Fearless leader: scholarship for PhD student delving into the genetics of fear

26 February 2019

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A PhD student pushing the boundaries of technology to understand our brain’s response to fear has been recognised as a future Australian leader. 

Sachithrani Umanda Madugalle from QBI is one of only two University of Queensland students - and 17 students nationwide - to receive a 2019 Westpac Future Leader Scholarship, awarded to exceptional thinkers with ambition, drive and a generosity of spirit.

It is Ms Madugalle’s curiosity and desire to help push Australia to a brighter future that spurred her to study neuroscience. She is part of Associate Professor Timothy Bredy’s lab, a group of researchers who delve into the genetics behind learning and memory related to fear. 

The genetics of fear

“We’re interested in neuroplasticity – how the brain learns from experience – in particular, fear learning,” Ms Madugalle said. “When you have a fearful experience, the brain learns to associate that experience with an environmental cue. To abolish that fear, the brain must be repeatedly exposed to that cue without any negative consequences.” 

“Underlying this process is a whole suite of genetic responses known as epigenetics, which is when changes in gene expression occur in response to the environment, or any mechanism other than changes to the underlying genetic sequence.  

“Despite significant advances in gene sequencing technologies over the past two decades, the information we’re able to obtain from current technologies is still superficial and low-resolution. Consequently, we cannot understand the full repertoire of gene regulation.

“My project involves developing innovative techniques that do not exist anywhere in the world to enable us to study how fear learning occurs in the brain at the level of our genes.”

It’s important fundamental research that will not only provide insights into how our brain functions, but could also form the basis of treatments for fear-related disorders.

“In the future, if we can identify which types of genes and how they’re changing in response to the environment, maybe we can therapeutically manipulate them as well to provide a therapy for PTSD or phobias,” Ms Madugalle said. 

A leader in science and society 

It wasn’t just the financial support of the $120,000 scholarship that attracted Ms Madugalle, who plans to use the funds to collaborate and network with scientists in Japan and China, strengthening Australia’s ties to Asia. 

The leadership development opportunities that accompany the scholarship were a key factor in Ms Madugalle’s decision to try to join the ranks of some of Australia’s best and brightest scholars.

“The Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship and the W100 program is an opportunity for me to connect with like-minded individuals who are ambitious, visionary and want to contribute to society,” she said.

“Being a leader in a scientific environment eventually requires leading a group of scientists towards a common goal. Such skills can be learnt in the leadership development program that forms part of the scholarship.”

While running her own lab is one of Ms Madugalle’s goals, she isn’t purely focused on research. 

“One of my ultimate goals has always been to lecture, so I’d love to become a teaching academic. Education is so important to me as a person because I was born in Sri Lanka where having an education was a luxury, whereas here it’s not, it’s almost commonplace. Being able to provide good quality education is a really important part of who I want to be in the future.”

There were two pivotal moments that have shaped Ms Madugalle’s career. The first occurred at the end of her second year studying biomedical science at UQ, when she didn’t achieve the grades she had hoped.

“I didn’t have a part-time job, wasn’t making a contribution to society, and despite working hard and aiming for a perfect GPA, I didn’t get it.”

Broadening her horizons through a part-time job and, in particular, volunteering at a hospital, resulted in a shift in perspective as well as improved grades.

“When I finally combined volunteering and working part-time alongside studying, that’s when I started achieving my academic goals. Because my time was much more limited, I had to be focused in my study. 

“Volunteering at the hospital – seeing the worst that people can go through, such as cancer and palliative care – changed my perspective. A bad score on an exam or an experiment going wrong don’t matter in the broad scheme of the world.”

The second pivotal moment occurred in Ms Madugalle’s honours year, when she won a UQ scholarship to study amongst the spires of Oxford.

“I’d always been fascinated by how things worked and when I started studying molecular neuroscience for my honours project, that was it, it doesn’t get harder than the brain! I realised you could use innovative techniques to figure out how something as complex as the brain works and it really fed my curiosity and inquisitiveness. 

“When I came back to Australia, I wanted to stay in neuroscience and I particularly wanted to stay in molecular biology, and that’s exactly what Tim’s lab at QBI does.”

Hat trick for the Bredy lab

For inspiration in her scientific and leadership journey, Ms Madugalle doesn’t have to look too far. She is the third scholar in three years from the Bredy lab to win the coveted scholarship, joining fellow PhD students Laura Leighton and Esmi Zajaczkowksi, an amazing and potentially unmatched achievement.

In awarding the scholarship to Ms Madugalle, the Westpac team stated, “With recent advances in next-gen technology, we are only just beginning to appreciate the different ways in which genes can be regulated to give rise to behaviour, such as learning. 

This is a field with much potential for growth in the coming years, and Sachithrani’s PhD program will leave her well placed as a future researcher contributing to the growth of Australia.”

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