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Sri Lankan pioneering superconductivity research

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Prof Ranga Dias and team make world’s first-ever room-temperature superconductor

By Sajitha Prematunge

It is not a vaccine for COVID-19, but it could be the next best thing. The world’s first superconductor at room temperature, developed by a research team lead by Sri Lankan born physicist, Prof. Ranga Dias at the University of Rochester, USA, could potentially revolutionise everything from transport to energy industry.

The team recently discovered carbonaceous sulphur hydride (CSH), a new compound that acts as a superconductor at 15 °C at a pressure of 267 Giga Pascals (Gpa), or 2.6 million atmospheres (75 percent of the pressure at the earth’s core). The heady article in Nature magazine, which published this groundbreaking discovery in its cover story on October 15, may sound gobbledygook for some. Consequently, The Island interviewed University of Rochester, USA, Department of Physics and Astronomy and Department of Mechanical Engineering, Assistant professor Prof. Ranga Dias; Ph.D. student in Physics, Hiranya Pasan and Ph.D. candidate in Optics, Ashan Ariyawansa to put things in perspective.

A superconductor is a materiel that poses no electrical resistance. “We used two diamonds, each approximately 150 to 200 micron in diameter, on top of each other, to make what’s called a diamond anvil cell. The sample was sandwiched between the two diamonds and pressure applied.” Pasan explained that they could achieve pressures of up to 500 Giga Pascals with the diamond anvil cell. “For comparison, that’s more than the pressure at the earth’s core,” said Pasan. “The diamond anvil cell acts as a materiel search engine, that we use to test material at different pressure until we found the ideal conditions to achieve superconductivity for each material, allowing us to determine which materiel is the most effective. And the result was CSH, a compound belonging to a new class of dense hydrogen rich material.

 

What took so long?

Even though their work was based on old theory, in existence for more than a century, there is still a lot of unknowns. “Even established theory does not explain the mechanism that goes into the making of a superconducting material,” said Dias. But they had two criteria going for them, the ideal superconductor should be of a lighter element that can make stronger bonds. This was the basic premise under which Dias and his team started working with carbon and sulphur. “Our success depended on the right elemental combination,” said Dias, a researcher on high-pressure physics, who had been working with carbon and sulfur for just over a decade.

Pressure variations can convert basic elements of the periodic table into something completely different. Dias explained complex high-pressure physics with a simple analogy. There are two people in a room who can’t interact with each other because they are on opposite corners of the room. Now have the walls close in on them until they are able to talk, shake hands and interact. “The same principle can be applied to elements. When pressurized, atoms and molecules become more interactive and make new bonds. This alters the actual chemical nature of the compound. That’s the beauty of high-pressure physics, it allows you to manipulate the identity of compounds to create whole new material with completely unexpected properties,” said Dias.

 

Previous research

Dias holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Colombo. He turned his attention to metallic hydrogen research as an extension of his PhD research on high-pressure physics at the University of Washington. In 2017, Dias, then a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and Isaac Silvera, physicist at Harvard announced the discovery of metallic hydrogen in the Science magazine. Their experiment involved compressing hydrogen gas, which liquifies when cooled to minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 252.778 Celsius), and then solidifying it at lower temperatures. The claim came under heavy criticism for being based on a single observation, on reflectivity (an expected signature of metallic hydrogen), and without a direct measurement of the pressure involved. The original ‘metallic hydrogen’ sample was lost during the subsequent failure of the diamond anvil cell. Prof. Dias said: “It was a complete study. What is left is to describe the properties of metallic hydrogen, which we are actively working on. Research takes time. None of these experiments are easy.” He joined the University of Rochester, in 2017 as a professor, and is currently conducting further research on metallic hydrogen. He further explained that the Harvard group measured the pressure directly using standard methods that any high-pressure scientist used. Every high-pressure experiment ended with the failure of the diamond anvil cell, which means the loss of the sample. Consequently, Dias argued that there was nothing unusual about the fact that their diamond broke, resulting in the loss of the sample. “I think fellow competitors who were trying to make metallic hydrogen wasn’t happy that we got it right, their criticism has nothing to do with science but rather was a political attack on my previous advisor [Silvera].”

