A Warm Farewell to Dr. Ashoka Polpitiya
Dr. Ashoka Polpitiya is one of the pioneering members of DAANA who made a huge impact to bring DAANA into its present state. He served three times in DAANA BOD, including his leadership as the President once. Some of his ideas became the founding principles of DAANA. He will be relocating to Sri Lanka after accepting a prestigious position in Academia.
Therefore, we decided to dedicate this newsletter to Dr.Ashoka Polpitiya to give him a memorable farewell. We would like to thank Dr. Thushara Diyabalanage for composing the following interview with him.
Dr. Ashoka Polpitiya, on behalf of DAANA, we wish you all the very best in your future goals and aspirations!
- DAANA BOD 2016
Dr Ashoka Polpitiya is one of the most brilliant scholars produced by Dharmaraja during its academic renaissance in Gunaratna era. As a gifted mathematician, he became an expert in his field providing solutions to explore complicated biological systems. Ashoka’s passion and pursuits of knowledge clearly transcends beyond the traditional domains of science and takes sanctuary in the realm of art, humanities, philosophy, history and anthropology. He was one of the pioneers of DAANA and made a colossal contribution to bring it to its present gregarious state during last seven years. Ashoka Polpitiya the engineer, mathematician, artist, and philosopher was very happy to treat us with this interview reflecting on his accomplishments and thoughts on, past, present and future.
How did you join Dharmaraja?
Well, I passed the grade 5 scholarship exam and my dad decided Dharmaraja is the place to study.
Where were you before?
I was at a relatively small school close to where I lived called Gangasiripura Vidyalaya in Gampola.
How did this transition affect you?
Going to Dharmaraja was hypnotic. At first I couldn't believe I would get to enjoy that majestic view every day for many years to come. Everything felt big, but at the same time it had an extremely welcoming atmosphere. I was hooked. It was an unbelievable transition which affected my attitudes towards everything in life. The morning assemblies by Mr A.P. Gunaratne, the lifelong friendships that started, and the teachers we had, were the most memorable. I realized that it was the rarest of opportunities that one could get, and with that I felt lot of responsibility to make the best use of it. I think it gave a sense of purpose that otherwise lost in a kids mind. When you read its history, see the old grainy black and white pictures, and walk the same paths that were once walked by many giant historical figures, it's hard not to feel that you have large shoes to fill.
Do you still have those friendships alive?
I do. Just last weekend one of my best friends since 6th grade visited me after many years. We both remember all the things we did exactly the same way. It was strange and wonderful at the same time. There is nothing to hold back from each other with those friends I met at Dharmaraja. We grew up together and know each other’s weaknesses and strengths all too well. We still open up our lives with them, sometimes more than with our own family!
What did you want to do with your life during the grooming time at DRCK. I mean kids have dreams?
Every day, when I was commuting to school, I would pass the University of Peradeniya and it was the most scenic patch of the bus ride. I wanted to go there so badly. I also quickly found my fondness for mathematics. I wanted to go there and study math one day. Never ever thought anything beyond that.
How did your parents contribute to that?
I never spelled it out for them and I don't think I knew much about how to realize that dream until I was sitting for the O/L exams. It was purely my love for math that I chose mathematics stream for A/L. Like lot of Sri Lankan parents, mine wanted me to go into math or science stream. So they were happy and very supportive.
Did you get involved in extra-curricular activities?
Plenty, if wandering around Dharmaraja with friends, plucking fruits from trees, and hiding away from teachers count as extra-curricular activities! But seriously, not in any significant way. I wasn't very athletic either, though I was fairly good at playing cricket with my buddies. Apart from some occasional academic type competitions, I did not continuously participate in non-academic activities.
Meanwhile, how were your interactions with your neighborhood kids?
I had a great group of people in and around my neighborhood. We used to play cricket every evening until dark, after school, at a neighbor's backyard. If not playing cricket, we biked towards the Kotmale reservoir on a very scenic, nicely paved, road. Parents never bothered about what we did and when we got home. It was a carefree life without much adult supervision. But all the friends were responsible for their actions never wanted to push the limits.
You father was a reputed tuition master in the area. How did that affect you?
