Having always had a passion for science since her school days, Dr Chandanamali Punchihewa coupled that passion for science with a brave step into entrepreneurship by founding Genelabs Medical (Pvt) Limited to fulfil a niche that existed in Sri Lanka in high-complexity genetic tests.
With decades of experience in Molecular Biology, Biochemistry and Drug Discovery, Punchihewa’s plunge into the business world gained her the prestigious accolade of Woman Entrepreneur of the Year 2022, an annual awards ceremony recognizing women entrepreneurs, organized by the Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Sri Lanka.
Having gained a Bachelors (Hons) Degree in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry from the University of Colombo, Punchihewa won a prestigious scholarship to the University of Arizona where she was conferred her PhD in Biochemistry. However even before venturing to qualify in the field of sciences, she qualified as an Attorney at Law from Sri Lanka Law College. She is truly a woman possessing diverse knowledge fields.
A trailblazer for Sri Lankan women and women everywhere, Punchihewa’s serious foray into the world of work began as a Fellow at one of the premier paediatric cancer hospitals – the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where she won a highly competitive post-doctoral fellowship. She delved into anti-cancer drug discovery and development which now makes her a co-inventor holding a US patent for a potential anti-cancer drug.
Her love for research kept her pushing new domains including into molecular pathology related to brain cancers where she co-authored a number of internationally pre-reviewed research articles, was first author in an article published in ‘Nature’ one of the world’s highest ranked journals and co-authored a chapter of a book titled ‘Telomeres and Telomerase in Cancer’, which was published by the Humana Press, USA. Her intense passion and dedicated commitment to her area of expertise gained her numerous accolades and fellowships from both the University of Arizona and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
By 2014, Punchihewa was back in Sri Lanka, still passionate and still committed. She established the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at Lanka Hospitals, one of the largest hospitals in Sri Lanka and then jumped in head-first into her very own venture, Genelabs Medical (Pvt) Limited in 2018. Her vision was to have state of the art genetic tests that are currently available in developed countries, to be more accessible to patients in emerging markets and developing nations, given that Sri Lanka’s strategic location can be an advantage in that accessibility to countries around the island nation.
Her experience of researching genomic characterization, discovery of targets and biomarkers for pediatric brain tumors, expression and biophysical analysis of human topoisomerase I protein and its domains, analysis of G-Quadruplex structures, Investigation of Wnt pathway proteins and its inhibitors, mechanism of action studies of anticancer drug compounds, and drug discovery by screening have all been put to good use at Genelabs Medical. This resulted in Genelabs becoming the only genetic laboratory in the country to conduct several pioneering high complex genetic tests requiring NextGen sequencing, all of which are vital during pregnancy and cancer.
For people looking into Punchihewa’s work, it is extremely complex requiring a high degree of knowledge, know-how and exposure to the breakthrough world of medical science. But for Punchihewa it is not the sciences that are challenging but rather, running a business. The challenges for entrepreneurs are many, but more so for women entrepreneurs. So while juggling and learning all about running a business, Punchihewa also has to deal with HR challenges of getting the right expertise for her venture. Add family commitments into the formula, and she confesses to having her hands full.
In Asian cultures in general, deeply ingrained social biases dictate that women are the primary caregivers and these gender-based expectations placed on women make it extremely challenging to balance life and work, holding women back from maximizing their potential. According to Punchihewa, no woman wants to be labelled a workaholic or someone who is not giving of her best at work, which means she pulls back on her career to ensure that personal commitments come first. And due to this, the country loses out on a crucial pipeline of knowledge.
But Punchihewa is all about encouraging GenZ to venture into STEM and not let anything stand in their way. Her words of advice: “Follow your passion. No matter what you do, the passion you have for your field is what takes you places. As long as you have that, success will come. Don’t be discouraged by challenges, enjoy them and learn from them, it’s what keeps work interesting. Getting through those challenges and looking back and realizing what you’ve accomplished later on is what makes it interesting.”