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Graduate Spotlight: Tharusha Wijewardena

Creating a life dedicated to urban turtle conservation

May 24, 2024 - Growing up in Sri Lanka, Tharusha Wijewardena, was surrounded by oceans and several species of marine turtles that inhabit them. Fast-forward to 2024 and she is about to walk across the stage as Dr. Tharusha Wijewardena at Laurentian University’s June 4th convocation ceremony with a PhD and a plan to spend the rest of her life dedicated to turtle conservation.

“I have always had an affinity for turtles and transitioned to freshwater turtles once I moved to Canada,” Tharusha said. She developed her interest in freshwater turtles and aquatic ecosystems during her undergraduate degree at University of Toronto where she studied with Dr. Nicholas Mandrak. This is also when the work of Dr. Jacqueline “Jackie” Litzgus caught her attention.

Pursuing her PhD at Laurentian in the Boreal Ecology Program was motivated by a desire to work with Dr. Litzgus, says Tharusha. “I was interested in herpetology and when you look at the kind of work Dr. Litzgus does, she focuses a lot on conservation. She is one of the leading researchers in Canada, maybe even in North America and she had an incredible reputation so I was inspired to get on her research team and work under her supervision.”

She started thinking about working with Dr. Litzgus while completing her undergraduate studies, but wasn’t able to make it happen for her Master’s. Instead, she studied at U of T again, with Dr. Nicholas Mandrak, developing what would later become a long-term relationship with the Toronto Zoo. In this field work, the team headstarted (a conservation technique for endangered species) Blanding's turtles, taking hatchlings from the wild and bringing them into a rearing facility for a couple of years until they were large enough to release into the wild.

In 2019, when she was ready to start her PhD, Tharusha heard about NSERC funding for the ReNewZoo program that was to be led by Dr. Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde and co-applicants including Dr. Litzgus. Tharusha applied to be a part of the research team. “I was honored to get the opportunity. Working on this team, I learned so much more than just academic skills but things like collaboration, critical thinking, leadership, and virtues like patience and kindness. My advisors were a tremendous support and encouraged me to strive for more,” said Tharusha.

Tharusha’s work with Dr. Litzgus made an impression on the conservation of blanding’s turtles but also on the scope of ecology research in Ontario. In May 2023, Tharusha was awarded Laurentian’s first ever Jane Goodall Student Scholarship for her exceptional dedication to biodiversity conservation. Along with Dr. Litzgus (who received the Jane Goodall Research Fellowship in Conservation Biology), Tharusha’s work was recognized by Dr. Jane Goodall during a visit to Sudbury.

Tharusha credits her PhD advisors for pushing her to apply for her postdoctoral position. “It’s a fairly competitive position that is awarded once annually. I was nervous to apply and unsure if I would get it but I got it and I was so amazed. My advisors were the reason I felt confident enough to apply. They truly encouraged me. Doing my PhD with them was one of the best experiences of my life.”

In her postdoctoral fellowship with the Centre for Urban Environments at University of Toronto Mississauga, Tharusha will collaborate with other researchers and community conservation organizations to observe the nesting ecology of snapping turtles and painted turtles in the Peel and Halton regions.

For Tharusha, this is just the next step in what she hopes will be a career dedicated to reptile and amphibian conservation in urban areas.