For Amali Samarasinghe, PhD, research is simply about seeking answers to cross-cutting research questions related to infectious diseases.
With UTHSC since 2012, Dr. Samarasinghe is an assistant professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Microbiology, Immunology, and Biochemistry.
“Unveiling truths about our health and wellness challenge me regularly,” she said. “I believe that much remains to be discovered in order for us to comprehend the orchestration of our naturally inherited immune system in a manner that we could manipulate to treat diseases, major and minor.”
Dr. Samarasinghe’s research focuses on a critical trio of diseases – influenza and bacterial pneumonia as they intersect with asthma. Her research has also shown that asthma may have a protective effect against some respiratory infections. “Acting individually, these diseases could have a short-term impact on one’s wellness, with fatal outcomes in synchrony, even in a normally healthy adult,” she said.
“Epidemiologic evidence surrounding the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic identified asthma as a risk factor for hospitalization, although reasons for this were unknown. Our pioneering research provide conclusive evidence that immune responses associated with asthma exacerbations actually are protective against the H1N1 virus,” she said. “Since our discovery of this phenotype and mechanisms that guide these responses, several studies were published showing the same trends in patient cohorts and laboratory systems. This discovery has the potential to alter the way we envision treating asthmatics in a hospital setting, as well as producing future therapeutic options to treat non-asthmatics during respiratory infections.”
Dr. Samarasinghe was born and raised in the city of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Being a scientist was always a part of her plans. “All my teachers inspired me to be curious, analytical, and creative, which now I know to be attributes of a scientist,” she said. “I enjoyed the privilege of strong female teachers and mentors throughout my education, who breathed confidence while inspiring me to become a leader in science.”
After completing high school, Dr. Samarasinghe came to the United States enrolling at California State University, Northridge, where she completed her undergraduate and Master’s degrees with distinction. She was then recruited to North Dakota State University Molecular Pathogenesis Program with a Presidential Fellowship. After earning her PhD with honors in 2010, Dr. Samarasinghe moved to Memphis as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the laboratory of Jon McCullers, MD, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at UTHSC , at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Dr. Samarasinghe is conducting multiple studies in collaboration with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Yale University, in addition to others pursued independently. These studies are funded by the National Institutes of Health, the American Lung Association, and other Le Bonheur and UTHSC grants.
Dr. Samarasinghe encourages other female investigators to learn the history of women in research. “We have a rich history of successful female scientists to learn from — Marie Curie, Barbara McClintock, and the Harvard Computers to name some,” she said. “Inner drive fueled by passion, put together with free-spirited curiosity will allow us to accomplish great things as individuals and as a part of a team.”