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Spotlight on Students: Malinka Walaliyadde

Malinka Walaliyadde is conducting research in Professor Mathew DeLisa's lab that could result in new cancer treatments.

  • Affiliation: Materials Science
  • Hometown: Sharjah, U.A.E.

Once he picked a country, choosing Cornell was an easy decision for Malinka Walaliyadde. "I wanted to do something in nanotechnology and everywhere I looked Cornell was at the top of the list for nanotech," he says.

An ethnic Sri Lankan who grew up in the United Arab Emirates, Walaliyadde applied to Cornell without ever setting foot on the campus. "That was pretty scary. I based it on pictures and videos from the Internet. It looked beautiful," he says. "I didn't know anyone in this country. I have no family here and no family friends here. So it was just basically me alone. That was a huge concern."

Walaliyadde had been told to prepare for a culture shock, but found that people here weren't much different than in the U.A.E. "I was pretty lucky because I made some really good friends my first week and that really helped," he says. "It was nowhere near as bad as I expected it to be. People are pretty much the same."

The weather is a different story. "When I first got here September was very cold for me. And my friends were like, 'Are you kidding me? It's not really that cold,'" he says. "It was the first time I'd seen snow, coming here."

Walalilyadde's interest in nanotechnology began when he read Prey by Michael Crichton. "It talked about the negative effects of it, but for some reason that really intrigued me and I read up on it a lot," he says. "What I really want to do is change things at the most fundamental level because when you do that you get the greatest effect on the macroscopic properties of something."

A member of the Cornell University Genetically Engineering Machines team, Walaliyadde is minoring in biomedical engineering. "After I got here I realized I was really interested in bio stuff too," he says. "In inorganic systems, the smallest possible level is moving atoms around and that's where materials science comes in, whereas in organic systems, living systems, the smallest possible changes are at the genetic level where you change individual base pairs, and that's why I'm really interested in that stuff."

Walaliyadde is conducting research in Professor Mathew DeLisa's lab that could result in new cancer treatments. "There's a system in the body called ubiquitination where proteins are targeted and destroyed. What we're trying to do is modify the enzyme that targets these proteins so we can target really harmful proteins in the body," he explains. "I'm building a testing system for the things that the graduate student I work with is building so when he finishes his products he'll run it through this system and we'll be able to figure out if it actually works.

"That's really cool that I can have that much of an effect on some really interesting research that's going on," he continues. "I did not think I would be able to play that big a role coming in and it's amazing that universities here can offer students that experience. I know that in a lot of other countries you don't actually get to do that."

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