Meet a scientist: Nishad Jayasundara, PhD

By Savannah Volkoff


If you’re anything like me, your Gmail inbox is full of eco-articles compiled by Environmental Health News (EHN). While I enjoy reading through the headlines every morning, I rarely get a chance to read the full article, which means my inbox is really just full of good intentions. However, one headline from an edition earlier this week did catch my full attention: “Mystery kidney killer spreads fear in Sri Lanka.” I remembered a months old conversation with a Post-doc in Richard Di Giulio’s laboratory, who grew up in Sri Lanka, about exactly this issue.

Nishad_profile photoI decided to sit down with Dr. Nishad Jayasundara and ask him about this public health issue, which is attributed to pesticide use and is causing fear in many Sri Lankan farming communities, and to find out more about his environmental health research.


Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up, how did you end up in the US and what circumstances influenced your decision to study biology?

I grew up in Sri Lanka, in a small place called Hapugala near the southern coastal town of Galle. Through some random luck got an opportunity to go to high school in India. It was part of a network of high schools around the world called United World Colleges, and was a pretty special place with students from over 90 different countries. And after that I got a full scholarship to study in the US, and came to a small liberal arts college in Maine – College of the Atlantic. Both in high school and in college, my favorite subject was chemistry, which had a lot to do with the great teachers I had. But thinking about the chemistry of life was a lot more fascinating and got me interested in the type of research I am doing today.

Hapugala, the town Nishad grew up in, is represented by the pin on the map.
Hapugala, the town Nishad grew up in, is represented by the pin on the map.


What are your research interests?

I am interested in understanding how animals adapt to their environment and thrive in places like the highly polluted Elizabeth River in VA, or the extremely cold Southern Ocean. It is fascinating even to imagine that an animal can live in such harsh places. How do they change their basic biochemical and physiological properties to live, eat and breed in places like this? And what can we learn about the future of our rapidly changing ecosystems by studying these organisms? Fish and other aquatic animals are good models for this work, because they are directly exposed to so many different environmental variables like temperature, salinity and chemical pollutants that alter our streams, rivers and oceans. It is also quite wonderful that this type of research can take you to some amazing places like the Antarctic, or deep sea fishing along the Baja California peninsula.


How did you get interested in this research and your current work in toxicology and environmental health?

I think the biggest influence I had was my undergraduate advisor, the late Dr. David Towle, who studied salt tolerance of crabs and lobsters, and reading a book he recommended called ‘Biochemical Adaptation’. Later on I was very fortunate to do my graduate work with one of the two authors of this book, Prof. George Somero at Stanford University, CA.

Looking back, I think what planted the seed was growing up near the ocean and also all the fish I was trying to catch (unsuccessfully) in a little stream behind my house and seeing them slowly disappear over the years. Probably what made me think more critically about all this – human impacts on the environment – was getting an undergraduate education at a highly environmentally conscious institution such as College of the Atlantic. It helped me realize the complex connections between the rice field behind our house that produced the rice for my family, the farmers who worked on the field, the bugs, the birds, big water monitors, and the fish in the stream that supplied water to the field. Thinking about all this I think played a big role in getting me interested in the type of work I do and made me want to be at the intersection of environmental health and human health.


How are chemicals, like pesticides or herbicides, viewed in Sri Lanka? Are farmers pro-chemical or wish they had more regulation? Are they made aware of health concerns?

The answer to the last question is yes, they are made aware. We are a highly literate country (over 95%) with free health care and many public health avenues for people in general to get educated about the adverse outcomes of exposure to these chemicals. In fact Sri Lanka has taken a direct anti-GMO stance and is one of the first countries to ban Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides, primarily as a result of the chronic kidney disease that became so prevalent. So the education, research and regulation, or at least the framework for it, are all there. Some aspects are arguably better than most other countries.

But the problem is that it is very hard to implement these measures, partly because it is difficult to make direct links between chemicals used with kidney diseases or any other health concerns. But more importantly, farmers have to put food on the table for their families. So whether you are pro-chemicals or not, most farmers are left with no choice but to use the most effective ways to increase their yield. Same with the use of things like DDT, which was heavily used to minimize spreading of malaria with the knowledge of its negative effects. Many died and my father barely survived malaria, so sometimes in certain contexts you don’t have much of a choice in using these chemicals.


The chronic kidney disease situation seems to have gotten a lot of international attention. How is it being perceived and managed in Sri Lanka?

It is great to see news outlets writing about this, and WHO and other international organizations are concerned. But yes, ultimately it will come down to local policies and measures to help these farmers. There are a lot of committed medical doctors and researchers involved both from local and expatriate Sri Lankan communities. Several programs have started to provide clean water to regions with high prevalence rates of this disease and there are other initiatives to help build water purification units. Currently there is some movement towards going back to ancient practices and utilizing indigenous farming knowledge – we are traditionally a highly agricultural society and there is an amazing wealth of knowledge, if harnessed correctly, that can be used for better agricultural practices. But it will take time, and of course, most farmers don’t have that luxury. It is such a complex issue, and obviously requires a multifaceted approach to finding a solution. For me, the first place to start would be to start studying the organisms, specially the aquatic species living in streams and rivers. It seems what we are seeing is a synergistic effect of various chemicals and interactions with the properties of the water (i.e. hard water) in the region underlying this condition. So those effects should be reflected in aquatic organisms, unless this has nothing to do with water, which is unlikely.


Do you think you’ll go back to Sri Lanka? If so, what pressing issues would you like to study? If not, in which academic fields are you most interested in working and why?

I would love to go back – it’s always been a goal. But I am not sure about just picking up and leaving to go back. If I can find the right funding sources, an ideal situation would be to develop a research program that provides a space for local and international collaborations. Personally, my main research interest would be to continue to study those organisms that live in unique environments whether they are in a polluted rice field in Sri Lanka or a very cold place like the Antarctic. Because I think studying animals that can live in these challenging habitats can teach us a lot about fundamental biological concepts and help us predict how they will respond to changes in their environment in addition to human health implications. But some days I also think about starting a small farm and a food truck…who knows!