My father was a somewhat known educator in the area I grew up. He had many students from several generations. He was much respected in the community and I felt I was always been watched! There was always someone who knew my father wherever I went with my friends. It was not a burden but I think it kept me grounded.
Were you involved in any clubs, societies, and teams in DRCK?
I was part of the Computer Club (it's nerdy, I know) and we started a Math Lab during the Centenary celebrations. At the time I just started my AL grade. I remember going from one school to another with our math teachers to find out what they do and to get some ideas. These ideas were put into display during the Centenary Exhibition and we used the exhibits to start a Math Lab afterwards.
Mastering English is one of the key problems for the students of your time, how did you address this.
When I first started 6th grade I remember I had poor grades for English in the first term. Then my dad started sending me to a teacher to learn English. My grades improved. Dad being a language teacher my Sinhala was quite good. I remember that once one of my poems got featured with an illustration in "Ravaya" poetry page edited by Ratna Sri Wijesinghe. Anyway, my point is that if one is good in one language, understands the structure and composition well, then it is easy to learn another. Reading is key to improve language skills. Specially, at a young age. If one is poor in English then he or she may be poor in language skills in general. It happens. Even many Brits and Americans make lot of mistakes when using English. But in Sri Lanka there may be a phobia about English that if you make a mistake it would be looked down upon. English is being used as a symbol of elitism and class divide rather than a tool for communication and learning.
What were your hobbies, I know you had a nice collection of books?
Like you said, I was and am an avid reader. Back then it was mostly literature. Now it's about history and politics. Specifically, revisionist history. Reading history, I quickly understood the meaning of the old adage "History is written by victors". So I try to read the loser’s perspective. Howard Zinn is a great historian to read. I am also quite into outdoor activities now. Very much enjoy mountain biking in scenic Utah trails and riding long on empty roads. I need to keep in shape especially now that I am getting older! I have few other hobbies as well. One that I treasure most is a collection of over 1000 music albums on vinyl records that I have been collecting over the years.
Who were the people who impressed you during that time?
Buddha is obviously the first person comes to my mind. Understanding the truth is harder today than ever with all the chatter in the media and the Internet, where everything is misconstrued to push a certain agenda. There is no independent media anymore. Anyway, the essence of who we are and what purpose we serve during our lifetime is the hardest to figure out. Buddha was the greatest visionary ever lived. I also remember while reading Russian novels, Dostoevsky's ideas that later morphed into the Existentialist movement. When I was in AL class, I had this quote by Sartre written on my desk at home: "Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself". I thought it was as close as a western philosophy got to Buddhism.
So you said it was the passion for math that drove you towards higher education in that stream, in that case what took you to Engineering as opposed to studying mathematics at science faculty?
Engineering seemed to be the natural first choice among AL math candidates. I was very interested in applications and building things. Also the job prospects for engineers looked better. All these factors taken together, it was an easy choice.
You were one of the top performers in AL in your year at DRCK. Were there any teachers at DRCK who had a special contribution towards your achievements?
I guess we had some of the best teachers at Dharmaraja. Math teachers we had up to O/L classes were outstanding and that was probably the main reason for my passion for all things analytical. Then in AL we had some of the best teachers in the region, Mr S.U.B. Ekanayake, Mr Kapilaratne for the two math subjects. They were extraordinary! You rarely find such teachers who are so committed and good at teaching. Then I entered the Engineering school at Peradeniya. Though I found some great teachers like late Professor Mahalingam, teachers of his caliber are few and far between unlike at Dharmaraja. But you are mature enough to learn things on your own at that age at the University without much help from the teachers.
How was your university life?
Life at Peradeniya was unique. The freedom you get suddenly was a strange feeling in a good way. You make new friendships that would again last a lifetime, you meet much more diverse people from various geographic, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, you start exploring deeper relationships, etc. I did well academically and also got involved in other activities. Participated in Student Theater at Engineering Faculty few times. Also, became the president of the Electrical Engineering Student Society. After the finals, I was hired to be part of the permanent faculty (which I later forgo).
How do you see Ragging?
I did not enjoy most of it. Discussion of it can go into various social issues within the society. Social diversity in towns and rural areas, income gap, and other issues that divide the society are the fundamental reasons in my opinion for ragging to occur. Individuals, especially at that young age, fall victim to those social issues.
