Arunika Gunawardena, associate professor

A day in the life

Arunika Gunawardena, associate professor

arunika_gunawardena_biology_5_35765 (2)

I really enjoy my work here at Dal. I love what I do—especially mentoring undergrad and grad students. It’s such a rewarding experience.

The rewards of research, teaching, and family life

“My daughter thinks the lace plant is pretty, because it can be pink,” smiles Arunika Gunawardena, associate professor in Dal’s Biology Department. But Dr. Gunawardena’s own interest in the lace plant goes much deeper than aesthetics.

The lace plant, or Aponogeton madagascariensis, “is a good model to study programmed cell death,” she explains. “It’s because it forms holes, and we can see exactly where cell death occurs—there’s a predictable time and location.”

Dr. Gunawardena first became interested in the lace plant during her post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto in 2002. Back then, “There was next to nothing about it in the literature,” she explains, “except one PhD thesis in French from 1907. So it was a challenge to see how far I could go.”

In 2006, she won a University Faculty Award for women from the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), which led to her joining Dal to continue her lace plant research.

The plants are grown in sterile, controlled conditions in her research lab. "We propagate them in a microbe-free environment,” she says, explaining they use clear polycarbonate containers called magenta boxes. “We study them with advanced microscopy and live cell imaging. The lace plant is also good for that because of its transparent nature—we can easily see inside the cell.”

“We” is Dr. Gunawardena and the students who work on lace plant research. She’s proud as a parent of their accomplishments: “One of my PhD students published a paper in 2009 in the American Journal of Botany—it was one of the most-read articles.” And Dr. Gunawardena has been awarded the 2011/12 Killam Prize in recognition of her exceptional research ability.

And whether they work in her lab or not, many students admire Dr. Gunawardena. "I’ve been invited to give talks to honours students who want to know about ‘the life of a professor’—how to keep a balance between research, teaching, and family life,” she says. "A couple of students have told me that I'm a role model—I didn't realize before I could be," she says. She was also the recipient of the 2010/2011 Dalhousie Student Union (DSU) Teaching Excellence Award.

"I consider my lab my second family,” Dr. Gunawardena says. She’s also very proud of her "first" family: her supportive husband and 8-year-old daughter, whom she frequently brings to her lab. "She says she wants to be a doctor," she smiles, "but in fact, she’s very good at art."