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Master-builder of the Human Genetics Unit

Walking up the stairs of the Faculty of Medicine, which reminded me of a colonial English Mansion with an imposing regal atmosphere, I finally found the Office of the Dean.

In his spacious office sat Professor Rohan W. Jayasekara, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine who is a pioneer in the field of Medical Genetics in Sri Lanka. He is the person who established the first Human Genetics Unit in the country in 1983. Professor Jayasekara appeared to be extremely affable with a most friendly disposition and he immediately put one at ease. This is his interview with Reminiscences of Gold.


Professor Rohan Jayasekara

“I was born in Colombo and had my upbringing in Mount Lavinia. I was the only child in the family. The childhood I spent in the early 50s was a laid back setup where things moved at a leisurely pace. Children got their education but at the same time they enjoyed their childhood. School began at 8.45 am and finished at 3.15 in the afternoon. So after a good breakfast, we went to school with a lunch break of one hour from 12.15pm - 1.15pm. We could even play a cricket match continuing the next day. Classes finished at 3.15 pm and those who wanted to play sports could stay on in the college.

Peradeniya University

“Others came home and played the usual cricket, rugby and football in our garden. All the neighbours were one family. My father was an old Peterite so he sent me to St. Peter’s. There was strict discipline at St. Peter’s but at the same time there was a lot of freedom and we had a proper moulding. I owe so much to my old school. The important thing during that era was that we didn’t have television. I remember coming to the British Council very regularly because I used to finish two books every week. We developed our reading habits which helped improve our command of the language,” explained Jayasekara.

He joined the Faculty of Medicine at the Peradeniya University in 1967 where he spent five years. “Those were the best years of my life and it was one of the most beautiful universities in the world. We had a balanced life. We thoroughly enjoyed seeing plays in the Open Arts Theatre. There were very dedicated teachers and there were the likes of Professor Bibile who had musical evenings in their homes. It was an enriching experience. I always felt that the graduates of Peradeniya had a kindred spirit. Maybe because we lived together, ate and drank together, enjoyed, celebrated and cried together. The 1971 JVP insurrection was the only tragic experience we had. Some lost their lives.”

Jayasekera joined the Faculty of Medicine as a lecturer in 1974. He left the island in 1977 for his postgraduate studies at the Department of Human Genetics, University of Newcastle upon Tyne. “It’s a beautiful university town with friendly people. We learnt not only the subject matter but also other character moulding traits: how to communicate with people, how to be polite and how to disagree with people and how to control oneself. I have never seen any British professional throwing tantrums. Not even under the harshest of provocations. I have never seen my boss losing his temper. They had a way about them.”

“I had a very interesting experience during my stay in England. Besides my Ph.D. certificate, I also have a certificate from the Chief Constable of Northern England, the equivalent of our IGP there because I helped them arrest red handed a gang of car thieves. I used to work on the fourth floor of the Human Genetics Unit from where I could see the car park. One day I looked down at the car park and saw my car there. Fifteen minutes later I noticed that my red car was missing. So I phoned the Police. A week later they came home and knocked on the door and the people in my flat thought that I had committed a crime. My car had been found in Glasgow because some football hooligans had taken it there. It had been full of empty bottles of beer. “A few months later, when I was looking down at the car park, I saw some guys trying to open some cars in the car park. I quickly rang the cops, and in five minutes, four panda cars rushed in and they caught the thieves red handed. Then they came up to the fourth floor looking for “Dr. J” and I identified myself. Three weeks later I got a letter from the Chief of Police saying : “we greatly appreciate your action which helped us in arresting the car thieves and breaking a ring of crime that has been going on there”. My boss Professor Roberts said: “Chum, this is more valuable than your Ph.D. certificate.” I felt happy because I did something good for the community.

Jayasekara returned to the island in 1980 having obtained a Ph.D. in Cytogenetics, which was a pioneering field at the time. The study of Human Genetics has far-reaching consequences for the health of any nation. Jayasekara established the first Human Genetics Unit in the country in 1983. “When I came back from England, I was determined not to waste my knowledge and skills so I decided to start the unit. With the initial assistance of the WHO, I managed to build it up. Now we have collaborations and link programmes with several institutes abroad. We conduct teaching programmes for other faculties, institutes and colleges.

“We have trained five doctors as clinical geneticists. Now it can run on its own and it is quite independent. I don’t even have to sight the place because it is running really well. I’m blessed with good people. Now there are 30 people in the unit. Our biggest problem is the lack of space and that is the only constraint. We have an abundance of talent. People are enthusiastic and they need to be encouraged and nurtured. Our talent is unmatched anywhere in the world. So my ambition is to see that every main town has a Human Genetics Unit.”

Research programmes

At present the Human Genetics Unit at the Colombo University is a highly developed unit which handles not only undergraduate teaching but also very successful MSc and Ph.D. research programmes. It also has a Genetics Awareness Programme (GAP) which is aimed at educating health professionals and the public on genetic disorders and congenital malformations. Such population sensitization programmes guide parents to have normal children as much as possible. Thus, this unit renders a valuable service in supporting the national effort to prevent and control birth defects.

Jayasekara penned a research article titled Genetic Variation in Sri Lanka. For this piece of original research and his work in population genetics, he was made a Fellow of the Galton Institute, London. “That was a landmark paper I wrote. I did it in collaboration with some population geneticists in Newcastle. We all got the data from here and I collected blood samples of the Sinhalese, Tamils, Malays, Moors and Burghers. We analyzed them and found some definite variations among these different groups. Generally the Malays and the Moors are classed as Muslims. Even though they belong to the same religion, their genetic groups are different. The Malays came from the Malaysian Archipelago whereas the Moors came from North Africa and when you look at the population in North Africa, the same gene frequencies are found there.

And when you look at the Portuguese Burghers, the same gene frequency is found there in Portugal. Some of the North Indian populations are similar to the Sinhala population. It showed how the population has evolved over a period of time.”

Jayasekara has also chaired several National Committees such as the one on Genetically Modified (GM) Food in Sri Lanka. He was also a Founder member and former president of the Sri Lanka Sports Medicine Association, which is affiliated to the International Federation of Sports Medicine (FIMS).

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