Isuru Udugama, 1990-2023

Article by Ashvin Thambyah

ISURU UDUGAMA, who has died aged 33, leaves a formidable legacy through his research publications thanks to his excellence as an academic, engineer and thinker.

Prolific as an academic, a mere seven years post PhD, Isuru had already published over 50 peer review journal articles, a book, and multiple book chapters. According to Google Scholar, he has over 1,500 citations and an h index of 23. 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 in a real-world relevance.

Isuru completed both his PhD and BE Conjoint with BCom (first class honours) in chemical and materials engineering at the University of Auckland (UOA). After completing his PhD in 2016 he gained valuable research experience in top institutes in Europe and Japan, while also working at a US engineering consultancy. He also found the time to be involved in three start-ups and help his father with their successful Sri Lanka-based tea company.

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 at the University of Tokyo where he worked in the field of stem cell and tissue engineering. Prior to 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.

"Isuru was always very passionate in his work"

Despite opportunities abroad, Auckland-boy Isuru was keen to return to New Zealand, because “mum was where home is”. He joined the University of Waikato as a senior lecturer, becoming a key member of the NZ government-sponsored Ahuora Project (focused on decarbonising New Zealand process industries), and demonstrated his capabilities in university teaching and supervision. He taught and developed curriculum in core chemical engineering subjects including process control, mass transfer, and chemical and biological operations. He also quickly managed to recruit three PhD students and a master’s student.

The winner of the inaugural New Zealand Post Graduate Competition organised by the NZ IChemE Board AGM in 2017, Board chair Meng Wai Woo remembers him as a strong supporter of IChemE and significant contributor to the success of Chemeca 2024. “He was the first person to answer my call for volunteers to be part of the organising committee for the Hackathon student case competition, which was a key highlight of the conference,” he said. “Together with the team, Isuru worked tirelessly to organise the case competition.” 

Isuru’s work with two teams from The University of Waikato helped one of the team members go on to win the Best Presenter Award at the competition. However, it was Isuru’s energy and passion which most stood out to Meng. “As part of the conference organising committee, Isuru brought a lot of energy and ideas (and lots of jokes) to the committee meetings. Isuru was always very passionate in his work.”

A move to Auckland appealed and Isuru took up the post of senior lecturer at The University of Auckland in November where plans were in place for him to develop his strong network of research and industrial collaborators in Europe, Japan, and the US, while working in the energy space.

He died on December 30.

Article by Ashvin Thambyah

Head of department, Chemical and Materials Engineering, University of Auckland

Recent Editions

Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.