When asked how positive he is about the newly discovered carbonaceous sulphur hydride, in light of the previous backlash, Dias said that he doubted there was a connection. “They are two different experiments and very different samples. The hallmark of superconductivity is the complete absence of electrical resistance. And another property of superconducting materials is that when it is cooled below the superconducting transition temperature, the magnetic field lines are expelled from the material. We have observed both of these key properties on our carbonaceous sulphur hydride materials at high pressures.” Dias confident of the results.

Prof. Dias’ finding has definitely sparked investor interest. In fact, investors are already lining up to fund a research company, by the name of ‘Unearthly Materials’, set up under the leadership of Prof. Dias to carry out further research and to manufacture superconductors on a large scale. A financial capital of US $ 2 million, has already been provided by investors. Dias hopes it will culminate in a highly productive venture in three to five years.

 

Implications

Prof. Dias believes that the technology could open up a world of possibilities for medical imaging such as MRI, computing and consumer electronics such as mobile phones. Applications of his discovery include low-cost MRI scanners, magnetic levitation trains, and power lines with no electrical resistance. “A computer, for example, has a heavy cooling system with heat sink, fans and the like, but with a superconductor none of these will be necessary,” explained Hiranya Pasan, who was tasked with low temperature analysis in this research. With this kind of tech everything from car radiators to train tracks could become redundant. “A huge amount of energy is lost in transmission per year. It adds up to a lot of money,” pointed out Pasan. So, if someone were to mass produce superconducting wire, which offers no electrical resistance, he would save billions of or dollars for countless governments.

And then there is the Meissner effect, which in layman’s terms means to repel a magnet. Superconductors are strongly diamagnetic and expel magnetic fields. As such trains could employ magnets that levitate on superconducting material. “It produces no friction,” explained Pasan. Such frictionless high-speed trains could revolutionise the transport sector.

“The technology already exists,” explained Dias. Superconducting technology is used in MRI scanners, particle accelerators, and magnetic levitation trains of experimental scale in Japan, all of which involves large magnetic fields. “But it requires cryogenics.” Meaning that some metals reach superconductivity at extremely cold temperatures and, therefore, have to be cooled to about 10 to 20 Kelvin. For context, that’s minus 263.15 to 253.15 Celsius. The critical temperature of the first superconductor, discovered in 1911, was minus 269 °C, and the fact that no research has ever been able to find a material that acts as a superconductor in room temperature has been one of the major challenges in physics.

“The cryogenic factor is what makes the technology so expensive and therefore economically unviable,” pointed out Dias. So, if cryogenics were to be taken out of the equation, it would make medical imaging, for example, much more affordable and efficient. Prof. Dias explained that liquid helium is the most widely used coolant in superconducting applications, a resource fast diminishing.

He and his team were able to take the cryogenics out of the equation, but maintaining such gargantuan pressures make mass production of superconducting material virtually impossible. When asked how stable the new compound was Dias explained that CSH could be metastable, meaning that it may not revert to the original compound of carbon and sulphur once pressure is relieved. If not, it’s back to square one for the team as they would have to find another compound that acts as a superconductor at both room temperature and atmospheric pressure. The team revealed that they would conduct the ultimate experiment by relieving pressure, in the weeks to come, which Pasan has been tasked with. “Once we have a metastable superconducting material at ambient pressure, it’s just a matter of replicating it, using techniques like chemical deposition and Molecular-beam epitaxy (MBE), to achieve mass production.” Those were the standard techniques and therefore were affordable, he said.

Ground-breaking discoveries are made every few decades in the western world and they have little or no effect at all on developing nations such as Sri Lanka. So why is a superconductor at room temperature even significant for a country like Sri Lanka? “I don’t think that the GDP matters in terms of implications of such discoveries, said Dias. “What is rocket science is developing a superconductor at room temperature. When that’s a reality, application comes easy. Whether it was frictionless trains or MRI scanners, such technology can always be applied by replacing the existing technology with the new.”

 

Application of such technology in quantum computing would be difficult for a country like Sri Lanka, but Dias pointed out that the implications of the technology for energy transmission was of considerable significance to developing countries. As Pasan pointed out, a lot of electricity is lost during transmission. Dias argued that with a superconducting wire, that pose no resistance, third world power generation can be made more efficient, thereby increasing capacity. “This kind of application is not difficult to apply even in a developing country.” Dias assured that such technology would be affordable even for developing countries.

