Bhagya claims top prize for chemistry research

PhD Student Bhagya Dharmasiri

Imagine if electric vehicles didn’t require bulky, heavy batteries, instead could store energy in its body parts – such as its doors, bonnet, or roof.

This brilliant concept could be the way of the future thanks to the research being completed by Institute for Frontier Materials PhD student Bhagya Dharmasiri – the recent Rex Williamson Award winner. The Rex Williamson Award is Deakin’s highest prize for Science, Engineering and Built Environment and IFM students whose research have a significant chemistry focus.

Bhagya, who is completing her PhD studies under the supervision of Professor Luke Henderson, is researching the development of multifunctional polymeric coatings for carbon fibre in high performance applications.

More specifically Bhagya is looking at multifunctional coatings for energy applications – in particular, structural energy storage composites in electric vehicles.

Prof. Henderson says Bhagya joined IFM two days before the first lockdown in 2020 and faced with those challenges instantly showed her resilience as a researcher.

‘Bhagya ticks all the boxes in terms of what you’d hope for in a PhD student,’ he says.

‘She is independent, motivated, and keen to get things done and get things right. She’s also a team player.

‘She has published three of her PhD papers now and in some of the best journals, including the Chemical Engineering journal – one of the best in the field.’

For Bhagya, IFM has offered her not only a chance to work with Prof. Henderson and his team but access to world-class facilities to complete her research.

‘All my friends wanted to go to the US to complete their PhD studies but I didn’t want to do that,’ Bhagya says.

‘I searched for researchers at universities here in Australia and found Prof. Henderson. He was very supportive and really understands people.

‘I did polymer science and composites in my bachelor’s so this was the perfect place with its own carbon fibre facility.

‘Here at IFM I don’t find any limitations, if I come up with an idea, and want to explore it, I can.’

Bhagya is passionate about teaching and education – she is a sessional academic at the School of Life and Environmental Sciences running lab demonstrations for undergraduates.

She also has a passion for supporting underprivileged girls who don’t have access to an education. Inspired by her own mother’s journey of overcoming adversity to pursue an education back home in Sri Lanka, she will be donating her $1800 Rex Williamson prize money to two girls in Sri Lanka who are keen to further their own education. She hopes they too will pursue their dreams and goals through learning.

‘My PhD helped me build self-confidence and helped me learn to trust my own instincts,’ Bhagya says.

‘Sometimes we may think of an idea and think it’s stupid and keep it to ourselves. But thanks to my supervisor, I can talk through ideas, we try them out and every time they have worked – so maybe they aren’t so stupid after all!

‘I am just so thankful to my parents and my partner, who sacrificed his own career so I can pursue my studies.’

The Rex Williamson Prize was established in 1984 in honour of Dr Rex Williamson. Dr Williamson was a widely respected teacher and researcher who worked at Deakin University (formerly known as Gordon Institute of Technology) in 1949 until he retired in 1983. He was a key figure in the establishment of Deakin’s Geelong Waurn Ponds campus and mentored thousands of students over the 34 years he spent at Deakin.