STEM Woman in Chemistry: Professor Siromi Samarasinghe

This morning Professor Rajini Rao and I spoke with Professor Siromi Samarasinghe for STEM Women. Siromi spoke about what it was like being a woman Chemistry Professor in Sri Lanka and how to better support students. She discussed how one of the main issues impeding women’s progress in science is the cultural expectation of marriage.

Siromi pursued her Masters and PhD at a time when not many women were going into the sciences, both in Sri Lanka and in other parts of the world. She moved the UK to study even though there was tremendous pressure from family and friends on her mother to get Siromi married off. Thankfully, her mother was supportive and Siromi was able to carry out her research on food chemistry with a focus on the fascinating chemistry of tea!  Siromi was the only woman doing a postgraduate degree in any sciences at her university, and despite feeling isolated as a result, she completed her PhD studies with great success. Siromi went back to Sri Lanka were she would eventually become Chair of her Department – a role she held until recently. Read more about our chat below!

Mentoring women

As part of her current academic role at the University of Sri Jayawardenapura, Siromi conducts research, she teaches and she leads other programs to mentor students. She notes that universities can more easily help students when they have financial trouble, but it’s harder to support women when families put pressure on them to marry and start a family before they’ve finished their degrees. Siromi observes that policy change within the university cannot be fully effective until Sri Lankan culture changes to embrace the full benefits of having women complete their education. This cultural shift also includes supporting women if they choose to be working mothers. Siromi is a clear example of what women can achieve when their families support their academic passion!

Supporting international students

Having studied abroad and now supervising students who have studied as international students, Siromi noted that supervisors should be aware of cultural issues in communication. Students from Asian cultures may be reticent to speak up especially if they disagree with their supervisors or if they’re having other problems. Supervisors need to create opportunities for international students to air out issues rather than assuming everything is going well.

Forging Links With Industry

Finally, Siromi talked about her university role strengthening working ties with industry. She noted that academics don’t always appreciate how scientific theories don’t always fit in with industry expectations and demands. Siromi argues that academics need to have a clear focus on the practical outcomes of their research in order to more successfully form partnerships with industry stakeholders.

We need to hear more of these stories from women scientists and practitioners from different societies in different fields! You can watch Siromi share her journey on our YouTube channel:

Learn More about Siromi

Want to read more about Siromi? Head to our STEM Women Google+ page for an earlier post by Siromi, who writes about how science helped her overcome life challenges

Intrigued by Siromi’s tea research? Read her overview of the science of tea in this interesting and easy to read post, where Siromi explains the differences between black, green and “white” (Ceylon) tea, as well as their medicinal benefits.

10 thoughts on “STEM Woman in Chemistry: Professor Siromi Samarasinghe

  1. Thanks for that excellent write up, Zuleyka Zevallos I appreciate your question about how academics can help the industry, and I would like to say something about my personal experience, which I didn’t have time to talk about on the HOA. The Coconut Development Authority of Sri Lanka requested my services for updating their guidelines for dessicated coconut and although in theory I knew the safety standards that should go in there, I wanted to see how the factories worked, the actual situation and the work environment. They obliged by taking me to visit three factories – a super grade factory, a  medium grade modern factory and a traditional coconut mill. That gave me an insight to the industry where I could modify the requirements to incorporate all types of factories and how they could be improved to conform with the standards. Unfortunately I cannot post photos or write a detailed post about this because of confidentiality issues!


  2. That is such a terrific example of industry research Siromi Samarasinghe! I think a lot of applied research involves either “translating” theory into practice or “tweaking” methods/concepts to fit in with what the client needs and you can only do this by observing the reality of how they work, as you did. Thanks for sharing this and for all your wisdom in the HOA! 


  3. I often think about how much research is not done, how many questions go unanswered, because brilliant minds are held back due to cultural pressures or finances.  I just told my 14 yo daughter about this HO and how lucky she is.  She’s interested in neuropsychology and went to a college info night this week – so many opportunities.  Thank you Siromi Samarasinghe, (to you and your mother for supporting you!), for helping pave the way for young women.  


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