After graduating from Peradeniya University you left Sri Lanka to pursue your PhD at the Washington University in St. Louis USA. What was your PhD based on?
It was on dynamic models of systems and ways to control them. For my thesis I developed a mathematical model of the human eye that closely mimics the real eye and studied various ways the neural system controls it. This allowed me to study the central nervous system and the associated biology.
How was the life as a graduate student?
Grad student life was wonderful. The school I went to had a great learning environment. It was a small private school well known for its medical program. I was in the Engineering School but had lot of interactions with the Medical School. Apart from the research, I met some great people including my PhD adviser who I still keep a constant touch with. At WashU (as the school is commonly known) there was a rich and diverse culture with people from all different parts of the world. St. Louis has a rich cultural heritage too. A very dynamic Blues and Jazz scene among others. You cannot avoid listening to them played live while walking on summer days near my apartment there in University City. It was lot of fun.
What were your passions as a new PhD?
Biologically inspired systems and modeling them became appealing to me after my thesis work on eye movements. At the time Washington University was very active in the human Genome project and I did a post-doctoral fellowship at the medical school there researching computational problems related to Genomics. Biotechnology became a passion of mine ever since.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishments as a scientist and a mathematician
During my graduate studies I worked on a 3D biomechanical model of the human eye. It was one of the very first models that went into such mathematical details. My exact mathematical formulation was used in one of the episodes of the CBS drama series called "NUMB3RS". During my tenure as a Scientist at Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL) I did develop few data mining tools and one of them (Inferno: http://ashokapol.github.io/Inferno/
) has become quite popular. It has been forked by few groups into different projects and continues to garner citations. In my current job at Sera Prognostics, I was part of the team that developed a novel diagnostic test called PreTRM that can predict the risk of a pregnant mother having a preterm delivery. Looking back I consider these as the most gratifying projects that I was fortunate to get involved with.
After all that top levels training in advance research what made you go back to Sri Lanka where you may have fewer opportunities for such level research. Also are you prepared for the academic and political dominations by people with power and influence that tempted some other academics to leave SL."
Sri Lanka Telecom is doing something exciting. It is starting a new technological University called "Sri Lanka Technological Campus" or SLTC. I have accepted the vice chancellor position in this University. Lot of exciting things are planned. It will offer a 4 year engineering degree locally and also will have partnerships with Universities in US and UK. I was involved in the curriculum development activities and we just got approved by the Ministry of Higher Education to offer 4 year degrees. First batch of 120 students have already finished the first semester. This was the first time a private university started a home-grown 4-year program without partnering with a foreign university. We want to do things differently. At least we hope.
With your academic and technical background what do you envision to deliver in Sri Lanka?
I want to do my part to promote research and development in Sri Lanka however small that would be. SLTC would be a good vehicle for that. It will open up more opportunities to the Sri Lanka youth.
You were one of those founder members of DAANA and someone who made a massive contribution to make it what it is today. What do you think of that journey and the future?
I don't think I have done anything out of the ordinary. There were few of us who worked hard to start DAANA and to get it where it is now. Many have stayed behind and helped. Great to see how it evolved over the years. I hope it continues to help young Rajans via scholarships and other type of assistance.
There were ideas to form a global OBA. And sometimes it was difficult to coordinate with the school and get full attention. Now that you are in Sri Lanka do you see yourself get involved in local OBAs and trying to provide support?
I am looking forward to get involved in the OBA activities in Sri Lanka if I can be of any use. As social animals, we tend to do things better when we sit together face-to-face. But that doesn't mean the global OBA wouldn't work. It needs more planning and committed folks in many parts of the world.
You edited DAANA digital pencil magazine for several years. Do you have any ideas of getting involved in creative writing?
Creative writing: I used to think that art is only for entertainment. Now I am a believer that art is used to change how people think in more subtle ways. I like independent small artists who are not controlled by corporate publishing houses but most art and creative writing that is popular today is manufactured to direct our thoughts in my opinion. It doesn't mean I don't enjoy a nice novel but I can't help but wonder about the author's intention for writing it in the first place. I dabbled with creative writing in the past but now I am more into history and sociology. It can benefit from creative writing though.
