Panchalie Gunathunga

Panchalie Gunathunga

Panchalie Gunathunga is a biological sciences doctoral student from Colombo, Sri Lanka

Hometown: Colombo, Sri Lanka

Year: Anticipated Graduation: 2024

What did you want to be when you were growing up? Are you pursuing that as a major, or have you taken another path?
I always loved teaching from a very young age, maybe because both my parents were teachers. But never did I imagine that I would be studying about insects later in my life. I am currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences studying the house fly taste system. And my goal is to get a job in academia as a college professor.

What is your major (and/or minor) and why did you decide on this course of study?
I am a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences studying insects. When I was at the University of Colombo for my undergraduate thesis project, I was working on the diversity of moths in a wet zone forest in Sri Lanka. Working on this project for one year — doing field work both day and night, processing specimens and rearing moths in the lab — ignited my passion to pursue further study in entomology.

Tell us about the research you are doing and why it interests you.
I am currently studying the response of house flies to a bitter compound called denatonium benzoate, which is added to fly baits to keep non-targeted organisms away from the bait mixture. I am looking at whether denatonium benzoate also deters house flies from the bait mixture, what alternative bitter compounds can be used in fly baits, and whether the addition of denatonium benzoate helps protect beneficial insects like parasitoid wasps. My research is mainly based on the insect taste system. I was in awe when I learned that insects can taste with body parts other than mouthparts. For example, house flies can taste with their legs. This fact motivates me to see which other body parts they can use to taste. Studying the insect taste system helps develop effective pesticides.

How has conducting research strengthened your education and experience at NIU?
Conducting research helps me to look at things more analytically and encourages me to read more scientific articles, which broadens my knowledge. It also helps me to challenge myself and come up with a different solution or research approach if something is not working. Part of doing research is to work on scientific articles, which improves my academic writing, and presenting your work to a broader audience, which helps improve my presentation and communication skills and boosts my confidence. More importantly, doing research has helped me connect with more people at NIU and beyond.

How will your research experience help you in the future?
My research experience will help me find a post-doctoral position in the near future and eventually help me have my own lab. It will also help me in networking and finding collaborators.

Who at NIU has been important to your success doing research and why?
Dr. Bethia King, my doctoral advisor, was the main reason for my success doing research at NIU. She is a wonderful advisor who I can go talk to easily. She is very prompt with her replies; whenever I face an issue, she guides me and provides wonderful feedback. She also checks on my mental well-being, especially as I am away from my family. Apart from the academics and research, she has also provided me support when I couldn't figure things out here in the United States. During my first year at NIU, I was stuck in Sri Lanka due to COVID-19 and visa issues. She was very patient and helped me navigate through my research efficiently by making me work on a proposal and a review on insect taste during that time. Apart from Dr. King, my lab members, my doctoral research committee and especially my mentee, Merveille Muyizere, who has been helping with my research since 2021, are part of my success in doing research at NIU.

What advice would you give to an incoming student as it relates to research at NIU?
If you have the opportunity, join a research lab and improve your skills. Working in a research lab will not only help you with your studies, but will also broaden your knowledge on various career paths, help you network and help you see things differently.

What has been something you have found pleasantly surprising about your experience at NIU?
I was pleasantly surprised by the location of NIU and how close to nature campus is. You have lagoons, a river and woods with so many geese and squirrels around. These resources are especially useful when studying ecology-related subjects and also to settle your mind when you are stressed.

How have you connected with other students to study for classes, meet new people or form new friendships?
I have connected with other students and TAs (teaching assistants) through classes we take or teach together. I also travel with my friends to visit places around DeKalb and Chicago and sometimes to visit their families, which has helped me form new friendships beyond the biology department. I have also connected with other students via student organizations I am a part of.

Are you involved in any student organizations, mentoring programs or extra-curricular activities? If so, which ones? How have they added to your experience as a Huskie?
I am the vice president of Phi Sigma Biological Sciences Honors Society at NIU and a member of the Biology Graduate Student Association. Being a part of student organizations has helped me connect with more people, helped build my leadership skills and helped me learn something new every day.

What NIU offices, departments or resources have helped you succeed? And how?
The Department of Biological Sciences has always helped me navigate through graduate school. Apart from that, the workshops conducted by the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (CITL) at NIU have helped me improve my teaching as a TA.

Who has been one of your favorite instructors/professors and why? What course did they teach?
My favorite professor at NIU is Dr. Bethia King, who is my doctoral advisor. She is the best thing about NIU for me. Apart from that, I like Dr. Nicole D. LaDue from the Department of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment. I took GEOL 603: Teaching Assistant Training with her in fall 2022. She is a very nice professor who makes it easy for students to be in her class. She tries to involve all the students in class discussions and uses diverse teaching techniques to increase active participation.

How have you benefited by attending class regularly?
Attending class regularly helps lessen my stress by the end of the semester. Since I am already familiar with most of the material, it helps me study for the exams easily.

Where is your favorite spot on campus or in the community? Why are you drawn to it?
My favorite spot is the NIU lagoon. I like how calm it is and enjoy observing how the surrounding environment changes with the seasons.

What advice would you give to a student who is researching colleges to apply to?
Apply to a college where you can major in whatever you like. If you are someone who needs your family to be around to help you navigate college easily, then apply to a college close to your home.

Why is a college education important to you?
A college education is important to me because it helped me find my area of interest, provided me with opportunities to network and helped me learn how to navigate through various career paths. It also gave me an idea about the skillsets required to succeed in graduate school.

What strategies do you use to manage your time between the responsibilities of school, work, friends and family?
I try not to do my schoolwork during weekends, and I use that time to get my house chores done, cook for the next week, and talk to my friends and family. On weekdays, I go to sleep early, at around 9 p.m., but I wake up early, at around 4 a.m., and do my studies at that time. I feel studying in the morning after a good sleep makes me more efficient.

How do you stay informed about events and services that are available on campus?
Through the announcement emails sent by NIU.

What do you do to relax or recharge?
I watch K-dramas, especially rom-coms. I also read books not relevant to my studies and talk to my family.

Please tell us about your job and hobbies.
I am currently working as a teaching assistant at NIU teaching one of the introductory biology labs in the Department of Biological Sciences. My hobbies are watching TV series and reading.

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