Damayanthi Herath to attend prestigious women in tech conference

By Jennifer Thomas

Engineering PhD candidate Damayanthi Herath has secured a scholarship from the Anita Borg Institute (ABI) to attend the 2017 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

The annual event is the world’s largest gathering of women in technology and GHC scholarships to attend are extremely competitive, attracting outstanding applications from around the world.

Supervised by Professor Saman Halgamuge, Damayanthi is a member of the optimization and pattern recognition research group in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Her project is in the field of bioinformatics, where she is working on the effective analysis of DNA sequencing data, using statistical and machine learning methods.

Damayanthi says that bioinformatics is the new magnifying glass through which we view the microbial world.

“Having performant bioinformatic methods is essential in accelerating analysis of results generated from microbiology experiments that can lead to more accurate prediction of the role microbes have on our health and environment,” she says.

In order to analyse the large amount of data collected worldwide about microbes, we require robust optimisation and pattern recognition methods.

Microbes play an important role in functioning a range of ecosystems, which can have a profound impact on human lives. The field of metagenomics has enabled the study of microbes without culturing them in a laboratory.

“In our work, we focus on developing robust methods to understand the population structure and the dynamics of microbial and viral populations based on the data generated from metagenomics experiments.”

Damayanthi says that a practical application of the research may be in phage therapy where bacteriophages – or viruses infecting bacteria – are used to treat bacterial infections.

“I am working on developing a statistical model to improve the accuracy of estimates on viral species diversity measures. In addition, I have looked at the identification of representative features and the use of appropriate machine learning algorithms to achieve an effective characterisation of microbial species.”

This research is important to our understanding of microbes and how they affect us.

Damayanthi will travel to the United States, to attend the 2017 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing to be held in Orlando, Florida from October 4-6, 2017.

“I am grateful to ABI for this opportunity and look forward to the event”, she says.