 

Local students

When asked about the practical difficulties Sri Lankan students have to face, Hiranya pointed out that as opposed to Sri Lanka, the US has a more student-centred education system, while Dias said there was a clear lack of enthusiasm for research in Sri Lanka. “During my time in Sri Lanka, we were hardly exposed to experiments, we rarely saw instruments, except at practicals during undergraduate years, simply because we didn’t have the facilities,” said Prof. Dias. “The system is exam-oriented, and as a result we lacked hands on experience.” Dias pointed out that in the US education system there was ample opportunity for research. “Even the exam questions here are very practical. It hones critical thinking instead of promoting memorising equations and just getting good grades.” Such a system increases research productivity, he said.

“Research lacks support in Sri Lanka, especially in terms of funding,” said Dias. “In the States we can acquire federal, corporate and other sources of funding. But in Sri Lanka we don’t have that kind of a mechanism.”

But things are looking up, said Ariyawansa. “Collaborative research on chemistry and biotechnology is undertaken increasingly in Sri Lanka,” he said, pointing out that industrial chemistry and nanotechnology were fast developing areas, but he admitted that physics was still lagging behind. “We now have institutions such as SLINTEC [Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology], which has succeeded in attracting a lot of expatriate academics back into the country,” added Dias. He opined that such infrastructural support and funding would facilitate cutting-edge research.

When asked whether such cutting-edge research would have any practical applications in Sri Lanka and whether putting so much money and effort into research was viable in the absence of practical applications, Prof. Dias said that there would always be opportunities in terms of putting research into practice. “Commercial production of graphene by SLINTEC is a case in point. It’s a direct application. I’m sure that if Sri Lanka can produce high grade graphene, we can export it. Graphene has a lot of applications, especially in electronics. It’s used widely in the US, Japan, Europe and South Korea for semiconductor and mobile applications.”

The same principle can be applied to diamonds. “With the right combinations of material diamonds can be grown in the lab,” Dias pointed out that this could revolutionise the diamond industry. “This is already being done in the US,” said Dias, reiterating that material research would always have applications.

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A year into Rajapaksa presidency amidst Covid-19 pandemic

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by Harim Peiris

The Rajapaksa administration completed its first year in office, a few days ago, with Sri Lanka being in the midst of a raging Covid-19 second wave, which has seen confirmed cases of the virus in the country, pass the 20,000 mark, with the highly populated and economically crucial Western Province, being the new epicentre.

Twelve months, since the historic and momentous victory of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its presidential candidate, have passed quickly. With a year that was dominated by the twenty first century’s first global pandemic, to perhaps the Spanish flu about a century ago. Sri Lanka dealt with the first wave earlier this year, relatively successfully with few infections and single digit Covid-19 related deaths. The newly installed SLPP / Rajapaksa Administration claimed credit for an efficient epidemic management and possibly reaped some political benefit from the same, winning an unexpected and massive two-thirds majority in the general elections to parliament in August this year. Surpassing the seat tally received by a prior Rajapaksa Administration, under the UPFA banner, in the post war euphoria, elections of 2010. Quite a credit then to the current Rajapaksa administration, for surpassing itself.

However, the political year 2019/20, was not without its significant events, which will shape Sri Lankan national life for the next few years. First, it is the absolute implosion of the United National Party and the emergence of young Sajith Premadasa as both the credible runner-up in the presidential race and the new Leader of the Opposition. Replacing long serving UNP leader and former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose refusal to concede defeat in his internal political battle with his erstwhile deputy, has resulted in the weakest political opposition in a decade, seriously weakening the checks and balances so essential in a democratic society. But a political transition has taken place, in both government and Opposition from Mahinda to Gotabaya and Ranil to Sajith.

Militarization of civilian space and centralization of political power

Probably, the most defining aspect of the current Rajapaksa administration is the militarisation of civilian space in public administration and governance. While Prime Minister and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa ascended to the apex of national governance through the democratic political process, the path which brought younger sibling and current President Gotabaya Rajapakas to power, lay through a career in the military, culminating in the highest office in the Ministry of Defence. Accordingly, governance under the current Rajapaksa administration has been dominated by the military, either serving or retired. The Covid-19 public health emergency has been placed under the serving Army Commander, rather than the Health Minister or the Health Ministry. Accordingly, there has been criticism of a reduction in health expenditure, lack of any increase in hospital bed capacity and Sri Lanka’s relatively low rate of Covid-19 testing.

