Malithi Wickramathilaka is the Product Development Engineering Team Lead at Porex Filtration Group. Porex engineers high-value solutions for their customers’ product design challenges in absorption, application, diffusion, filtration, venting, and wicking
Malithi Wickramathilaka’s Story
When did your interest in science or engineering begin?
The very first memory I have of learning about Science, nature and contraptions, was through a series of books called “A child’s first library of learning.” I read each book at least a hundred times, and gleaned every bit of knowledge from them. In Primary school, whenever someone asked me who I wanted to become, I would say “Scientist”. If I were to track my journey all the way to the beginning, I think that was the initial spark which later ignited a wildfire.
Throughout Primary and Middle schools, I scored “A” grades in all Science assignments, and was almost always selected to be the team lead for Science projects and exhibitions. At the age of ten, I thought that all Scientists went to space. Later in high school, I understood that there was a variety of Scientists, and that I had the freedom to choose any field I wanted.
After high school, I pursued a Bachelors in Chemical Engineering in a country 9000 miles away from home. Next, I advanced onto a Masters in Bioengineering, and finally a PhD in Bioengineering.
I owe my success stories to my parents, teachers and mentors, who understood my aptitude, and molded my dream career.
Today, as a Research and Product Development Engineer, I design polymeric diagnostic device products, and manage them throughout their lifecycle. I have been in this role for nearly 3 years, and I thoroughly enjoy solving problems in a variety of diagnostic fields such as infectious diseases, drugs of abuse, and hormones.
What was it like to be a woman studying in your field?
It is extremely gratifying and satisfying! I decided to study Science and Engineering, because my parents and teachers noticed that I gravitated to those subjects. I feel extremely fortunate that I didn’t have any parental pressure to choose a field which was deemed less challenging by the South Asian society I was raised in.
I have very seldom felt diminished or patronized in a classroom while studying conceptually challenging courses, or in a laboratory while conducting novel experiments, because I was a female. I believe that that was because I rarely went to a class, or a meeting unprepared. I do my homework, I carry my charisma, and connect with the room through ethos, pathos and logos.
Today, I thrive being a woman in STEM, working at a Manufacturing facility, having an excellent vantage point to see Marketing, Logistics, Customer Service, Quality Control and Sales functionalities.
I genuinely enjoy carrying out a variety of roles and responsibilities bestowed on womanhood – I will continue to juggle a multitude of professional, personal, and civic engagement activities, as this balancing act is the only way I would feel productive.
Share with us some of your career highlights.
Purdue University, College of Engineering – Magoon Teaching Award, 2016
Purdue, College of Agriculture – Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant Award, 2017
Purdue, ABE Graduate Symposium – 1st place in Biological Engineering, 2018
Journal of Biological Engineering – Publication of the year, 2019
Porex Filtration Group – Promotion to Team Lead in Diagnostics, 2021
While the above illustrated are a selected list of awards from the past 5 years, the most recent career highlight is one of the COVID-19 Rapid Diagnostic Tests I worked on, receiving FDA EUA. Our client started the project in June 2020. And, within a year, we finished a holistic validation process, and the product is now in full-scale Production. As the Technical Lead of that project, bringing this project to the finish line, gave me an immense sense pride for what we are able to achieve as a company.
To date, what project is your greatest innovation success? What is the story behind it?
In my doctoral studies, I carried out a randomized, controlled design of experiments to study the conjugation efficiencies of DNA bioconjugates. I was able to show for the first time, that the conventional crosslinking reaction could be enhanced by adding a chemical reagent which stabilized the active ester intermediate. I also developed a novel high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) method to determine the yield of the ssDNA bioconjugate products. The conjugate yield via the conventional reaction was 68.3±2.2%, while that of the enhanced reaction was 79.2±2.4%. Thus, I demonstrated a convenient, one-pot strategy for crosslinking biological molecules, which could be used in next generation medical diagnostics, biosensor development, and constructing self-assembling macromolecules where there is a lack of flexibility in increasing the reaction temperature, or adjusting the pH.
This research work was published in the BioMed Central Journal of Biological Engineering, titled “Characterization of covalent crosslinking strategies for synthesizing DNA based bioconjugates.” Wickramathilaka, M., Tao, B. Journal of Biological Engineering. Vol.13 (2019): 63-73.
One year later, this publication received the “Publication of the Year 2019” Award by the Institute of Biological Engineers.
This remains my greatest innovation success, because I conducted this independent research project while enrolled in academic coursework, working as a Teaching Assistant, managing a research lab, and while going through a personal life tragedy. I also managed to receive two teaching accolades this year.
This was the time period when I was convinced that I compartmentalize very well. My teachers, students, and family provided me feedback on how I successfully dedicated sustainable efforts and time for my loved ones, as well as my professional and personal goals.
Tell us about something that made you grow the most as a leader in your field.
Ownership – More than a figurehead, I view myself as a multifunctional team player. When a project enters the diagnostics pipeline, I have the responsibility to take the it from cradle to grave. I have to initiate conversations with my clients to understand their pain points. At times, I have to carry out extremely targeted conversations, and at times, I have to be able to distill challenging technical concepts into lay terms – In some meetings, I interact with the Scientific & Engineering team of my client, while in some meetings, I’m involved in Sales, Marketing, or Quality subject matters.
The past year was exceptionally challenging at work because there was a paramount flux of “COVID-19 detection kit” projects which I was responsible of. I often found myself working late hours, but that tenacity and hard work was absolutely necessary to solve unique problems in COVID-19 diagnostic devices. The matter at hand was directly related to solving global pandemic anxieties, and fast turnaround times on these projects were only possible due to relentless teamwork.
How are you and/or your company bringing innovation to the forefront?
As an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) for a variety of top diagnostic companies, Porex plays a huge role in developing functional components and quality assurance of those products. I go home with a fulfilled purpose, because Porex enables me to impact people’s lives positively. I thrive in Product Development of diagnostic devices, because of my direct ability to improve the world healthcare and economy. Porex delves into a broad spectrum of projects, and that is one of the ways of how we play our role in bringing innovation to the forefront. The below list illustrates the variety of projects I have successfully implemented into full-scale Production. These devices detected (i) ketones in exhaled breath, (ii) fertility hormones in saliva, (iii) drugs of abuse in saliva, (iv) Influenza and COVID-19 viruses in nasal fluid, (v) pregnancy hormones in urine, (vi) COVID-19 antibodies in blood. Thus far, I have executed 80+ projects, managing up to 8 projects simultaneously. And within 3 years, I have scaled up 15+ diagnostics projects.
What advice do you have for future female engineers?
Continue to have lifelong mentors, and when you are ready to pass the baton, start mentoring others who want to travel challenging paths. Forge your professional success through constant mentorship during your academic life, networking on professional social media, participating in professional development activities, and engaging in outreach activities.