Are you happy with your accomplishments thus far?
I look at what I have done in the past as inevitable things that I had to do without much planning. My thinking on our purpose of living has changed from time to time. So in certain ways I reject most things I have done in the past and accept some. It cannot be looked at as a sum gain or sum loss because I have to factor in the context; what I was thinking at the time and what was required at the time. Most things we do and have done look appropriate with the context. But if you look back it could have been done differently for sure. Am I happy about those? I'd say I am neutral about them.
Farewell Messages to Dr. Ashoka Polpitiya from some of his DAANA Friends
When Ashoka is around, nothing ain't over until he is involved. He was by far the most talented writer, techie, graphic designer, webinar moderator
, reviewer and the volunteer that we always counted in by default. In the first BOD, he was one of the guys who forced our unwritten motto "old rajans noble duty is to serve young rajans" on us and that became the founding ideals. He is generous - the pocket is always very deep for any request that comes from a young student.
He walks the talk in a world where most just talk. One of the brightest that I had the privilege of working together. Working with him was fun, he even introduced Niccolo Machiavelli's writings to us when we quote Gandhi for anything and everything that we can't say by ourselves, so it was enlightening too. I am glad I got to know him through DAANA and made a lifelong friend.
Sorry AP I have to stop here since I don't have time to write a short message. For me it would have been much easier to write a long message for you.
GOOD LUCK AND ALL THE BEST FOR YOUR NEXT ENDEAVOR !!
- Dr. Sarith Mahanama, Washington DC
I was so fortunate to work with Ashoka Polpitiya in the inaugural DAANA BOD back in 2009. It was a priceless experience to see and learn from the way he work. Since the inception of DAANA, he spent numerous hours and days without any hesitation at all to bring DAANA to current status. Then he served again in the BOD twice (once as the president) and made sure DAANA progressed in a progressive manner each year.
When I served the BOD again in 2014, I turned to Ashoka's help more than a several times and I always got more assistance than I expected in a very timely manner. His leaving to Sri Lanka will leave a significant void but we can be happy knowing that Sri Lanka will benefit immensely from his return.
My wife and I had a great time with Ashoka, Sepali and family when we met in 2015 DC Sevens and DAANA Get-together. I wish Ashoka, Sepali and family a safe journey back to Sri Lanka and wishing you all the very best for all your future endeavours. Ashoka, DAANA will miss you. Hats off to everything you have done. Thank you!!
- Sajith Ellepola, Calgary
Ashoka, or affectionately known to us as AP, was a star during his days at Lake View and became well-known among many circles for his academic excellence. AP is a man with many talents who left his footprint in DAANA in its formative years where he played a pivotal role in creating its identity. Among many other contributions, he is a top donor, 3 time BOD member, and a past president.
A true testament to his artistic talent is the DAANA Logo which he created at the infancy of our beloved association. When the DAANA was formed in 2009, Dimuthu Jayawickrama proposed to hold a logo competition for the students at DRC. Once the entries were received the challenge was to come up with a suitable final version. AP undertook the task and presented the one we proudly display today.
When the first edition of the DAANA magazine was taking its shape, AP stepped forward and shouldered the mass of the work including compilation, editing, and artistic rendering which resulted in a beauty. When we struggled to find a name for the magazine, again, AP came up with the term “Digital Pencil” which we continue to use to date.
- Sanka Tennakoon, Houston
I got to know Ashoka aiyya (i would call him 'aiyya' with lot of respect, rather than just "Ashoka") in 2013 when we served in DAANA BOD together. As a former board member and as a senior Rajan, his guidance and advice was very valuable during that year. Without a doubt I can say, I've learnt at least a thing or two from him while working and I'm grateful for that.
It was kind of a surprise to hear that he's leaving the US but I’m sure Sri Lanka would need people like him to take it forward. I wish him all the very best!
- Buddhika Bandaranayake, Ann Arbor
Ashoka, it was great working with you in DANNA. Your enthusiasm and energy was inspiration for us all! Good Luck in your new endeavor!
- Indrajith Rajapaksa, Irvine