Meet Kanaka Hettiarachchi
In this industry, we're tasked with bringing forth medicines and vaccines that tackle challenging diseases worldwide,” said Kanaka. “I think that shared mission to improve and save lives is an extremely noble endeavor, and I’ve always strived to be part of that culture.
Kanaka Hettiarachchi is the principal scientist within the discovery chemistry department at Merck Research Laboratories in South San Francisco. He leads the separation sciences team, which engages in the high purification and characterization of novel compounds on site. Kanaka focuses his attention on improving current operations, including their overall technology platform and the informatics that support their workflow. “I try to develop the most important and relevant instrumentation and chromatography techniques that can enhance our capabilities to support multiple modalities and different classes of molecules within discovery chemistry,” said Kanaka.

For as long as he can remember, Kanaka has hungered for a career in which he can exercise creative and innovative approaches to solve complex problems. He studied biomedical engineering and has always found the life sciences industry captivating.
Kanaka’s lab site handles several diverse therapeutic areas, including cardiometabolic disease and oncology. Many of the molecules his lab receives require complex methods, including separation and isolation from impurities. Kanaka shared that the primary key to successful separation depends on the column you use. To accomplish their most critical work, his team trusts and relies on Phenomenex columns and applications. 

Merck Labs’ organizational mission to “invent for life” has always resonated with Kanaka. He cherishes the opportunity to work for a company that firmly commits to helping patients in need of critical medicine. The company also fosters an environment of mutual respect and inclusion, along with a focus on reducing its carbon footprint, which Kanaka says makes Merck Labs stand out among other organizations. “In addition to taking care of our people, we’re committed to taking care of the environment,” said Kanaka. “We recently announced some exciting environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives, including a focus on green buildings that meet energy efficiency standards and reducing our waste and pollution production.”

The success of the mRNA vaccines demonstrates the amazing power of science and our industry-wide commitment to save and improve lives—above all else,” said Kanaka. “It's also been wonderful to see the collaboration and collegiality that has emerged between competitors to address a common goal of fighting the pandemic.
Kanaka says that he’s extremely impressed with how fast the pharmaceutical industry moved to create vaccines in response to COVID-19.

Those working in the field of drug development and analytical testing are hidden, yet integral, heroes of the world. “Not many people understand the amount of time, money, and resources that go into creating new therapeutic drugs,” said Kanaka. “I hope that a greater portion of society eventually recognizes all of the care and craft that goes into creating new medicines for those in need.”

Kanaka is excited about the future of his industry. He anticipates a move towards more automated tools and greater adoption of artificial intelligence will yield more positive outcomes. He hopes to see a new generation enter the field with the same excitement that has driven him throughout all of his years.

Kanaka offers the following advice to the next generation: “Be curious and foster your creativity. At the same time, be patient, humble, kind, and empathetic—and don't be afraid to take risks. Learn from your failures.”