What brought you to Gladstone?
I’m very motivated by research that can advance human health, so I was really interested in the work and research goals of Deepak Srivastava’s lab. During my rotation in his lab, I became fascinated by the complexities of heart development and thought it was a great model to study mechanisms of cell fate regulation. I also realized that Gladstone was a great training environment; I was eager to be in a place where high-caliber science and training scientific leaders was a priority. After I attended a Gladstone Halloween party in 2013 hosted by Deepak, I knew this was where I needed to be for my PhD.
What do you like about Gladstone?
My favorite aspect of Gladstone is the great community we have. One of the first things I noticed when I joined was how helpful, collaborative, and kind my colleagues are. We are always working toward building a community that is diverse, inclusive, and supportive at Gladstone, and I really appreciate that. I also really like the happy hours, holiday parties, and scientific retreats! I’m not sure there are many other biomedical research institutions with a similar community culture.
Were you interested in science as a child?
Yes, I was. Throughout my primary education in Sri Lanka, the classes I enjoyed the most were focused on science and how the natural world works. In particular, biology was my favorite subject; I enjoyed the experiments that we would design and test in class, related to conservation biology and agriculture. My interest in molecular biology and human genetics was really piqued when I read Richard Dawkins’ book, “The Selfish Gene.” My understanding as a high schooler was that if you’re into science, then becoming a medical doctor was a great career path to follow, so my career goal as a teenager was to be a physician.
Why did you decide to go to graduate school?
I had never been in a research lab or truly appreciated its fundamental role in science, until I got to Smith College, which emphasized the importance and value of scientific research. After a few semesters of conducting research in evolutionary biology and plant biology labs, I realized that I was most passionate about human disease-oriented research. I found working on my senior honors thesis to be a really creative and rewarding endeavor, which made me realize that I wanted to pursue a PhD to become a professional scholar and formally learn how to be a rigorous scientist. I joined George Daley’s lab as a research technician to gain more experience conducting research in a high-intensity environment; this experience enabled me to see what it was like to be a graduate student in biomedical sciences, and solidified my decision to pursue a PhD.
Can you describe your current research project?
My current research focuses on understanding how the many diverse cell types of the heart are generated at a molecular level and how they are integrated to assemble the embryonic heart. I’m also studying how disruption of these processes can lead to heart defects.
What or who influenced your decision to work in science?
I’m fortunate to have been mentored by several people throughout my education, who have inspired me and influenced my scientific trajectory. Two of my teachers in high school, Sriyanie Miththapala and Janaki Gallappatti, were instrumental in helping me realize that my ideas and questions about science were valuable. They gave me the confidence to pursue difficult projects and appreciate the process of solving a problem, which is essentially what I do on a daily basis as a grad student.
Another key figure in my scientific training has been Michael Barresi, who was a professor of developmental biology at Smith College. I took Michael’s stem cell biology course, which was really transformative. For this class, we wrote grant proposals in the style required by the National Institutes of Health, read primary literature articles, and got to participate in video conference calls with the authors of the papers we read. It was a great way to learn more about the life and rewards of a career in scientific research.
What do you do when you are not working?
I’m a huge Zumba fan! I love to dance so it’s a great way to combine exercising and getting my body moving. There is a contingent of us from Gladstone who religiously attend the same Zumba class at the UCSF gym.
I also enjoy trying out new recipes and different types of cuisine—in some ways, testing and executing recipes in the kitchen is very similar to conducting experiments in the lab, albeit with a much higher success rate.
If you could learn to do anything, what would it be?
Growing up in Sri Lanka, I learned how to play the piano for several years, but I was only good at playing a piece with the notations in front of me, or after committing it to memory. I would love to develop the ability to play any song entirely by ear on cue, without having to find the sheet music.
What is your hidden/unique talent?
I have a really good memory for faces and names, as well as the specific dates of mundane or important events, both historical and personal. For example, I could tell you the exact date I had to get a root canal procedure in 2016!
Name one thing that not many people know about you.
Yvanka is my legal middle name—my first name is actually Tarja.
If you could meet any scientist from any point in time, who would it be and why?
I would like to meet the physicist Mileva Maric to tell her that Albert Einstein is not the right guy for her and will derail her career.