Meet Nandika Bandara, the new Canada Research Chair in Food Proteins and Bioproducts.
Nandika Bandara, the new Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Food Proteins and Bioproducts recently joined the UM as an assistant professor, food and human nutritional sciences, Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences. He was awarded a Tier 2 CRC, which comes with $500,000 in funding over five years from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. UM Today caught up with him to learn a bit about him and the research he is undertaking.
Tell us about your research.
My research is focused on advancing fundamental knowledge that will shape the food, materials and bioproducts industries’ ability to create value-added protein products and advanced technologies to meet growing demands for sustainable protein products. To achieve this common goal, we are researching a couple of different themes. The first is on applying nanotechnology and material science concepts into protein-based delivery systems to improve the therapeutic efficacy and bioavailability of bioactive/drug molecules. The second is focused on developing protein ingredients from Canadian grown protein crops and agricultural byproducts with enhanced functionalities and understanding the effect of novel food protein processing technologies on protein ingredients. In the third research theme, we are using agricultural and food industry byproduct proteins as a renewable polymer source for developing advanced functional materials such as food packaging materials, bioplastics, adhesives, wound dressing materials, and other biomedical materials.
How does your research benefit Canadians?
By developing novel protein extraction methods, bioproducts, biomaterials and value-added ingredients from low-value agriculture/food industry byproducts – we will help farmers/producers and processing industries, thereby the Canadian economy.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am a certified food scientist and material scientist. I am originally from Sri Lanka, and I completed my BSc in Agriculture from the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya. I worked in the industry for a few years before moving to Canada for graduate studies at the University of Alberta. I joined the UM in July 2020: because the Prairie provinces are at the forefront of the rapid growth we see in Canada’s protein industry landscape, making it an ideal location to expand my research program. UM has a large cohort of food sciences faculty members and excellent research infrastructure required for my research program. Working in Manitoba will create opportunities for industry collaborations and engagement with the strategic initiatives located here such as the Protein Industries Supercluster, Manitoba Protein Advantage and Protein Highway™.
What does CRC funding mean to you as a researcher?
CRC funding will allow myself and other promising young researchers to engage in basic science and fundamental research work necessary to advance the scientific field. Basic science/fundamental research is not always the priority for industry research funding; however, the knowledge generated in the basic science research is the key for successful applied science research. Having that flexibility as an early career researcher is a unique opportunity to establish and expand my research program.
How did you feel when you learned you were awarded your Canada Research Chair?
In this year’s CRC nominations, results were released later than normal due to the Covid-19 pandemic. So I got the formal communication in June, exactly on my father’s birthday. So, I will not forget the day I got the news! I felt extremely happy. Because receiving this CRC will enable me to move my research group to UM and continue to expand my program in the research areas I really want to explore. Especially in the fundamental sciences related to protein chemistry and technology.
What inspires you?
I grew up in Sri Lanka in a semi-rural village, with hands-on experience in agriculture. That helped me to start my studies in agriculture and food sciences. I would say I have two role models who inspired me towards a career in academia. The first person is Professor Upali Samarajeewa, my undergraduate research supervisor at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. He is the one who sparked my research interest. Then it was my MSc/PhD thesis supervisor, Dr. Jianping Wu at the University of Alberta, who became my role model. He trained his graduate students and postdocs efficiently while managing a research group with more than 20 trainees. He inspired us to develop critical thinking, creativity, collegiality, research integrity—and most importantly—all the soft skills required to become an independent academic. I am still amazed by his efficiency in managing a large group and still being available for everyone to discuss their research and inspiring them to develop new research directions.
What about you would people find surprising?
I am a huge sports fan. I play cricket at the recreational and competitive league level. If you see a cricket tournament played in Winnipeg, there is a very good chance you would find me there. I played for a cricket club in Edmonton and played in the Edmonton & District Cricket League until I moved out of Edmonton for my first academic position at Dalhousie University. I could only play recreational cricket in Nova Scotia as there is no cricket league there. Manitoba has a great cricket league, and I am waiting till next summer to start playing. Ah, one more thing. I am a huge hockey fan as well. I know Winnipeg is a Jets nation, but I am a big Oilers fan. GO OILERS!
Do you have any advice for students/young grad students starting their career?
My advice to any young student is that you are never too late to start something and excel in it. It’s never too late to find your passion. When I graduated with my BSc degree, I had no intention of pursuing an academic career and went into industry. But once I moved to Canada for my graduate studies along with my wife, I realized that I enjoyed research and teaching more than what I did with industry. Be open to take challenges and risks. I had a well-established career in the industry back home, and coming back to grad studies in a new country was a risk. But in the end, it paid off. So be open, and be ready to accept the new challenges.