Five researchers have been named winners of the 2021 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing World for their research in chemistry, mathematics, and physics.
Sri Lanka’s Dr. Imalka Munaweera of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura was amongst these five winners. The winning scholars from Ghana, Guatemala, Mongolia, Palestine, and Sri Lanka were recognised for their accomplishments in chemistry, physics, and mathematics. The prize also acknowledges the scientists’ commitment to leading and mentoring young scientists and improving the quality of life of those in their communities and regions.
A senior lecturer of the Department of Chemistry, Dr. Munaweera was awarded this honour for her passion for advancing science in her home country using her international experience; her work in nanotechnology-related research has changed many lives and brought out many new studies.
The awards, initially started in 2013, are given together by the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) and the Elsevier Foundation. OWSD chairs a panel of distinguished scientists to select the winners, and the Foundation supports a cash prize of $ 5,000 for each winner, including an all-expenses-paid trip to attend the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Due to the current circumstances, this year’s AAAS annual meeting will be held virtually.
Her work in the area of synthetic chemistry and materials, especially in fabricating different functionalised materials, nanoparticles, and nanocomposite for various industrial applications, was recognised and awarded. She has made particular advances in using nanotechnology to produce environmentally friendly, cost-effective crop fertilisers, as well as in developing chemo radiotherapeutic formulations and radiotherapeutic bandages for use in lung and skin cancer treatment.
Dr. Munaweera first became interested in functional and applied materials as an undergraduate at the University of Peradeniya, where she worked on applications of iron oxide nanoparticles. As a Master’s student at the University of Moratuwa and a research scientist at the Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC), she gravitated towards nano fertiliser research, for which she received the National Science and Technology Award in 2010.
She continued on to do her PhD at the University of Texas (UT) in Dallas, USA, where she developed an innovative approach that could ultimately enable clinicians to target and aggressively reduce tumour burden in cancer patients. She also holds two US-granted patents for this technology.
Following three years as a postdoctoral researcher at the UT Southwestern Medical School, Dr. Munaweera worked as an Assistant Professor at Texas Prairie View A&M University in the US before returning to her home country, where she has worked since 2019. She is the recipient of a Sri Lankan NRC-PPP grant in 2019 and a research grant from The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) in 2020. Besides having won several awards and having published many papers in prestigious journals including Nature Scientific Reports, Biomaterials, and ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces, she also has more than 10 years’ experience mentoring high school, undergraduate, and graduate students.
Aside from synthetic chemistry, she also has an avid interest in the field of nanotechnology for drug delivery/pharmaceutical applications, agricultural applications, and water purification applications.
Commenting on her achievement, she noted that winning this award is one of the biggest achievements all her life and career. “Professionally, the prize makes me feel like I am an important person to the world, as far as my research achievements are concerned, and I am so excited and motivated to conduct a lot of impactful research which brings solutions to the burning issues in the world.”
She further stated that the professional audience will warmly welcome her to conduct collaborative research since she is now acclaimed as an OWSD-Elsevier Foundation prize-winner.