Sometimes you watch a person and think – in the words of Arundati Roy – there is a story here. This had occurred to me a couple of times as I had glanced at Professor Sunethra Weerakoon in and around the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.   She is a Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Faculty [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Prof. Weerakoon; a tale waiting to be told


Prof. Sunethra Weerakoon: Her desire had always been to return home

Sometimes you watch a person and think – in the words of Arundati Roy – there is a story here.

This had occurred to me a couple of times as I had glanced at Professor Sunethra Weerakoon in and around the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.   She is a Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Faculty of Applied Sciences, the first in the country to have been made Professor of Mathematics by  Merit, and the first female in Sri Lanka to get a PhD in this subject.

The reasons are many:

– tales I had heard from others: she wore white saree for years to mark the death of a university student due to a fight over ragging; she fights fiercely in Faculty Boards; a colleague says with a wistfulness, ‘There are not many teachers like her, who have  the interest of students paramount in her heart. When she retires, that loss will be hard to fill.’

– what I had seen: the tension palpably quivers on her slight figure as she sits in on a seminar on gender violence, she gets up to hand out a photocopied newspaper article on the subject to the participants; she does a quick walk to Wijerama Junction, a handloom saree worn absolutely correctly the Kandyan way.

– what I have experienced:  a furious voice in my ear when she thinks we have not been fair by those students of her faculty who are weak in English.

Since Professor Weerakoon’s remarkable career ended with her retirement at the end of December 2016, there is a chance to say it and have others know of this remarkable woman.  With her story that starts in 1951 when she was born, we are also allowed quick glimpses into our country’s past.

“I was the ninth of ten children.  We lived in Badulla, in the village of Medapathana.  My father was from Kalutara. My mother was very beautiful.  She was from Ratnapura.  She had never gone to school.  She learnt to read from my father. She learnt to sign from me.

“My mother was a very hard worker.  All her children studied well and did brilliantly in school.  My father was good with books.   He brought down lessons from Germany and learnt homeopathy and became a doctor.   But he was always strongly oriented towards politics.  He always wanted to do something for the people.  He founded both the SLFP and the UNP in Badulla and became their organizer – his political involvement was such.

“ I started my education in 1956. All of us went to a Sinhala medium school that was called ‘Welagedera Iskole’.   What I remember about this was how good the teachers were.  They were an organized methodical group that did very well by the students and I got a very good education in this school.

“I was always first in class – like most of my siblings – but I do not remember studying when I was small.  There was plenty of space around us – the land was about one and a half acres where we lived.  There were guava trees in the garden and I was on top of them most of the time. We did not have many toys.  The ‘kolapatha’ – the stem of the arecanut palm was our badminton racquet.  The shuttlecock was the ‘daspetiya’ flower.

“In 1964 there was a reorganization of schools.  St Bede’s, a private school a short distance away was amalgamated to Welegedera Iskole and the whole turned into Badulla Maha Vidyalaya.  Students from the whole area came here now for the higher grades.  Only two were qualified from the whole school to do Science for the A/Levels.  I was one of them.

“But there was no Science stream available for A/Levels.  But by then my siblings could support me – my oldest brother was 24 years my senior.  They gave me the means to go to Mahamaya College in Kandy.  I did everything extracurricular there as well.   I was a sprinter, a dancer, a debater. But I managed to get an A for my A/Levels which was not so common then as it is now.  I got into the Peradeniya Engineering Faculty, which at that time was the leading centre for engineering.

“I was never really interested in Engineering.  And also there was a scholarship on offer for a ‘pure science’ student.  So I applied for it and got it.  My financial problems were solved.  There was Rs. 100 given a month and that was enough for me even to have some savings left.  I went to university in 1972.

“ I was chosen to do a special in both Maths and Chemistry and chose to do maths.  And when I passed out, I taught at Peradeniya for some time before coming to Colombo and joining Vidyodaya Campus, which our university was called then, as a probationary lecturer.  My marriage was  to a Peradeniya Engineering graduate.

“My first idea was to do my postgraduate studies here.  But the advice I got was that if I was to follow mathematics, the best would be to go abroad.  So I applied to US universities and got into Pennsylvania State University and I went there as a  Fulbright scholar.  This was in 1979.  My husband joined me there after about a semester.    The course there required that I learn two languages to be able to read journals in those languages. So I learnt German and French.  And also taught as a Teaching Assistant.  By then I had children too.  But since we lived in Graduate Housing and there were wives of graduate students there, there was plenty of child care available.

