing in leaps and bounds to “an active” 6,000 now.

“Unique,” is what SLAAS is, says Prof. Udagama who is Senior Professor in Zoology at the University of Colombo, reiterating that every single science including social science is covered by SLAAS.

Evolving with the times as otherwise would come extinction, she is bent on attracting the young to science……and it is in keeping with this vision and the major advancements in technology in the form of the 4th Industrial Revolution that SLAAS recently launched a YouTube channel.

Harking back to the beginnings, she says that in 1944-45 the government gave the association Rs. 3,000, “a lot of money then” to conduct its first annual sessions. “We have been instrumental in establishing the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Ceylon Institute of Scientific & Industrial Research (CISIR – now the Industrial Technology Institute). It was also the association which encouraged and supported the first school science exhibitions.

The association had held school science exhibitions in Colombo as far back as 1952, 1954, 1955 and 1958 and annually in different provincial centres such as Galle in 1963, Batticaloa in 1964, Ratnapura in 1965, Badulla in 1966, Kuliyapitiya in 1967, Anuradhapura in 1968 and Kegalle in 1969.

Today, though, the danger signals that Sri Lanka may be left behind with regard to STEM are bright red, points out Prof. Udagama, quoting facts for her fears.

60% of the students in the Advanced Level (AL) classes are studying commerce and arts subjects.

Only just over 30% in the AL classes are studying STEM subjects.

Prof. Preethi Udagama

This is why not only her vision for the 75th year of SLAAS but also something she holds very close to her heart is popularizing science among the young at the grassroot level in the underprivileged schools.

“We need to create a buzz and like my predecessors did, I will take the message of science to the far corners of the country,” she pledges.

School STEM Clubs, Prof. Udagama and her team are hoping to set up, nurture and foster, in a pilot project they will carry out as ‘action research’.

Another major front is biotechnology and SLAAS is holding a symposium series throughout the year. Symposia such as Traditional knowledge- based Biotechnology; Reproductive Biotech-nology (IVF etc.); and Medical Biotechnology have already been held with Agricultural Biotechnology (in collaboration with the Plant Biotech Centre, Peradeniya University); Nano-biotechnology & Bioinformatics; Environmental Biotechnology; Industrial Biotechnology; Biotech Entrepreneurship Workshop; and Workshop on Techniques in Biotechnology are on the cards in the next few months. All are being co-organized with the Ministry of Science, Technology and Research.

Like the good teacher that she is, guiding hundreds of students at the Zoology Department, Prof. Udagama explains that ‘biotechnology’ derives from the three Greek words: bios (life), technos (technology) and logos (thinking) and is believed to have been coined by Hungarian engineer Károly Ereky in 1910.

“Biotechnology is an interdisciplinary branch of science and technology dealing with the transformation of living and inanimate matter by the use of living organisms, their parts or products derived from them, as well as creation of models of biological processes, to produce knowledge, goods and services,” she says quoting the Oxford dictionary, adding that it is the use of organisms, their products and processes for commercial purposes.

Images flow forth from extensive searches she has done how ‘Traditional Biotechnology’ has been used by humankind going back to early times. They include selective breeding of food crops/domestic animals during the Neolithic Revolution, brewing of beer using yeast in early Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and our neighbour India in 7000 BC and fermentation in producing leavened bread in 4000 BC in Egypt.

The jump from Traditional Biotechnology to Modern Biotechnology was achieved with genetic engineering (recombinant DNA technology), pioneered by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen in 1973.

Recombinant DNA technology is joining DNA molecules from two different species and inserting them into a host organism to produce new genetic combinations that are of value to science, medicine, agriculture and industry.

She focuses on the ‘rainbow colours’ ranging from white, red, gold, yellow, green, blue, violet, brown, grey to dark and stresses that biotechnology covers every sphere.

Industrial biotechnology (white) considered the biggest branch of biotechnology; medical biotechnology (red); bioinformatics & nanobiotechnology (gold); nutritional biotechnology (yellow); agriculture biotechnology (green); marine (aquatic) biotechnology (blue); law, ethical & philosophical issues of biotechnology (violet); arid zone and desert biotechnology (brown); environmental biotechnology (grey); and biotechnology of bioterrorism & biological weapons (dark).

Highlighting some aspects, she picks out gene editing with its possibilities of treating and fixing genetic defects in human embryos, applications in cancer treatment and making custom babies and also 3D printed organs under medical biotechnology.

Under agriculture biotechnology is biopesticides, biofertilizers, genetically engineered crops, genetically engineered livestock, she says, citing ‘golden rice’ containing genes of daffodils for the production of beta-carotene – precursor of vitamin A. This would be beneficial for over 230 million people in Asia who suffer from night blindness due to vitamin A deficiency.

The positives of environmental biotechnology will include biomarkers of pollution, bioenergy (clean energy), bioremediation (use of natural oil-eating micro-organisms to clean up oil spills) and biotranformations (toxic substances converted to non-toxic bi-products), according to her.

Another area of major interest is nutritional biotechnology, says Prof. Udagama, explaining that the main goal is the improvement of food to be nourishing, with ‘Functional Food’ generating special interest.

Next, she refers to the legal, ethical and philosophic aspects of biotechnology such as Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs), the bioethics of certain technologies (gene therapy, animal testing, reproductive biotechnology etc.) and also biosecurity, while spotlighting the dangers of the ‘dark’ side such as the biotechnology of bioterrorism and biological weapons.

Looking worldwide, the SLAAS President says that what is “trending” now is Biotechnology Education where biotechnology is taught both in school environments and in the state and corporate sectors.

This is why her vision is to promote biotechnology which is an integral part of STEM education.

Prof. Udagama urges the establishment of centres of excellence and biotechnology parks, paying tribute to the government for allocating Rs. 400 million in the 2018 budget under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Research for a Sri Lanka Biotechnology Innovation Park in which will be located a central biotech state-of-the-art research facility (Technoplex).

Two-pronged vision
The vision of the current General President of SLAAS, Prof. Preethi Udagama is two-pronged. It is:

  • Biotechnology for a sustainable future – to stimulate and encourage innovation and invention.
  • Promoting STEM – moulding attitudes and skills of schoolchildren and youth to meet the needs of the 21st century workplace.

Citing a simple example, Prof. Udagama says that though we are surrounded by the sea, our marine biota has not been exploited. It is a good source for drug development and more.

Meanwhile, working in the direction of promoting STEM, she hopes to establish the SLAAS School STEM Forum and provide biotechnology education on global advancements to stimulate interest.

Already happening is a series of symposia on ‘The Landscape of Biotechnology Research & Applications in Sri Lanka’.

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