Sailing through adversity for a better cause | Sunday Observer

Sailing through adversity for a better cause

29 November, 2020

“I aspire to be a role model for women who wish to leave their comfort zone and follow their deepest dreams”.

These words from the heart mirror Upekha Eshwaree Liyanage’s burning passion to help fellow human beings.

Upekha, a lovely, young lady, embodies above average intelligence, courage, determination and compassion. She is someone of whom it can be truly said, “She is beautiful both inside and out”.

Clinician scientist

To achieve her life’s ambition of helping others she chose the noble profession of Medicine and currently works as a research scientist at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, Brisbane, Australia.

She made her contributions to the skin cancer genetics, during her PhD and is the lead researcher in the largest skin cancer genetics study to date. She indulges in her passion for teaching by working as a casual academic at the School of Medicine, University of Queensland.

Upekha has also made a name for herself by winning the Mrs. Sri Lanka-Australia Queensland title in the Miss Sri Lanka-Australia beauty pageant this year.

Born and bred in Sri Lanka, Upekha had her primary education at Sri Bodhi Vidyalaya,Gampaha and having passed the extremely challenging and competitive All Island Grade Five Scholarship exam entered the island’s leading Buddhist school for girls, Visakha Vidyalaya, Colombo .

As a Visakhian she did not confine herself only to academic work. She was a senior prefect of the school, engaged in many extracurricular activities including track and field events and Science Society activities. She was also a member of the school’s cadet platoon and attended annual camps at Rantembe. The cadets were put through many heavy paces including firearms training and obstacle run. She was a member of the platoon which won the National Championship in 2002 and bagged the coveted President’s Platoon title. Committed cadet Upekha was awarded her school cadetting colours by the school.

Double tragedy

Life has certainly been no bed of roses for this brainy, talented and lovely lass. At the age of 15, a double tragedy virtually shattered young Upekha’s life. She lost both her beloved parents within the short space of nine months.

Her father, a tax consultant and mother a bank manager by profession, succumbed to heart attacks leaving Upekha and her 17-year-old brother bereft of parental love and care. But then two guardian angels appeared on Upekha’s horizon. Her best friend Vindya’s parents, Malathie Amarasinghe and Lalith U. Gamage, a lawyer by profession and current Governor of the Central Province. opened their hearts and home to the parentless teenager and Vindya and Seshan became sister and brother to Upekha.

“I still miss my mother and father, I am keeping the cherished moments with them in a very special place in my heart. It is true that my parents laid the basic foundation in my life, especially my mom being a very courageous woman, set the example for me, but I am where I am because of my foster parents,” said Upekha.

“Aunty Malathie never differentiated between Vindya and me. Uncle Lalith gave every support he could. I had a second “home” filled with lots of love. I am very grateful to them. Also I am truly blessed and grateful to have my school friends, teachers and Vindya’s relatives around me. There are too many to mention by name”.

Upekha’s next hurdle was the GCE Advanced level exam which she sat for in the Biology stream hoping to gain entry into the Medical Faculty at one of the State Universities. It was also her late mother’s dream to see her daughter become a doctor, and Upekha did fulfill that dream ranking 389 in the all island pass list and gaining entry to the Medical Faculty, Sri Jayewardenepura University and obtained a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery.

“The going was tough, but there were some rewarding moments, helping patients which made it fully worth,” says this lass with grit and determination. Ever the keen student, Upekha used her pre-internship period to enhance her knowledge on medical research and medical administration. She worked at the Epidemiology Unit of the Ministry of Health as a Research Surveillance Officer. She also did a stint at the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) coordinating Regulatory Affairs. Here, she liased with foreign medical universities and assisted the Registrar in setting up several collaborative programs in education and research.


Upekha did her internship at the National Hospital in Colombo and the Lady Ridgeway Children’s Hospital also in Colombo. She also did a stint at a rural hospital. She treated diverse patients with medical and surgical needs and also handled paediatric work. Always empathetic towards her fellow beings she was deeply disturbed by the plight of patients who were besieged and battered by poverty. Upekha would often dip into her pocket to help genuine cases in need. What she experienced during her work in Sri Lanka made Upekha focus on the scourge of mankind - cancer, to try and help alleviate the suffering this dreaded disease caused in people.

While doing her own research on opportunities, Upekha got to know about the opportunities in world-class cancer research programs in Australia. After successfully completing preliminaries online,, Upekha went to Brisbane for an interview at the QIMR. It was a fully paid trip by her supervisor and Upekha was successful in obtaining a scholarship to do her PhD in skin cancer.


Upekha pursued her PhD at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and the University of Queensland’s School of Medicine. She was the lead researcher of the world’s largest non-melanoma skin cancer genetics study, the results of which were presented by her at the American Association of Cancer Research conference in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

She has also made presentations at many other local and international conferences and has many research papers to her credit.The outcomes of her research have been published in prestigious research journals and gained media attention.

Says Upekha of her work, “I worked very hard on my PhD, and I made significant contributions to Australia’s national cancer - skin cancer, though I am early in my career. I am the first author of the largest genetic study of non-melanoma skin cancer to date. Because of my research study, we now know twice as much about the genes that put us at risk of skin cancer and potential immunotherapy drug targets. My other causal inference work has expanded the current understanding of the association of risk factors and cancer. I specially thank my PhD supervisors Prof. MacGregor, Prof. Law and Prof. Whiteman who guided me well, and are senior authors of these studies.

Upekha is happily married to Sujeen Liyanearatchy, a merchandiser by profession. An animal lover, Upekha currently has two cats , Milo and Garfield. A great globetrotter she has visited and lived in several countries including USA, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Caledonia and New Zealand. To further enhance the knowledge in her chosen field and help others are key among Upekha’s future plans.

Winning the title in the Miss Sri Lanka-Australia beauty pageant is another feather in Upekha’s cap. It is a pageant that is held in high esteem in Australia and the Pageant Director is Dilki Perera, National President of the Aus-Lanka Business Council.

In conclusion, Upekha says, “We all have gone through different challenges in life and each experience is unique to the individual. When I think about my life it was a rollercoaster indeed, sometimes I was shattered on the ground and sometimes I was happy. This journey was not easy at all. I thought of giving up many times. But my inner voice said “no” each time when I was down.

“We never know what the future will be like and am not sure which trajectory of life I will choose next. Happiness does not depend only on achievements or how much money you have. Living in the moment and doing what we can do to live a healthy, balanced life and helping others in our capacity truly helps our inner happiness. We all live on this planet for a very short period.”