“When we came back to Sri Lanka, five years later, we had two Masters Degrees, two PhDs, and two kids.  I rejoined the University and my husband went on to become a professor at the Moratuwa University.

“That was the time I got heavily involved in mainstream activities in the university.  It was also the time that was called the Time of Terror – “Bheeshana Samaya”.  I worked as the Joint Secretary in the organization called University Teachers for Human Rights.  This was a time when intense political action was needed in the universities.  The universities were anyway hotbeds of political activity.

“That was not a good time.  We had to look upon the dead bodies of our own students.  I had to see so many people die. I do not believe that anything is worth taking another’s life. Nothing that makes anyone kill another is worth it.

“From 1990, I stopped being in mainstream activity in the university.  I realized that no matter what your own beliefs are, it is possible for one to get used for someone else’s ends.  And I did not want to be used like that.  So I restricted myself to peripheral activities.

“ I am a practising Buddhist.  I have taken sil every month even when I was a schoolgirl.  I believe very strongly in the Dhamma. So I have learnt to face many things with equanimity.  And now, when I retire, I finally hope to invest some time on myself.”

Professor Weerakoon started a pioneering MSc. Programme in Industrial Mathematics in her department in 1996.  This provided a much needed course for Sri Lankan graduates; some of her students are now Professors of Mathematics themselves.  She is also the author of the first university level book of mathematics in Sinhala – ‘Mulika Sankyathmaka Krama’ –Elementary Numerical Methods that greatly helped students tide over the initial months of English medium instruction.

It is not only to Sri Lanka that she has given of her knowledge.  In each Sabbatical, she has worked in well known universities, Curtin University of Technology in Australia, Cornell University and Texas University as a full fledged Professor of Mathematics.

At the 50th Anniversary celebrations of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura Professsor Weerakoon and her team won the Best Researcher Award of the Faculty of Applied Sciences.  She also won the award for the Most Cited Scientist of the faculty.  Research papers in Mathematics are the type that do not get cited much, but three of her papers, two of which she is the sole author, have a record number of citations.

Most of Professor Weerakoon’s own batchmates are currently working in foreign universities.  “When I was getting ready to come home after my PhD, my thesis advisor asked how much I would be getting as my salary.  When I told him the amount – around 80 dollars at the time – he asked why on earth I was going back,” says Professor Weerakoon. After serving two years at Curtin University, Australia on her sabbatical, she was informed that her position had been advertised and was requested to apply.

But her decision had always been to return home. Her desire had always been to serve where her service was most needed.

Perhaps her father’s love of serving the people, his political slant, made Professor Weerakoon have this attitude.  Also, from him perhaps came her practice of speaking up against any form of injustice anywhere.    Professor Weerakoon dismisses popularity as irrelevant with the confidence of someone who knows of the level of reverence and faith she inspires in many.   “I wrote an article to the newspapers some time ago on the question ‘Is trade union action for increased salaries suitable for university lecturers?’”  Her eyes twinkle behind her glasses.  “That didn’t make me well liked.”

Heavy involvement in university work did not give her enough time for her own children.  I ask where they are now and she says that her daughter got into MIT, USA – one of the leading universities in the world – at 17.  She has a PhD from Oxford and is now an Assistant Professor at Cornell in Financial  Economics. Her sons went to CalTech (California Institute of Technology, again a leading research institution) and Cornell, also at a young age.  Now, one has a PhD and the other has two Masters in Financial Engineering and Data Science.  They all got full scholarships to go there on their grades.

‘All this without you having time for them?”

‘Sometimes stepping back is a favour you do your children.  Unless the path is going down. Then you should step in, as it is always easier to go down than up.  Otherwise, it is good to remember that strong parents can create weak children.”

Strong, she is.  She has seen a lot in her career that officially ended on December 31. Yet her desire to do service will probably not let her rest.   Recently, she and her colleagues started a teaching course for students doing Combined Maths for their A/Levels on the university website.   There is one more course left to be uploaded.  “I will probably help with this even after retirement,” she says.

This website at supervised by the highest team of lecturers at the Department of Mathematics was created so that, according to Professor Weerakoon, ‘Students would know how to use their critical faculties while they are learning.”

Despite the prevalence of seemingly unquestioning acceptance of many wrongs in the country today, Professor Sunethra Weerakoon remains positive.  “I still believe that Sri Lanka has good human resources.  We are very rich in it.  But I do not think that we are on the correct path. Our plans are not very good.  But we can change. Indeed, we must, if we are to go make this country go forward.”

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