Yasmina Sultanbawa – Science is my community 

Author: Leticia Nani Silva

Background

Dr. Sultanbawa grew up in Sri Lanka in a family of seven. Her father, a doctor, committed to helping communities and looking after people in need. Her mother, a dedicated housewife, pushed her children to focus on their dreams and chase their aspirations.  

“In my house, it did not matter whether you were a boy or girl, my family’s mantra was always to become educated, independent and to do what you loved. I grew up surrounded by a plethora of religions and cultures. Today, I am fortunate enough to speak three languages and have travelled all around the world,” says Dr. Sultanbawa.

As a child, Dr. Sultanbawa loved nature and animals. She would look at nature through the eyes of a scientist, which subsequently led her to her first degree in Chemistry, completed in Sri Lanka, followed by a more specialised degree in Food Science from the University of Reading, UK. With full family support of educational growth and love for travelling, Dr. Sultanbawa then went onto completing her PhD at the University of British Columbia in Canada, where she focused on specific proteins in fish. 

Photo credit: Megan Pope

Communities in Sri Lanka and Australia 

Dr. Sultanbawa continues, “After completing the PhD, I returned to homeland to establish myself and my research in Sri Lanka. However, the move coincided with the times of great conflict and turbulence, which triggered my family’s decision to migrate to Australia, where I live and work today.”

“I was forced to start my career from the very beginning. I started working on research similar to my PhD, but there was one thing missing: I did not have the same exposure to the communities as I had in Sri Lanka. My aim and passion was to make a difference in the remote communities through teaching them about food, while learning from them how they process their foods. It gave my research a tangible meaning and brought a strong purpose to my career.”

Dr. Sultanbawa speaks with great passion about the women within the community and how they felt empowered by science to develop their own business models and become more independent. You can hardly underestimate the power of science in teaching rural communities about the farming sector and food preservation. Dr. Sultanbawa strongly believes if we can have more women climbing up the  supply chain, that would give them a purpose and a voice, and bring a great benefit to the local societies.

“I wanted to apply the same principles I have learned from the Sri Lankan communities in Australia. Luckily, my research allowed me to do just that. Ten years down the line, I look at these communities thriving, processing their own food and growing into well-established businesses, where women definitely have a  greater power. For me, it is one of my greatest achievements. I definitely feel a sense of satisfaction seeing how science I have taught is being translated into communities.”

Challenges 

Currently, Dr. Sultanbawa works in agricultural sector, a field that is very male-dominated. However, she talks about difficulties with a rather positive outlook, “If someone has ever treated you badly because of your sex, colour, or religion, it’s because they have not yet had the basic education or understanding. People need to have more kindness and compassion”.

“When I moved to Australia, it was up to me to interact and learn about their customs and cultures, especially working with the indigenous communities. I found it exciting. Empowering women and children to go to school and achieve their aspirations  is a very positive challenge for me. Even when I lived in the UK, I had lots of friends from various countries and cultures, and I did not see differences amongst us, I just saw a big family and a support system.”

Research during the pandemic

Dr. Sultanbawa mentions the inevitable changes to the field of food science and agriculture in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, “I have a lot of students who had to travel back to their home countries after completing their degrees in Australia. I hear from them that many remote communities have resorted to more traditional foods due to the lack of availability of foods in the supermarkets. This specifies the importance of diversity within our diets.

“I hope the pandemic helps people see that we need to become more self-sufficient. We need to eat more local produce and understand which fruits and vegetables are in or out of season. What I particularly like about the indigenous communities is that they are self-sufficient: if they cannot get to the supermarket for any reason, they can grow their produce at home or forage from the wild. These women, who take on the responsibilities to look after the communities,  have the necessary land skills and the knowledge of growing local foods in times of crisis.

“Empowering women – and people in general – to be the best they can, to become multi-disciplinary and well-rounded is the ultimate goal. That is all I ask of my students and the next generation coming into the world of academia. Publications are great and they add a lot of value to your academic contribution, however, helping one another and empowering each other while building healthier communities is the biggest purpose of my career.”

Frontiers is a signatory of the United Nations Publishers COMPACT. This interview has been published in support of United Nations Sustainable Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.