UNLOCKING THE FUTURE WITH STEM

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It’s not easy believe that the world is your oyster when opportunity appears so slim in availability, especially when living in a country that’s facing an economic crisis. But more often than not, opportunity appears scarce because there’s hardly anyone pointing to where it is. Ceylon Today is aiming to change that by sharing the stories of some of Sri Lanka’s many talented professionals, and learning more about their journey.

And what better place to start than in the field of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Although daunting as it may seem to a student, life in STEM fields are some of the most rewarding and exciting places to be. Senior Innovation Manager at Hemas Holdings, Imeshi Sahabandu, an innovator/mad scientist and woman of STEM knows all about this and was happy to share her story with us.

Forensics to biotechnology

Imeshi’s love for STEM originated from the desire to become a forensic scientist. But when realising that didn’t have a lot of prospects in Sri Lanka, she began to look elsewhere.

“I knew I wanted to be a part of STEM, but I didn’t want to be a doctor, or engineer, or anything mainstream,” she explained. Imeshi eventually obtained an undergraduate degree in Biotechnology.

With her newly completed degree in hand, “I realised job opportunities weren’t as readily available,” she recounted. “You would either go into academics and become a research scientists or join a university and become a demonstrator, but I was lucky enough to take up a job as a technical assistant working with the University of Colombo and APMEN (Asia Pacific Malaria Elimination Network) on malaria research.”

“It was during that time that I realised my passion was in STEM, but not just being in a typical laboratory environment. You could say it wasn’t giving me as much excitement.”

From the lab to Vivya

This led her to apply to joining Hemas Holdings in their Management Trainee programme, the youngest intake of 12, who were chosen from about 4,000 applicants. Since then, Imeshi has been working at Hemas for the past decade, first involved mostly in research and development, but later taking on larger responsibilities, being heavily involved in the product development of many brands under Hemas.

“I started off doing a lot of lab work – making formulations in the lab, doing various kinds of experiments – but now mostly what I do is lead product development and design. I would say what I do now is a mix of product development, research and development, consumer research and a mix of marketing as well.”

A good example for that would be the development of the Hemas’ Vivya line of products. The culmination of many people’s hard work and talent, Vivya was developed in house with Sri Lankan experts and researchers. Imeshi played a large part in Vivya’s product design and development, from finding the technology to designing the packaging of the product line among many other things.

She is also responsible for building partnerships in technology to the company, which involves collaborating with universities, consultants and experts around the world to apply new technology into operations at Hemas.

Find what you like

One of the most exciting things about STEM fields is the fact that it is so diverse. With so many options and paths laid before you, choosing which path to take can be challenging at times, especially for a student.

“I think the most important thing is to understand what you like about STEM. Some might find the research part of it very interesting, some like to teach, people such as I like to do a mix of things. For me, what really worked was that I found out what my passion is not only doing science, but also applying it and communicating it to people. I realised simplifying science and explaining it to people gives me a lot of joy.”

“Be laser focused on what your skill set is and see where that leads you. I think that will be a north star for them to figure out what avenue that they want to pursue. Assess your appetite to be agile and look at prospective employers or shadow companies that emulate what you want to do and be in future, see if they have interesting paths for you.”

Pros and cons

“For me, the most rewarding thing so far is seeing how the products we design impact the lives of consumers. It’s not just about skincare benefits that the consumer gets but also seeing them get that added confidence and the delight they have using them. Seeing people in consumer reviews say how their confidence has grown with using the product is really rewarding.”

“Another thing is being able to help simplify science. I think making it accessible to everyone gives me a lot of joy. When I explain things and distil things in a way that makes people want to embrace science is a lot of fun.”

“The third thing is being able to hero Sri Lanka, promoting the potential we have as a country with our products, be it through our ingredients, our people, products and science.”

But Imeshi’s field of work doesn’t come without its drawbacks. One of the biggest challenges so far has been to continue innovating in the middle of an ongoing crisis. “When developing products for a market like that you have to look at it in a different lens and a different approach. It’s not only about giving a great product that the customer can afford and use, but also keeping internal teams motivated. How do you get everyone to dream big when everything around you is shrinking.”

We can plan put the best business teams in place, but some many things are moving and you can’t guarantee if things will pan out.

and the uncertainty that already exists in this field only increasing. That as well as having to work twice as hard to secure opportunities and partnerships.

“Because of the crisis and the position we are in, it’s difficult to build confidence with a foreign partner. We’re lucky that in Hemas we have that muscle to confidence. But because of the country situation it puts us a few stapes back, means that work as rewarding as it is, comes with some cons.”

The right place

Of course, finding a place that provides equal opportunity and supports women in STEM and in the corporate world has also been helpful in Imeshi’s career, for which she thanks Hemas and her team of supportive, creative and talented colleagues.

But some may wonder if opportunities for women in STEM are limited in Sri Lanka, and if better prospects exist beyond Sri Lankan borders.

“You have to understand where you want to play at. If being an academic gives you joy, then I think you would get better exposure and experience in foreign locations. They heavily invest in research and development which means you would get the chance to do better research. I’m all for saying we have a lot of goodness in our country, we should really work towards pushing it out. So I would say to try and search for what opportunities you have here.”

“If you have a very niche stream of scientific application you’re looking at, then exposure outside of the country would be valuable. But if you’re up to trying something new, be part of a local business venture or cater to the Sri Lankan market, you can find a lot of opportunities here.”

Do a lot of introspection, and try to find what gives you joy. Talk to a lot of people who are also in STEM, and if you’re passionate about stem learn where you can add value. Sometimes just say yes, and do it. Whatever challenges that come our way just say yes… you sometimes won’t be able to solve everything, but it’s important to have a growth mindset. Information is out there. Be curious. Willingness to adapt and the right attitude will help guide

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage