Research projects inspire international student to explore how buildings affect people’s lives

Dinithi Fernando has always had a passion for buildings. Growing up in Sri Lanka, she was exposed at an early age to the wonders of modern architecture and engineering by her mother, who loved to read articles on unique buildings.

So when it came time to pursue her own career, it seemed natural to embark on a path towards civil engineering.

“My uncle was an engineer, and I always had a passion for different structures and I wondered how they were built. When I was very young, about three or four, my mother used to buy special publications on interesting structures, such as libraries that look like books or a house that looks like a bird nest, and then read them to me,” Dinithi said.

“I wanted to understand how things were built and how the industry works, so when I was coming to university, I found civil engineering perfectly matched my dreams.”

Dinithi’s dream of studying civil engineering was realised when she arrived at UOW from Sri Lanka and today (Wednesday, 14 December) she graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering (First-Class Honours).

She said the past four years have presented her with a wealth of opportunities, however, she has contributed just as much to UOW’s vibrant student and research landscape.

As the founder of the Sri Lankan Student Society, Dinithi has helped create a home away from home for the Sri Lankan cohort on campus, which has since grown to welcome expats from throughout the Illawarra.

“When I started at UOW, there were only three or four undergraduate students from Sri Lanka, although there were a lot of postgraduates,” Dinithi said.

“I am a real people person, I love to be social and gather my friends around me. After a few semesters, I noticed there were more students from Sri Lanka arriving, so my friends and I decided to start the society, and help the new students get settled in the area. We show newcomers around, help them settle in, hold cultural events. It’s a real community.”

The society last year organised a charity project that provided educational resources to students in Tangalla, a small, rural village on the southern coast of Sri Lankan, and helped refurbish a school in the city.

In addition to her work with the society, Dinithi spent two weeks in Jakarta this year as part of the PetaJakarta research project, which uses data harvested from Twitter to map areas of the Indonesian city affected by monsoonal flooding.

It was an unforgettable experience for Dinithi, who was involved in data collection and spent much of her time interviewing residents about the impact of flooding on their lives and neighbourhoods.

She said it helped to broaden her view of engineering, and how it can be used to make a difference in people’s lives.

“I learnt so much from that project. It really opened my eyes to how a building can be designed by giving more attention to the humanitarian side and how people are affected. There is so much scope in how we design.”

A summer research project at UOW, working under the direction of Professor Buddhima Indraratna, changed the direction of Dinithi’s study and her eventual career path. Although she was initially interested in structural engineering, the project focused on soil engineering, which captivated Dinithi.

“It was a really good experience. That project introduced me to geotechnical engineering and persuaded me to take that path. I’m now working as a geotechnical engineer thanks to that exposure at uni.”

During her time at UOW, Dinithi has also been involved in campus tours through the McKinnon Walker Trust, a $1.3 million fund that was endowed to the University by former Vice-Chancellor Emeritus Professor Ken McKinnon AO and his wife Suzanne Walker.

Along with six other students, Dinithi toured universities in the United States, United Kingdom and Europe to see how aspects of their campus could be incorporated at UOW to improve students’ experiences.

Dinithi, who has now taken on a role as a civil engineer for a multinational geotechnical engineering firm in Sydney, is grateful for all the amazing opportunities she has received since coming to Wollongong and to UOW.

“I’ve never regretted my decision to come to UOW. It wasn’t easy, being away from home, but I’ve made so many wonderful friends and had so many experiences. I really don’t want to leave.”

Photo: Dinithi Fernando. Credit: Matt Estherby

Words by India Lloyd. Originally published on UOW Newsroom