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This is ag: Dal Faculty of Agriculture welcomes first PhD student

Wasitha Thilakarnathna’s plan to become a food scientist is one step closer to reality thanks to a new PhD program that has been launched at Dal Faculty of Agriculture in Bible Hill.
Wasitha Thilakarnathna’s plan to become a food scientist is one step closer to reality thanks to a new PhD program that has been launched at Dal Faculty of Agriculture in Bible Hill. - Contributed


His dreams of becoming a food scientist are one step closer to reality for Wasitha Thilakarnathna, thanks to something new at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Agriculture.

The Bible Hill school has launched a PhD in Agricultural Sciences – the first of its kind in Atlantic Canada.

“I am really excited to be the first PhD student of the agricultural faculty,” said Thilakarnathna, a PhD candidate through the Department of Plant, Food, and Environmental Sciences.

“Becoming a PhD student is a big milestone of my life. Being the first PhD student of Dal AC makes it extra special.”

The PhD program will allow students to pursue advanced-level knowledge in agriculture and undertake independent research to generate new knowledge, both of which are imperative to the future of sustainable farming. With agriculture currently representing seven per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product, the need for high-level research of farming, food production and agricultural sustainability is at an all-time high.

Extensive research

Originally from Sri Lanka, Thilakarnathna’s research is focused on the role of plant-food flavonoids of cool climate fruits which are naturally occurring plant chemicals, in reducing the risk of lung and liver cancers. Specifically, he is focused on understanding how these plant chemicals interact with probiotic bacteria, the health-promoting bacteria in the human gut. Thilakarnathna has found probiotic bacteria can transform these plant chemicals into molecules with higher bioavailability, meaning these bioactive molecules easily enter the bloodstream when introduced to the body at a more active rate.

“During my MSc studies, I generated promising results in demonstrating the potential of naturally occurring plant chemicals in cancer risk reduction,” Thilakarnathna said, adding he was the Cancer Research Trainee Program fellowship of the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute.

His ultimate goal is to collect more evidence to support his hypothesis and develop a ‘synbiotic’ functional food - a mixture of fruit-derived naturally occurring plant chemicals and suitable probiotic bacteria, capable of cancer risk reduction in certain risk groups. He hopes his research will help the local agri-food industry develop many probiotics-based functional foods.

Graduate scholarship program

While funding can often be a significant barrier for students wishing to pursue advanced level studies, the Faculty of Agriculture has new graduate scholarship support made possible by the BMO Financial Group, which has created the BMO Financial Group Graduate Scholarship in Agriculture to support the attraction and retention of top graduate students to the agricultural campus. The scholarship support equals $250,000.

Graduate students Amy Harrington and Katie McCallum are the inaugural recipients of this support. Harrington’s research is focused on biomedical scent detection with dogs and their use for ketosis detection in dairy cattle while McCallum will focus on best management practices for silage production with a focus on mycotoxins.

To support his studies on plant-food flavonoids in reducing the risk of lung and liver cancers, Thilakarnathna will receive the Dr. A. David Crowe Graduate Scholarship established to encourage higher education in the field of agriculture.

Crowe received doctoral training at Cornell University and later spent a 40-year career at the Kentville Research Station where he enjoyed a research career contributing greatly to the field of pomology.

The Dr. A David Crowe Graduate Scholarship, valued at $25,000 per year, supports PhD students who have the intention of living and working in Atlantic Canada.

“I am thankful to Dal AC and the sponsors of graduate scholarship and especially the Crowe Family for making my dream true,” Thilakarnathnasays gratefully. “Immediately after the PhD I will seek a postdoctoral opportunity to establish myself as an independent researcher. My ultimate goal is to become a professional food scientist.”

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