Celebrating Women in Science with Prof. Niroshini Nirmalan

Author: Joanne Ballantyne and Jayne Kirk

In honor of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we sat down with Prof. Niroshini Nirmalan from the University of Salford, UK, to discuss her incredible journey as a woman in STEM. From Sri Lanka to Salford, where she is today a professor leading two large research groups, it has been quite a voyage.

Read on to discover her unique insights into pursuing a scientific career as a woman in the modern age.  

Q. You began your career as a medical doctor. Can you describe the journey to your current position? 

In brief, my journey began in Sri Lanka, where I am originally from. I trained as a medical doctor there and worked as a clinician for about three years before coming over to the UK to do my PhD studentship, and progressed onwards from there. 

Professor Niroshini Nirmalan

Even while in Sri Lanka I held an academic post for some years as a Lecturer in Parasitology at the Faculty of Medicine in Colombo. Following my move to the UK, I graduated with a Master of Science (MSc) and PhD from the University of Salford in Manchester, and took up postdoctoral training in Prof. John Hyde’s laboratory at the University of Manchester. It was there that I received the training in proteomics I needed to progress my studies into infectious disease, and malaria in particular. On the back of my success in this area, I went on to work as a senior scientist at the Cancer Research UK Clinical Center, St James’ Hospital, University of Leeds. There I pursued my interest in omics and label-free quantitation before moving back to the University of Salford, where I am currently Chair in Molecular Biosciences and Head of Biomedicine.

Q. What does your current role involve?

At the University of Salford I am Head of Biomedicine, which means I oversee a range of teaching programs at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. These include biomedical sciences, human biology, infectious diseases, drug design and biotechnology, to name a few. I teach quite heavily on all of those programs and, in addition, as a working professor I also have research responsibilities. I lead two research groups – one focused on drug discovery for novel malaria treatments, and the other on investigating trauma biomarkers to help predict poor clinical outcomes for trauma patients. In addition, over the last ten years I have supervised many PhD and MSc students.  

Q. How do you utilize IMS-MS in your day-to-day work?

I was initially exposed to ion mobility-mass spectrometry (IMS-MS) while investigating renal cancer biomarkers at the University of Leeds. Currently, I use it in to help study trauma biomarkers as part of an NIHR portfolio study in the Greater Manchester NHS Trusts. The research focusses on identifying early biomarkers which can predict poor outcomes in trauma patients. We acquire a variety of clinical data so that we can perform automatic calculations to see if, in the samples from patients on day one, we can relate biomarkers – whether metabolomic or cytokine or cellular – to the deterioration of patient condition further down the line. The metabolomics research is where IMS really comes in handy, helping to develop metabolomic profiles so that we can predict and identify cohorts of trauma patients destined for poor clinical outcomes. 

Q. What inspired you on your path to becoming a career scientist?

Well, I come from Sri Lanka, which for most of my younger days was going through a horrific civil war. In order to survive, it was necessary to really build up a sense of resilience and a strong work ethic. Initially, it was for survival, but later on in life I found that it taught me to truly appreciate opportunities that came my way, and not let them slide by. I was extremely lucky in the sense that I was able to complete a good PhD at the University of Salford, and was able to join a highly reputed parasitology group at the University of Manchester. I think I am very fortunate, but it did not come for free – I had to put in the work. And, of course, I always had a passion for science. That was the whole point and why I went on to do medicine.

The medical school curriculum in Sri Lanka should have been five years but ended up taking ten, due to shut-downs because of the situation the country was in. My interest in research grew at that point and I thought it would be more interesting to find out the causes of disease and work at a basic level. That really caught my interest, which is why I moved on to a research career later down the line.  

Q. Were there any women who inspired you along the way?

Yes, I’ve had quite a few female role models throughout my research career. My first academic job was in Sri Lanka in the Colombo medical school. I worked with Professor Kamini Mendis, who went on to join the World Health Organization (WHO), and to lead the whole Roll Back Malaria initiative. Her work contributed significantly to the eradication of malaria from Sri Lanka a few years ago. She was one of my main role models. 

Q. Do you have any advice for women starting out in the field?

Well, it isn’t easy because, as women, we have many other expectations of us. I came into academia only ten years ago, because I’d made the conscious decision that my role as a mother must take precedence. Yes, I worked as a scientist, but only within a group – rather than leading it. I have never felt that I was unfairly treated or discriminated against in any way, but I have needed to work harder to achieve excellence to make up for lost time. Nothing in life that is worthwhile is easy to achieve. So, for young people starting out today, I would emphasize the importance of discipline, passion and a strong work ethic. There are really no shortcuts to success; you have to put the time in, but it is always worthwhile in the end. 

Prof. Niroshini Nirmalan is Chair in Molecular Biosciences and Head of Biomedicine at the University of Salford. 

Further reading:

References:

  • Panwar, P., Burusco, K. K., Abubaker, M., Matthews, H., Gutnov, A., Fernandez-Alvaro, E., Bryce, R. A., Wilkinson, J., Nirmalan, N. (2020). Lead optimisation of dehydroemetine for repositioned use in malaria, Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, DOI: 10.1128/AAC.01444-19.
  • Matthews, H., Hanison, J., Nirmalan, N. J. (2016) “Omics”-Informed Drug and Biomarker Discovery: Opportunities, Challenges and Future Perspectives. Proteomes, 4(3), 28-35.
  • Nirmalan, N.J., Hughes, C., Peng, J., McKenna, T., Langridge, J., Cairns, D. E., Harnden, P., Selby, P.E., Banks, R.E. (2011). Initial development and validation of a novel extraction method for quantitative mining of the formalin-fixed paraffin embedded tissue proteome for biomarker investigations, Journal of Proteome Research, 4(10), pp.896-906.
  • Nirmalan, N. J., Sims, P. F. G., Hyde, J. E. (2004) Quantitative proteomics of the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum and its application to studies of development and inhibition. Molecular Microbiology, 52(4): p1187-99.
  • Study to predict patient outcome from major trauma underway – Research & Innovation