Interview with Dr Wijenayake

Dr Nirmani Wijenayake

I am Nirmani Wijenayake and education focussed academic from the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences. I teach biochemistry and cell biology to undergraduate students. My career journey was completely unplanned. I ended up where I am almost accidentally. When I entered University, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I did my undergraduate degree in BABS majoring in Biotechnology and I purely picked it because I was good at Science in School. After Undergrad I ended up doing a PhD in BABS and again it was because I had no idea what to do after Undergrad. During my PhD I got the opportunity to teach in undergraduate labs and tutor students. I really enjoyed this and used to spend a lot of time creating teaching resources that I didn’t even get paid for. 

 This led to me getting opportunities to help coordinate undergraduate courses and it gave me a lot of insights into how University teaching worked. When I finished my PhD there was an opening for a teaching role in BABS and I jumped at the opportunity because I knew I would enjoy the position. I’ve been at UNSW in varying capacities since I was 18 and it almost feels like a second home. It is quite gratifying to work in a place where I have so much history and there is a level of comfort that comes with that. 

When I first started teaching as a PhD student, I loved figuring out ways to explain things in a way that others would understand it. As much as I loved research, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a lab doing experiments on a day-to-day basis. I would rather read the research and make it understandable to others. I think there is something really cool about learning something and fully understanding it. Finding creative ways to teach is a lot of fun. The level of independence I have as an education focussed academic as well as the interactions I have with students and staff every day is one of the best aspects about the job. One way to see if you truly enjoy your job is to ask yourself if you would continue to do it if you suddenly become rich that you no longer need to work. Up to this point I have always answered this as a Yes and so in that sense I have been lucky to accidentally find something that brings me satisfaction.

I feel like I didn’t take full advantage of the amount of free time I had as a student. Right now, I have too many hobbies and little time. So, I would probably say use the time you have more productively to work on things that you are enthusiastic about. 

The other would be to be more social and not worry about what other people think. I think between the ages of 18-25 we are spending a lot of time thinking that other people are judging us. So, you are worried about contributing in class in case you are wrong, making connections with people, saying yes to certain opportunities, etc. But the truth is everyone is too busy worrying about themselves to pay attention to other people. Realise that everyone feels that way and you are not alone.

Make sure it is what you want to do. Doing a summer project or a Term long project in a lab with a supervisor will give you an idea about whether going into research is something you would enjoy. It is best to figure that out by doing something short term than committing your self to a year or longer by doing honours or a PhD. Pick a lab with nice people and a supervisor. You are going to be spending a lot of time with them and you want to make sure they are the right kind of people you want to work with daily. I was lucky enough to be in a lab with an amazing supervisor and fellow research students. That is the aspect I remember the most from my time as a PhD student.