Hirushie Karunathilake, PhD '18, School of Engineering

Hirushie Karunathilake
“I wanted to challenge the conventional belief and social norms which dictated that mechanical engineering is not a field where women can succeed — to prove that gender has no bearing on one’s suitability for a profession.”

Hirushie Karunathilake is a mechanical engineer who received her Bachelor of Science in Engineering with a first class from the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, in 2014. Her PhD research focuses on developing net-zero energy systems for communities. She is the recipient of the Canadian Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarship, and the UBC University Graduate Fellowship. Hirushie is a faculty member in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, and has also worked as a sessional lecturer and a teaching assistant at UBC Okanagan. In addition, she is a graduate writing consultant at the UBC Okanagan Centre for Scholarly Communication, and previously worked as a consultant for undergraduates at the UBCO Writing and Research Centre. The end goal of her PhD research is to develop decision support tools to enable hybrid energy systems planning at community level. During the course of this work, she has worked on a number of research collaborations with the involvement of local governments of British Columbia and other industry partners and has held a Mitacs internship. She is the author of several journal articles, conference papers, and technical reports.

Why did you choose engineering?

I have always wanted my life’s work to be interesting, challenging and non-routine. I realised during high school that my interests and abilities made me more suitable to be an engineer than anything else. I believe that an engineering professional is a problem solver. My home country, Sri Lanka, is a developing country, I wish to make a positive change to its current state and accelerate its progress. As an engineer, I can find practical solutions to problems that affect society, the industrial sector and the economy of my country. On a more personal note, I also wanted to challenge the conventional belief and social norms which dictated that mechanical engineering is not a field where women can succeed — to prove that gender has no bearing on one’s suitability for a profession.

What have you learned in engineering that is most valuable?

I have learnt many valuable life lessons during my academic and professional career in engineering. The most important qualities I acquired as an engineer are a strong work ethic, time management and the ability to think on my feet. These lessons help me accept any job confidently, and to face any challenge without fear, as I believe that I can deliver the expected outcome no matter how demanding the situation. During my graduate studies, I also learnt that a successful engineering project is a multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary endeavour. To solve real-world problems, we need to consider the perspectives of different stakeholders at different levels of decision making, and we need to bring together the expertise from various disciplines through a collaborative approach. I must also mention that the experience I gained from working in research projects and industry collaborations at the UBCO Life Cycle Management Laboratory was very valuable, especially in learning how to work with multi-disciplinary teams and to build relationships.

What has been your most memorable/valuable non-academic experience studying engineering at UBC?

I work as a writing consultant for the graduate students and faculty at the UBC Okanagan Centre for Scholarly Communication. Previously, I was a writing consultant for undergraduate students in the UBCO Writing and Research Centre. My job is to help people with their academic writing, and assist them in improving their writing skills. This work gave me the chance to interact with students from various disciplines and different cultural backgrounds. With each consulting session with a student, I learn something new about their fields of study, where they come from and the challenges they face in the learning process. It was especially fascinating to learn more about disciplines such as arts, social sciences, philosophy etc., to which I had no previous exposure. Moreover, being a ESL (English as a Second Language) student myself, I found that I had an insight to the problems faced by other ESL students, which enabled me to guide them more effectively. I feel that this experience made me more patient, more empathising, and a better listener. The whole experience was an eye-opener to me, and the feeling of being able to help others was very satisfying.

How do you feel a graduate degree in engineering has benefitted you compared to a different field of study?

From my school days, my interests lay in subjects that involved analytical thinking, scientific reasoning, and mathematics. It is this inclination that led me to pursue a bachelor’s degree and then a graduate degree in engineering. I feel that a different field of study might not have aligned as well with my interests and skills. During graduate studies at UBC Okanagan, I learnt the concepts of life cycle thinking, risk analysis and decision making. The experience I gained through project work helped me to understand that there are no perfect solutions and that the engineer’s job is to find the best solution based on the available resources as well as existing conditions and constraints. My graduate studies in engineering helped me to further develop my reasoning and problem-solving skills and has given me the training which is essential for a career as an academic. I had the opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge in real world problems and to learn how to develop practical tools for engineering analysis. It also trained me to tackle issues in a systematic way based on logical reasoning and evidence. I used this knowledge and experience in my work with community energy systems. While clean energy is a highly talked about and much-needed initiative, it is necessary to ensure that the clean energy solutions that we provide to communities are practical and sustainable, not only environmentally, but also economically and socially.

What advice would you give a student considering graduate studies in engineering?

The very first advice I would give is to make sure that this is what they really want, because obtaining a graduate degree can be a daunting and often frustrating journey, especially if you are not passionate about what you do. If you do really want to delve into engineering, and you are interested in being a researcher, then you will definitely enjoy this journey. Being a researcher means that you can explore new concepts and develop new knowledge and ultimately help society. You need to first determine what you truly enjoy investigating and what specific study area best fits your skills and passion. When you initially start to define your research, you may feel overwhelmed with the previously unfamiliar theories, techniques and methods, and information. This is something every researcher goes through in the initial stages of their research. Rather than trying to learn everything, it is better to focus on defining your key concept and to keep quantifiable short-term targets to measure your progress. For example, you can set your milestones based on your publications. Always make sure that you are delivering some measurable output. Try to get help and advice from your colleagues and experts in your fields and develop good professional relationships with them. Finally, your supervisors are a critical factor in your success. Maintaining a close and candid relationship with them (with regular meetings and updates) will ensure that you stay on the right track throughout your graduate studies.

What are your plans for the future?

After completing my PhD, I am planning to return to Sri Lanka and continue my academic career as a faculty member at the University of Moratuwa. I am planning to initiate a research programme there that will focus on sustainable urban planning based on life cycle thinking. I also aspire to continue my work in renewable energy and decentralised energy systems, especially in developing user-friendly decision support tools which can take the concepts of energy planning to community level. With this, I hope to fill the critical need for energy system related expertise at a community level, and to reduce the perception of risk and infeasibility which acts as a barrier to the promotion of clean energy projects.

How will you go on to make a difference in our world?

As an academic, my goal is to develop professional engineers and researchers who can apply multi-dimensional thinking in developing solutions for urban planning issues, especially related to energy. I believe that education can change a society for its betterment. In my role as an educator and a mentor, I want to motivate students to be socially responsible professionals who actively fight for a better future instead of passively accepting the status quo. Through my work in decentralised energy systems, I expect to assist in creating energy independent and energy secure communities, while also eliminating energy poverty which affects a large segment of population throughout the world. I also aim to adapt the concepts of sustainability and urban planning into models which are suitable for developing countries, and to introduce frameworks for streamlined decision making in urban development projects for such regions. I hope that these efforts will aid in accelerating the technical progress and societal development in communities.