THE NEXT GENERATION OF NEUROSCIENCE 

Ranithri Patuwathavithane

By Lauren Madrigal & Ariana Palomo

June 17, 2020

Ranithri Patuwathavithane is an Honors Student at the University of Texas at Austin on the pre-med track. She is double majoring in Neurology and Plan II, a multifaceted learning program. She is an accomplished academic student, earning a spot as a national merit scholar finalist and graduating 7th in her high school class. Once she graduates medical school, she plans to become a neurologist, sub-specializing in child neurology.

The value of a woman in any field holds incredible significance. Women have served as pioneers for unimaginable medical breakthroughs for decades now. Women only make up 30% of neurologists in the United States. What impact do you believe that an increase in the number of female voices could have on the future of neuroscience? Do you foresee the percentage of women in neuroscience increasing significantly in the near future? What do you believe needs to be done in order for there to be stronger levels of representation from women in not just neuroscience but in the medical field as a whole?

There’s a lot of stigma in the medical field surrounding the hiring of women: since medicine is a career with a huge time commitment, with the bulk of that investment happening between your mid-20s and 30s, there’s this ingrained belief that women won’t be as good at their jobs because they’re expected to also be starting and taking care of a family during the time they learn how to practice medicine and establish themselves as doctors. Because of this, women have to work incredibly hard to even be noticed (much less trusted and respected) as capable doctors. However, I think that hard work, combined with the determination it takes to succeed in such a difficult career even with active discrimination, has made female doctors a force to be reckoned with, and an increase in the number of female voices will a) accelerate the progress being made in scientific advances and b) encourage other women to pursue careers in medicine. We live in a time where stereotypes are continuing to be challenged and dismantled, so as that happens, I think we will see an increase in the number of women in neuroscience. 

"I think that hard work, combined with the determination it takes to succeed in such a difficult career even with active discrimination, has made female doctors a force to be reckoned with"

Last summer you spent your days tutoring children with special needs. There are so many misconceptions regarding individuals with special needs. These misconceptions can often blind society from the truth and even create destructive stereotypes. What did you come to better understand after this experience and did in any way change a mindset that you previously held? What do you believe is necessary for society to begin to better understand children with special needs? Did this experience have any impact on your aspirations to become a neurologist?

Last summer, I worked as a reading/comprehension tutor, working mainly with children with autism, attention deficit disorders, auditory processing disorders, and dyslexia. My experience taught me a lot about the individuality of kids with learning disorders: there’s a societal tendency to lump people with a certain diagnosis together, but many of these disorders exist on a spectrum. Not all children will have the same combination of traits associated with the disorder, and each child presents, or shows those traits, in their own way. The company I worked for had a set curriculum and rigid methods that did not work equally well for each child, so one of the things I really tried to do was find ways of adapting that curriculum to each child’s needs and interests. Doing so really helped me to not only teach those kids better, but also to connect with them and really see their personalities shine during a pretty intensive course. I plan on sub-specializing in child neurology, where I will be working with children with many of these disorders, so learning how to understand and cater to individual needs proved to be a very valuable experience.

"There’s a societal tendency to lump people with a certain diagnosis together, but many of these disorders exist on a spectrum."

Both of your parents are immigrants, you are part of the first generation in your family to be born here in the US. There is often a lot of pressure on children of immigrants. Their parents came to a new country to secure a better future for their kids which many times makes them question if what they are doing is enough, if they are doing everything to take advantage of the American dream. You have incredible accomplishments already with being 7th in your graduating class, a national merit finalist, a varsity swimmer and of course, exceptional aspirations in neurology. How has being a child of immigrants impacted not only your accomplishments and aspirations but the person who you have become?

When my parents first came to the US and assimilated into American life, they found a lot of shared values between the ideologies they were raised with and the traditional American lifestyle, especially the importance of a good work ethic, service and respect for everyone regardless of race, gender, or belief. They did everything they could to pass those values down to me and make sure that I could have a successful future. My mom invested a lot of time and energy to make sure I had a strong foundational knowledge in each subject (especially in science, which I always liked) and that I had everything I needed to excel academically. My dad also made sure I had what I needed for my education. On top of that, he was always a huge sports fan (which definitely helped him adjust to life in the US), and introduced me to sports to make sure I had something to enjoy doing and stay fit + healthy (although swimming was the only one that stuck). They’ve made so many sacrifices to make sure I had everything I needed to live and succeed in the US, and I’ve grown up primarily as an American. But I’m not totally removed from Sri Lankan culture: they’ve taught me a lot about their life back home and, with other immigrants and people of Sri Lankan descent in Dallas, formed a community that made sure I could celebrate being Sri Lankan as well as American.