Most of the high official positions in the administration including foreign affairs, health, ports and customs among others are occupied by retired or serving senior military men, competent undoubtedly, but not from the civilian Sri Lanka Administrative Service. Other key government functions seem to be allocated to presidential tasks forces, headed and dominated by military and security personnel, rather than relevant line ministries. Accordingly, such objectives as the Eastern Province archeological site preservation and the creation of a disciplined and virtuous society have been entrusted to military task forces.

The centralisation of political power in the executive presidency through the recently enacted 20th Amendment to the Constitution, mostly rolls back the modest democratic gains associated with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, and once again establishes Sri Lanka’s executive president as an elected absolute ruler. The administration required the help and support of some breakaway Opposition Muslim MPs to manage and mitigate its own internal dissent on the 20th Amendment.

A Covid-19 influenced economic meltdown

A significant factor in the single term demise of the Sirisena / Wickremesinghe Administration and the return to power of the Rajapaksas was likely the dismal governance performance, the anaemic economic growth and the absence of a peace dividend during the 2015 to 2019 period. Recognising this and that generally good economics is always good politics; the Rajapaksa administration has been keen to try and up its economic management game. This attempt has been seriously stymied by the Covid-19 pandemic and the effect of the lockdowns and the airport shutdown on the tourism and general services sectors. We are headed for a recession in excess of perhaps negative five percent (-5%), though we would have to await the Central Bank reports for the exact figure. The administration doesn’t really seem to have an answer to the serious economic challenges ahead, with their first budget earlier this month, seemingly more wishful than realistic or pragmatic.

 

 

A serious foreign policy tilt to China

Also, in the area of foreign policy, Sri Lanka’s decades long and carefully crafted non-aligned and neutral foreign policy, which followed a balance between the competing interests of major powers in the region, including of India, seems to have been jettisoned in favour of a serious pivot towards China, notwithstanding government lip service to the contrary. This is unwise and weakens key relationships with our largest trading partner the United States and, of course, our historical and huge sub continental neighbour India, to the detriment of our own national interests.

The first year of the new Rajapaksa administration would draw mixed reviews, dominated as it has been by the Covid-19 pandemic and its management, but pursuing and implementing policies, which avoid serious scrutiny and debate, precisely because of the pandemic. But those policies and their effects will be keenly felt and should be more closely examined later on in the administration’s term of office.

(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016-2017)

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How rot set in

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Rubber:

By Dhamsiri Dasanayaka,

Ex-Advisory Officer, Rubber Research Board

Rubber could be considered bread and butter of bona fide smallholders. They have cultivated their lands with rubber plants and manufacture Ribbed Smoked Sheets (RSS) out of their harvest by using traditional knowledge. The government in order to help them initiated an extension service for cultivating rubber. This article attempts to show how this extension mechanism came about.

In 1972, the Rubber Research Institute (RRI) established two extension departments, namely Smallholdings Department (SHD) for rubber smallholders and Estate Advisory Department (EAD) for large estates. In 1974, both were amalgamated into a separate scientific extension department called Advisory Services Department (ASD). From 1953, under the Rubber Control Act, non-scientific Rubber Control Department (RCD) provided subsidies to rubber farmers. The RCD issued permits to relevant land owners for replanting and new planting. Copies of these permits were referred to the ASD of the RRI for initiating the extension activities. Rubber Instructors of the ASD carried out this extension service successfully. They guided the small holders in multiple ways, such as planting, processing, marketting, bark exploitation, and other agricultural activities. This was the rubber extension system that took place during the decade of 1970.

In 1984, Smallholder Rubber Rehabilitation Project 01 (SRRP1) was implemented with World Bank assistance. The Advisory Services Department (ASD), with its flexible financial management system, the well-set theoretical, and practical links with the RRI, functioned effectively to improve the smallholdings sector. Both RRI and ASD were under the Rubber Research Board (RRB) highlighting the “Research- Extension- Farmer” academically recognized agricultural development model, and the SRRP planners decided to entrust this project to the ASD, which consequently became a well-organised active Extension Department like the RRI structure under the (RRB). Chairman of the RRB was a rubber industry professional. RRI and ASD were headed by two PhD qualified Directors. The think tank of the ASD was a scientifically qualified active group competent enough to implement the SRRP project successfully. During this project period, the role of the RCD was to issue permits to rubber farmers.

