Rathnayake’s presentation, titled “Desiccation tolerance in the moss Physcomitrella patens: insights into metabolic pathway alterations during acquisition of desiccation tolerance,” focused on the ability of moss to change cellular mechanisms to survive droughts. Her research adds to a growing body of work that contributes to the efforts of scientists throughout the world to modify crops to be able to withstand harsh conditions.

About 1,500 scientists from nearly 40 countries participated in the annual plant biology meeting which was sponsored by the American Society of Plant Biologists.

Rathnayake, who is originally from Sri Lanka, said she first became interested in plants while helping her father in their home garden. She decided to come to the U.S. to get her Ph.D. since there weren’t many resources in her home country for graduate students. The small-town atmosphere and friendliness of the Midwest drew her to USD in 2013.

“I did not have a family here. I felt this town was very safe — it’s a small town and I felt that when I was trying to adjust to this environment, everybody supported me,” Rathnayake said. “Everybody — the faculty and the students — everybody was really friendly so I thought it was really good. I really like it so far because I’ve been to many big cities and different big universities and I think this is really good.”

Among the many people who have assisted her research, she said she is especially grateful for the help offered at USD by Karen Koster, associate chair of biology, and Bernard Wone, assistant professor. She also appreciated the assistance of Danny Alexander from Metabolon Inc., and Melvin Oliver and all members from his lab at the University of Missouri.

Rathnayake hopes to become a faculty member at a university in the U.S. after graduating with her doctorate. Eventually, though, she said she would like to go back to her home country to help build the nation’s knowledge base on plant biology and assist future graduate students there.

“I really want to contribute my knowledge to Sri Lanka,” Rathnayake said.

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