"They’ve taught me a lot about their life back home and, with other immigrants and people of Sri Lankan descent in Dallas, formed a community that made sure I could celebrate being Sri Lankan as well as American."

Recent studies have revealed about 25 percent of college students pursue a double major. You yourself have chosen to pursue a double major in Neuroscience and Plan II, an arts and science pathway at UT Austin. These are both rigorous majors that require a lot of time and dedication, especially considering Plan II is an Honors Program which one must be accepted into after being accepted into the college itself. What inspired you to take on such a challenge and what motivates you through your endeavor?

I was really interested in neuroscience in high school, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t letting any other part of my education go to focus exclusively on science. Plan II is an interdisciplinary program and has introduced me to a lot of subjects I would likely never have been able to explore if I’d committed to a B.S. in neuroscience. For example, I got to take a really interesting seminar course on stress and resilience that not only dealt with the effects of stress on the human body, but also taught methods of managing stress in day-to-day life, which was definitely something I needed but wouldn’t have had the chance to take outside of Plan II. Being able to simultaneously go in-depth into a very unique and rapidly-growing area of science, while still having the chance to explore other topics in liberal arts, is something I’m really lucky to have. Especially now that all the intro-level/weed-out courses are mostly finished, I have a lot of freedom to take classes in subjects that I want to learn more about, and finding new interests in both the sciences and the humanities has helped me to get through the work that a double major requires.

The proportion of female high school students interested in pursuing the pre-med track is higher than males. However, a study by the University of Pittsburgh found that female pre-med students, with the same grades as their male counterparts, were dropping out at a higher rate. According to psychologists this is due to a lack of confidence. As a pre-med student yourself, going into your third year on this track, and also being a member of the American Medical Students Association (AMSA), you defy these odds. What would you say has kept you unyielding in your pursuit of your degree? What advice would you give to other young girls/women who aspire to pursue a career in the medical field?

"There’s not too many cases where the ends justify the means, but the chance to help people live better lives is something worth any effort put in."

I usually just really like what I’m learning, and even if it’s not something super exciting, I know it’ll serve an important purpose. There’s not too many cases where the ends justify the means, but the chance to help people live better lives is something worth any effort put in. The best advice I have is to not be afraid to talk to people! Surrounding yourself with other pre meds with similar goals, focus and determination will help encourage both you and them to keep pushing through the worst of it, especially through orgs meant for other pre med students like AMSA, which also provide invaluable resources for getting the volunteer experience and study prep needed to get into a good med school. Networking with doctors/researchers/medical professionals will help give you a good idea of what a future career might be like, and they can also give you advice to help you continue pursuing a medical career since they’ve likely been in a similar situation. 

Throughout the years, society has progressed in relation to stereotypes, with many individuals becoming more comfortable about opening up a conversation regarding the issue. However, it would be ignorant to assume that unconscious bias and stereotypes that have been ingrained into society for so long would disappear completely or immediately. As an Asian American, specifically of Sri Lankan descent, what kind of stereotypes have you had to deal with throughout your life, and how did you overcome them? Would you say being Asian-American has affected your success or access to opportunities in any way, how did you persevere?

In recent years, Asian-Americans have benefited (at least in terms of achieving economic equality and recognition of basic civil rights) from the “model minority” stereotype: the idea that Asians, instead of protesting, were able to achieve equality with whites by keeping their heads down, staying quiet, and working hard to achieve their goals. It was created as a way of putting down the civil rights movements of the 1960s, but it has also helped to solidify the reputation of Asian Americans as quiet, hard workers. It seemed really sinister that that myth was able to continue without opposition from Asians, but after taking a class on the history of immigration and ethnicity in the US, I realized that the history of American treatment of people of Asian descent has been incredibly discriminatory, and that notion of being a submissive, hard working people is one that Asian Americans have had to internalize to be treated with a shred of respect. Being super conscious about the image you present to the world – making sure that you are able to reach high levels in whatever field you go into without being a burden to anyone else – is an idea that I’ve definitely internalized as well. It’s been hard for me to open myself up to people – especially to get help where I need it – because I always feel like needing help is a sign that I just haven’t been working hard enough. 

I’m still working on undoing the damage this idea has done to my self-esteem, but I’m lucky to have family and friends who actively encourage me to open up and who inspire me with their willingness to speak up for themselves and for the changes that they feel need to be made to secure a better future.

"I realized that the history of American treatment of people of Asian descent has been incredibly discriminatory, and that notion of being a submissive, hardworking people is one that Asian Americans have had to internalize to be treated with a shred of respect."