The Rubber Control Department (RCD), which essentially consisted of administrators, appointed a field staff of rubber Inspectors to handle the extension programme on field. They were too involved in subsidy administration in the field thus duplicating field work of rubber which caused confusion among rubber smallholders according to administrators. To eliminate this farmer confusion from the field, the ASD, which constituted experienced scientific think tank was removed from the RRB in 1994 and attached to RCD think tank, which was mainly an administration body and formed Rubber Development Department (RDD), which was also an administration body. This non-scientific administration think tank (RDD) was not conducive to effective agricultural extension.

By 2002, there were too many irregular segments causing duplication and, hence, excess staff in the RDD were transferred to RRI without having a clear mandate. As a result, 35 extension officers of the RDD who came back to the RRI were entrusted to handle extension programme under the RRI Director. This again led to creation of a dual extension officer situation in the field as in 1994.

At present there are six more institutions formed by the MPI and the relevant authorities to supply services to rubber sector as mentioned below.

As a result, there are four officers from the institutions 1, 2, 3 and 5 in the field handling extension and related functions. Now, the rubber farmers are again in a dilemma, unable to figure out which officer should be contacted to get advice on multiple services such as cultivation and processing, etc. Hence, it is questionable why the MPI and relevant authorities have ignored this multiple officer situation. This is in spite of a number of institutions dealing with rubber cultivation and wasting rubber growers cess fund meaninglessly.

 

Source: Rubber Development Department

Table 1 and articles authored by Mr. J. A. A. S. Ranasingha, Dr. L. M. K Tilakaratna and Professor. C. S. Weeraratna, in The Isalnd during the last few weeks indicate that the rubber production in the country has decreased substantially. Table 2 shows the production and imports of RSS in the year 2017. This implies that RSS manufacture should be increased which has a direct link with the smallholder production of RSS. RSS is an input to rubber industry. To improve the productivity of the rubber sector, which is on its way to extinction, there is a pressing need for an effective scientific rubber extension organisation to cater to the needs of rubber farmers. This will enable agronomically qualified think tank to assist rubber farmers to carry out agronomical activities such as outdoor farmer training , indoor training at Nivthigala Kelle, adaptive research activities, planting practices, soil conservation measures, establishing cover crops, fertilizer application, exploitation methodologies, manufacture of better quality rubber sheets, nursery management, smoke houses management, fixing rain guards and marketing, etc., more effectively like in 1994 and before.

One crucial factor which can be attributed to this calamitous situation in the rubber sector was the extremely unsatisfactory situation in the scientific extension, created by the amalgamation of the ASD and the RCD in 1994, removing the extension-oriented ASD think tank from RRB and forming the RDD administration think tank for the sake of development of the rubber sector. This action led to a breakdown of the well-established “Research – Extension – Farmer” inter faced academic development model. This model is a must in agricultural development and it must never be converted to a “Research – Administration – Farmer” model even though the extension label is affixed to the administrators. As a whole it was counter-productive as evident from the decreased production of rubber and increased imports of RSS due to the extension mechanism.

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Quadriplegic doctor aspires to walk again

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Dr. Dinesh Palipana Queensland’s Australian of the Year 2021

By Sajitha Prematunge

Dr. Dinesh Palipana does not have the full command of his fingers and his usual offer of a handshake took the form of an awkwardly extended fist. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, like a good sport, fist bumped the quadriplegic doctor, gangster-like, an act of empathy Palipana appreciates to this day. Such are the trials and tribulations Sri Lankan-born Australian doctor, lawyer and disability advocate, Dinesh Palipana is faced with, on a daily basis. But such technicalities didn’t prevent him from recently being named Queensland’s Australian of the Year 2021.

The quadriplegic doctor, the first of its kind in Queensland, and the second in Australia, is currently a lecturer at the School of Medicine, Griffith University; Adjunct Research Fellow at Menzies Health Institute Queensland and Senior House Officer (Emergency Department) at Gold Coast University Hospital. “Eleven years ago I was lying on an intensive care bed, I couldn’t move my arms and legs, I couldn’t eat or breathe. My life was falling apart all around me. But to be here after all that trauma seams surreal. But I am grateful for life, for my community, friends and family that supported me,” said Dr. Palipana.

