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Developing smart fabric research capabilities in Sri Lanka

A project between Professor Gareth Williams (UCL School of Pharmacy) and the University of Colombo leads to two-way knowledge exchange

Research assistant Laura Alquezar installing the new equipment in Colombo with some of the local PhD students

27 September 2021

Through a chance introduction by one of his PhD students who completed their undergraduate degree there, a collaboration began between Professor Williams’ research team and the University of Colombo.

The collaboration has great benefits to both universities:

  • Colombo gets access to UCL expertise and equipment
  • UCL researchers are able to apply their knowledge to real-world problems

Struggling with long-distance communication via Skype and email, the team were awarded Global Engagement Funds (GEF), which allowed them to meet in person. So far this collaboration has resulted in eight joint publications, presentations at three international conferences on the joint work, and contributed to the successful graduation of two PhD students.

Smart materials in Sri Lanka: making a difference for local people

The joint research programme focuses on the use of novel nanoscale materials to solve problems of relevance to the health of the population of Sri Lanka.

The programme is broad in scope, and explores both inorganic and polymer-based materials for developing improved medicines and removing pollution from contaminated water.

Both are crucial for the development of Sri Lanka:

  • The team is developing drug delivery systems that can control the location in the body and/or the speed at which a drug payload is freed from the material, to ensure effective treatment of a disease without side effects.
  • Although there are abundant water resources in Sri Lanka, they are often not potable. The novel materials being prepared by the team aim to remove pollutants (particularly heavy metal ions) rapidly from contaminated water supplies.

A collaboration that benefits career progression as well as research

Working together allows the staff and students at Colombo to obtain access to UCL facilities and expertise, and permits staff and students here at UCL to apply their knowledge to pressing real-world problems. Professor Williams has visited Sri Lanka several times and has hosted the Colombo team twice at UCL. He donated some equipment to Colombo as a result of external funding obtained, and one of the key objectives of his visits have been to guide the local team in using this.

The collaboration has also facilitated exchanges of early career researchers, helping them to broaden their networks and expertise for the future. A PhD student and a research assistant from Professor Williams’ group have each spent a month in Colombo, and a University of Colombo PhD student was hosted at UCL for three months.

Professor Williams said: “It was particularly pleasing that the latter exchange resulted in a paper in a leading international journal. One of the key aims of our work is to build capacity in Colombo, and to help enhance the research environment there, and it has been a great privilege to have made a small contribution to doing so over the last few years.”

Seed funding that has grown

Over the course of the collaboration, the teams have received several grants:

  • £12,000 from the Royal Society International Exchanges Scheme
  • £53,802 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Global Challenges Research Fund
  • In addition, the Colombo team hold a grant of $350,000 from the Sri Lanka National Research Council to develop new materials for water remediation, on which Professor Williams is a consultant international expert.

They are now working on securing further funding and writing publications (two papers under consideration, one in preparation), and Professor Williams continues to act in a supervisory role for the Colombo PhD student who spent time in his lab in UCL.

Professor Williams noted: “Global Engagement seed funding was crucial to get us off the ground. It allowed me and my counterpart at Colombo (Prof Nalin de Silva) to meet face to face and discuss joint research projects, which was much more effective than trying to do so by email. It also permitted me to introduce Nalin to other researchers in UCL, and as a result of the latter the collaboration between UCL and Colombo is much wider than just me – two academics from Mechanical Engineering have presented keynote lectures at conferences organised by Nalin.”

More information


Caption: Gareth Williams’ research assistant Laura Alquezar installing the new equipment in Colombo with some of the local PhD students

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