“How can someone so full of life leave it so suddenly…” This was said by a close PhD mate of Dr Isuru Udugama when informed of his passing. Isuru was not just a social butterfly, he was a social bear – such was his strong presence and likeable personality, that he formed friendships so easily.
However, I’m here not to talk about his excellent interpersonal skills, as there are others who have written wonderful things about Isuru on social media and emails. But instead, I’m here to tell you about his excellence as an academic, engineer, and thinker. Isuru completed both his PhD (2016) and B.E Conjoint with B.Com (First Class honours)(2013) in Chemical and Materials Engineering at the University of Auckland (UOA). From 2016 to 2021 Isuru clocked valuable experience in research in top institutes in Europe and Japan, while also working in a US engineering consultancy, being a founder and involved in three start-ups, and helping his father with their successful Sri Lanka based tea company.
He has been prolific as an academic. A mere post 7-years PhD, Isuru had published over 50 peer review journal articles, 1 book and multiple book chapters. According to google scholar, he has over 1500+ citations and an h index of 23. At the age of 33 years, this is an extraordinary accomplishment. His research while covering a large and diverse range of applications areas such as chemical production and processes, energy, biotech, biopharma and even stem cell production, was always grounded to a real-world relevance. This perhaps distinguishes Isuru as a true Engineering-Academic, that is his constant emphasis for creating impact with his research endeavours.
It is no wonder then that Isuru also served as a consultant for a Houston based oil and gas consulting company. In that capacity he was particularly keen to apply his understanding of the nuances and intricacies of traditional chemical processes and implement blue and green power (power-to-X sustainability) solutions. Isuru’s experience in the bio-world was recognised when he was appointed as an Assistant Professor (equivalent to Lecturer position) at the prestigious University of Tokyo where he worked in the complex field of stem cell and tissue engineering. Before that he was a highly valued member of the world-class Chemical Engineering department of the Technical University of Denmark and their Process and Systems Engineering Centre.
Despite opportunities abroad, Auckland-boy Isuru was keen to come back to New Zealand and in his words to me wanted to return because “mum was where home is”. Isuru first joined the University of Waikato as a Senior Lecturer. There he developed his research further, being a key member of the NZ government sponsored Ahuora Project, focusing on Decarbonizing New Zealand process industries, and demonstrated his capabilities in university teaching and supervision. He taught and developed curriculum in core chemical engineering subjects such as Process Control, Mass Transfer, and Chemical and Biological Operations. He also quickly managed to recruit 3 PhD students and a master’s student.
With the university of Waikato being in Hamilton, but Isuru wanting to be in Auckland, this was perhaps not the most ideal for him. So, when the opportunity arose for a position at the University of Auckland, Isuru applied. We were delighted to appoint him as Senior Lecturer and plans were afoot thence in the department to do great things in the Energy space, as well as for Isuru to develop his strong network of research and industrial collaborators in Europe, Japan, and the US.
Alas Isuru has left us. The promise and hope of this brilliant young person’s potential is gone. In such tragic circumstances we can but only seek some relief from the fact that Isuru has left a formidable and enduring legacy in his research publications and lasting impact on our lives.
By Professor Ashvin Thambyah
Head of Department – Chemical and Materials Engineering – University of Auckland.