He is a founding member of Doctors with Disabilities Australia, an advocacy group for physicians with disabilities and the ambassador for Physical Disability Australia. Palipana is a member of the scientific advisory committee of Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation. In 2019 Palipana was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to medicine; Junior Doctor of the Year at the Gold Coast University Hospital; Henry Viscardi Achievement Award, a global award in recognition for his work in disability advocacy; and ‘Change Making’ in National Awards for Disability Leadership. All these accolades and achievements would have been impossible without the love and support of his mother, Chithrani Palipana. “My mother taught me what love, strength, commitment and perseverance are.”

 

Tragedy

Born in 1984, Palipana and his family migrated to Australia in 1994, when he was 10. Not only physical disability, Palipana knows only too well how debilitating mental health disorders are as well. He battled with depression, anxiety and panic disorder while studying law. “It took some time. I had to readjust my life and thinking. Finding my purpose really helped.” He realized that law was not his calling. He commenced his Doctor of Medicine at the Griffith University in 2008. When he was 25 and half way through his medical degree, he lost control of his car while driving home on a wet night. The car aquaplaned and rolled. When it finally stopped, he realized that he could not move or feel his legs. Palipana was far enough in his medical education to self diagnose it as a spinal cord injury. It left him quadriplegic.

He lost all sensory and motor function below his chest due to the injury. “I can’t move my fingers,” said Palipana. He has had to make a lot of adjustments to life. “Initially, going from a normal life to being paralysed, was very challenging.” Palipana pointed out that even day-to-day activities can be difficult with impaired movement. Despite a life-changing disability, Palipana decided to go back to medical school. Against all odds he graduated in 2016, with quite a few awards, as the first quadriplegic medical graduate in the state of Queensland, the second in Australia. He also completed a medical clerkship at Harvard Medical School.

Prof Harry McConnell of Griffith University was instrumental in getting Dinesh back on his feet, no pun intended. “He is a passionate believer in inclusivity and has always fought for the rights of those with different abilities. He did a lot of work to facilitate me coming back to medical school. He also helped me a lot with getting my life back together.” Palipana was inspired by Dr Harry Eeman, Australia’s first doctor with tetraplegia, who sustained a severe form of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare neurological disorder that left him paralysed, halfway through medical school. “Dr. Eeman spent time with me to figure out solutions to some of the physical challenges. His experience really laid the foundation for my journey.”

 

Medical school

Palipana adapted new methods to train as a quadriplegic doctor, in partnership with Griffith University and the Gold Coast University Hospital. Quadriplegia can turn everyday activities into obstacles, but he learned his way around them. “Before coming back to medical school I spent a lot of time finding solutions to challenges. I had a great team helping me.” And with persistence, he learned how to hold a stethoscope making use of the natural grip of his fingers. He learned how to examine patients. “I even learned how to insert a cannula with some assistance.”

When asked how inclusive Australian professional culture is, in terms of employment opportunities for the differently-abled, as opposed to a country like Sri Lanka, Palipana admitted that it initially proved difficult to secure an internship in medicine in Australia. Despite two years in clinical training as a medical student at the Gold Coast University Hospital, Palipana had trouble securing an internship. In 2016, he was the only Queensland medical graduate without an employment offer. “I worked really hard in medical school and got good grades. It was very frustrating that non of those things mattered.”

Palipana admitted that medicine is not the most inclusive profession, but said it has improved much in the past five years. Although he explored the possibility of pursuing a medical degree in a Sri Lankan University, Palipana said that most university administrations were reluctant to accommodate him, “Except for Kelaniya University. Other universities have a long way to go in terms of inclusivity.” As a quadriplegic doctor working in Australian, Palipana said that shortcomings of accessibility are not restricted to Sri Lanka. “Accessibility needs a lot of work globally.”

His perseverance paid off. He was eventually employed by the Gold Coast University Hospital as Queensland’s first quadriplegic intern. His disability makes him no less capable as a doctor compared to an able-bodies person. Gold Coast Health, Emergency Medicine Director, Associate Professor David Green, speaking to the Today Show Australia, vouched for Palipana’s ability to pull his weight, albeit on a wheelchair. “In a big, busy emergency with a lot of staff, his value is enormous…After a while you just forget about his disability,” said Green on the Today Show. Dinesh said that the team spirit gets him through. “Besides, there are plenty of patients, I can examine, who do not require me to perform any procedure.”

