July 2019

Dr. Priyan Weerappuli was born in Iowa while his father (who immigrated to the US for graduate school from Sri Lanka) was working toward his PhD at Iowa State University. The family left Iowa after his graduation, and moved through Maryland and West Virginia before eventually settling down in Michigan.  He completed his Bachelor’s at Michigan State University, Master’s at Eastern Michigan University, and PhD at Wayne State University. In-between he worked as a visiting research student at both The Johns Hopkins University and UC San Diego, and dipped his toes into entrepreneurship through his work with The Open Source Science Project. He is currently a first year postdoc working with Isabelle Lombaert studying the properties of neutrophil extracellular traps using an artificial biomaterial he developed as a graduate student.

What was your route to the bench? What helped you reach your position?
I have always been stubbornly curious about the world around me, and this stubbornness has long served to tether me to the sciences in one way or another. After finishing my undergraduate degree I started a nonprofit company, The Open Source Science Project (The OSSP), through which I hoped to increase access to research funding for students in the developing world through microgrants. In the course of developing this project, however, I became aware that my passion lay in being someone who was asking questions. After six years of working in a largely business managerial role, I gave in and decided to return to graduate school to complete my PhD. Having graduated, I am now hoping to relaunch The OSSP (sadly, the need the drove me to start this company has not disappeared) as a venture in parallel with the research I seek to do in my own lab.

Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
Absolutely. These episodes were infinitely abundant when I was trying to launch The OSSP, but have definitely arisen in my bench work as well. When I initially was developing the engineered DNA-histone macrostructure platform that I am currently using, I went through a period when the protocol I had meticulously developed to create these structures suddenly began failing. This began without warning, and without any obvious reason. In order to regroup and get back on track, I had to dissect each step and reagent/material used in my protocol. I eventually discovered the reason my protocol had begun to fail was a sensitivity of my protocol to the age of the well plates that I was using to form the DNA-histone macrostructure a (which determined the time since the plates had been tissue culture treated, and consequently, how hydrophilic the well surface was). I learned, from my time developing The OSSP, that the best way to overcome failure is to meticulously and dispassionately (it is important not to take failure personally, or to misinterpret the underlying causes of it as a character flaw) identify and interrogate the events leading up to that failure.

Can you give Umich postdocs advice on how to balance interests outside primary research.
I think the best advice I can provide would be (1) to break your goals/tasks into as many smaller pieces as possible. This will make the work that needs to be done much more manageable, and give you daily/weekly goals to drive for. In addition, (2) find others who might share your interests and build collaborative relationships. It is always tempting to envision yourself as the archetypical lone genius that toils for long hours until one day revealing the fruits of your labors … but there is a lot of truth to the saying that one travels faster alone, but farther together. Entrepreneurship, like research, is much more akin to a marathon than to a sprint.