Dal Faculty of Agriculture welcomes first PhD student

- September 12, 2018

Wasitha Thilakarnathna speaks with Dr. A. David Crowe, the namesake of his scholarship, at last week's reception honouring the start of the PhD program. (Nick Perace photos)
Wasitha Thilakarnathna speaks with Dr. A. David Crowe, the namesake of his scholarship, at last week's reception honouring the start of the PhD program. (Nick Perace photos)

Wasitha Thilakarnathna’s dreams of becoming a food scientist are one step closer to reality thanks to the recent launch of Dal’s new PhD in Agricultural Sciences — the first of its kind in Atlantic Canada. 

“I am really excited to be the first PhD student of the Agricultural Faculty,” says Wasitha, a PhD candidate through the Department of Plant, Food, and Environmental Sciences. “Becoming a PhD student is a big milestone of my life!  Being the first PhD student of Dal AC makes it extra special.”

The PhD program will allow students to pursue advanced-level knowledge in agriculture and undertake independent research to generate new knowledge, both of which are imperative to the future of sustainable farming. With agriculture currently representing 7 per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product, the need for high-level research of farming, food production and agricultural sustainability is at an all-time high.

Originally from Sri Lanka, Wasitha’s academic journey began at Wayamba University of Sri Lanka where he completed a BSc in Food Science and Nutrition. Soon after graduation, he became a teaching assistant at the university and was shortly promoted to a lecturer.

In January of 2016, he made the move to Truro to the Dal Agricultural Campus to pursue a master’s degree under the supervision of Vasantha Rupasinghe. The completion of his master’s this summer aligned perfectly with the launch of Dal AC’s PhD program. Wasitha set his sights on completing his PhD under the continued supervision of Dr. Rupasinghe.

“Dal AC maintains an attractive agri-food-based multi-disciplinary research portfolio,” Wasitha says. “The facilities at Dal AC match with achieving my expectations through the Doctorate studies. My supervisor, Dr. Vasantha Rupasinghe, is a well-renowned researcher and an excellent mentor.”

Extensive research

Wasitha’s research is focused on the role of plant-food flavonoids of cool climate fruits which are naturally occurring plant chemicals, in reducing the risk of lung and liver cancers. Specifically, he is focused on understanding how these plant chemicals interact with probiotic bacteria, the health-promoting bacteria in the human gut. Wasitha has found that probiotic bacteria can transform these plant chemicals into molecules with higher bioavailability, meaning these bioactive molecules easily enter the bloodstream when introduced to the body at a more active rate.

“Using some advanced cell-based biochemical assays, I have demonstrated some probiotic metabolites of these food molecules could even reduce the DNA damage caused by well known carcinogens,” Wasitha explains.

So far, Wasitha’s biggest challenge has been identifying suitable probiotic bacteria and establishing proper parameters for the biotransformation. With the extensive support of his knowledgeable supervisor, Wasitha was able to overcome the time-consuming challenge and has wielded favourable results through his master’s research.

“During my MSc studies, I generated promising results in demonstrating the potential of naturally occurring plant chemicals in cancer risk reduction,” Wasitha says. “I was awarded the Cancer Research Trainee Program fellowship of the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute, with funds provided by the Saunders-Matthey Cancer Prevention Foundation to support my M.Sc. studies.”

With such promising results from his Master’s research, Wasitha certainly couldn’t stop there. With the introduction of Dal AC’s PhD program, Wasitha was accepted into the program and will continue on the same research track. His ultimate goal is to collect more evidence to support his hypothesis and develop a ‘synbiotic’ functional food - a mixture of fruit-derived naturally occurring plant chemicals and suitable probiotic bacteria, capable of cancer risk reduction in certain risk groups. He hopes his research will help the local agri-food industry to develop many probiotics-based functional foods.

“My research will be an important invention to utilize phytochemicals for cancer prevention,” Wasitha says. “The research approach is novel and will change the course of scientific studies trying to utilize certain food molecules for disease prevention.”

A program of graduate scholarship

While funding can often be a significant barrier for students wishing to pursue advanced level studies, the Faculty of Agriculture has announced new graduate scholarship support made possible by generous support from the BMO Financial Group.

The BMO Financial Group Graduate Scholarship in Agriculture supports the attraction and retention of top graduate students to the Agricultural Campus. This scholarship support of $250,000 will be instrumental in the development of the next generation of researchers in agriculture.

“BMO is proud to be Canada’s leading agriculture bank and to partner with Dalhousie University for The BMO Financial Group Graduate Scholarship in Agriculture,” says Lynda Taylor, senior president, Atlantic provinces division, North American personal & business banking. “These scholarships will support exceptional students working in the agricultural field that will transform agricultural research for the whole region and beyond,”

Graduate students Amy Harrington and Katie McCallum are the inaugural recipients of this support. Amy’s research is focused on biomedical scent detection with dogs and their use for ketosis detection in dairy cattle while Katie will focus on best management practices for silage production with a focus on mycotoxins.

To support his studies on plant-food flavonoids in reducing the risk of lung and liver cancers, Wasitha will receive the Dr. A. David Crowe Graduate Scholarship, established by Dr. Crowe to encourage higher education in the field of agriculture.

Dr. Crowe received doctoral training at Cornell University and later spent a 40-year career at the Kentville Research Station where he enjoyed a robust research career contributing greatly to the field of pomology.

The Dr. A David Crowe Graduate Scholarship, valued at $25,000 per year, supports PhD students who have the intention of living and working in Atlantic Canada.

“I am thankful to Dal AC and the sponsors of graduate scholarship and especially the Crowe Family for making my dream true,” Wasitha says. “Immediately after the PhD I will seek a postdoctoral opportunity to establish myself as an independent researcher. My ultimate goal is to become a professional food scientist.”


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