When asked whether his disability has made him more empathetic towards his patients and whether the accident and subsequent hospitalization made him more able to relate to his patients, Palipana said he remembers what it felt like to be a patient. “It can be disempowering and terrifying. Anchoring myself in my own experiences helps me to remember what it’s like being a patient.” On the other hand Dinesh said that he has never had a patient react negatively to him. “Every single patient has been amazing. I am privileged to be a part of their journey towards recovery.”

Cutting-edge rehabilitation techniques for spinal cord injuries has a major research appeal for Palipana, who is determined to walk again. As Griffith University’s Biospine Project co-lead, Palipana explained that thought-controlled rehabilitation involves translating thought patterns into movement. “For example, if someone’s thinking of walking, we can translate that thought to movement by electrically stimulating the leg.” Promising results suggest that it can re-programme the spinal cord to restore some function in people with paralysis. “Therapies such as thought-controlled rehabilitation, drug therapy and digital twins have separately shown to restore some function in people with chronic paralysis. It is our hope that people like me will be able to stand on their own power again.” His ultimate goal is to come up with a therapy for spinal cord injury.

 

Advocacy

After recuperating at hospital for eight months, Palipana came back to Sri Lanka, where he spent another year, recovering in the company of family and friends. While in Sri Lanka he raised awareness and funds for spinal cord injury victims. In fact, his disability was a catalyst to his advocacy for training medical students with disabilities in Australia. “I’m lucky to be in a position to advocate for people with different abilities,” said Palipana.

Palipana obtained his law degree from the Queensland University of Technology in 2007 and was admitted as a lawyer in 2020. His background in law gave new impetus for his advocacy work on inclusivity in medical profession and education in Australia. “Law is a great tool that can be used to do a lot of good. It allows us to navigate legal and social structures.” His advocacy work with the Australian Medical Association has paved the way for national policies on inclusivity in medical education and employment. He used his story to demonstrate how the community can work with disability, to overturn a set of guidelines issued by the Medical Deans of Australia and New Zealand in 2015, vesting Australian medical schools with the power to exclude students with a range of disabilities. “Another major obstacle faced by students with disabilities was the attitudes of education establishments such as universities and academics.” Palipana said that Griffith University was an exception.

Palipana is also vocal about disability rights in the times of COVID-19. “The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted some of the inequities that differently-abled people face. Everything from healthcare access to employment has been an issue,” said Palipana. When health resources are scarce, some would argue that they are better utilized on those with a higher chance of survival. When governments of the developed world are forced to consider how to ration ventilators between people with disabilities and those without, how has COVID-19 affected those with disabilities?

If one with lungs as compromised as those of Palipana’s, were to contract COVID-19, the prognosis would indeed be bleak. Palipana explained that people with disabilities, depending on the disability, can be at high risk of increased complications due to COVID-19. “Many disabilities affect lung function. My lungs for example, don’t function as well, because of the spinal cord injury. It’s 30 percent of what it should be. If I were to get COVID-19 or even the flu, the chances of an adverse outcome is relatively high. Similarly, people with multiple sclerosis and stroke victims are susceptible,” pointed out Palipana. That should not justify sidelining people with disabilities. Palipana maintained that it is all the more reason to safeguard such vulnerable groups. “Through different forums and organisations, I am fortunate to be able to make a contribution in this important area.”

His message to people with debilitating disabilities and illnesses, who may be contemplating giving up on life is, “As a good friend once said, life is about ups and downs. Whenever there is an up, just know that there will be a down. Things can get challenging, but anyone can overcome them and live their dream, if they have the will. If I can become a doctor and lawyer others can too. Just find your passion and chase it.”

Going from being unable to breathe without the aid of a respirator, to advocating for disabled people and developing medical aid, real life success stories such as that of Robin Cavendish, never cease to inspire. Dinesh Palipana who proved his mettle by doggedly pursuing a career in medicine, while advocating for disability rights is, without a doubt, of that same calibre and hopefully will inspire multitudes more to achieve similarly extraordinary aspirations.

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