By Lankesh Gooneratne
Dr. Sarath Gunapala was the recipient of the most prestigious award from NASA – Outstanding Leadership medal. Ceylon Today interviewed Dr. Gunapala to know more about this prestigious award that he had won. Dr. Gunapala gladly explained all about this prestigious award, excerpts given below;
What is your involvement with the new NASA projects?
A. NASA has been involved in a project called Mars 2020. The experiments done during this project is different to those performed earlier. Moreover, we are building a ‘curiosity rover’ for this project. The reason we are doing this project is because we discovered water on Mars. Hence, we suspect that there can be life on mars and we thus, engaged in the mars 2020 projects because of this reason.
.What’s your role in the Mars 2020 project?
A. The instruments for Mars 2020 project have not been confirmed as yet. We have to wait until the instruments are finalized. What our group is capable of doing is to make lasers to discover Methane.
During the “Path Finder Infrared Camera” project you were the only Sri Lankan involved? Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
A. I was very happy that I got an opportunity to be involved with NASA on the Path Finder project. There is a special experience when we do a project, because the time given to complete a project is very limited. It is our duty to finish the job on time. Furthermore, what we have done has not been done by others.
How many Sri Lankans are working at NASA?
A. There are almost 20,000 people working at NASA and I work with one Sri Lankan in my department. I think there are around 10 Sri Lankans working at NASA.
Why did you choose the Science stream?
A. When I was around in grade 6 and 7, that’s when Dr. Cyril Ponnamperuma was popular and I found articles of him in newspapers saying he was the person at NASA who experimented on soil samples from the moon. So, from that time on, I had this dream to be like Dr. Ponnamperuma. Soon afterwards, I decided to study science, which finally led me to this opportunity to work at NASA.
Has there been any improvement in the technological aspects in Sri Lanka?
A. In America they think technology is the future so they improve technology day by day. I have been away from Sri Lanka for 34 years. Before I left, technology was good in Sri Lanka but now I don’t see any improvement in technology.
In your opinion, what should Sri Lankans do to improve technology?
A. I don’t know much about the Sri Lankan technological process but in America there’s something called a ‘Small Business Innovative Research’ (SBIR) where the American Government gives 3% of the money for their expenses. They’ve started such thing, because they wanted to help entrepreneurships in their country.
What is the best award you have won so far?
A. NASA presented me the outstanding leadership award just last month and they also rewarded me with the JPL fellowship award. These two awards are the biggest awards I have won so far. They are the biggest achievements to-date as is the procedure a scientist can be rewarded.
What and how do you feel when you reflect on your journey of life so far?
A. I’m proud of where I am. It took me sometime to achieve my goals.
Will you help Sri Lankan’s in the technological sphere?
A. When I visit Sri Lanka I promote science. Moreover, I have made an award to the Colombo University to award the best Physics student and at Nalanda College I reward the student who gets the highest results at A Levels. Furthermore, I made a computer laboratory in a school in my village Yatiyantota where students can study the subject of technology. But I can’t directly communicate with Sri Lankan technological people because I am very busy with my work, I work 80 hours a week.
Do you have any future plans, to make Mother Lanka world famous?
A. I am a scientist. What I do is to invent new things. That’s my job as well. So, if I can get fame to Sri Lanka by one of my inventions that would be the path to popularize my country. Other than that, I have no such plans.
Are you proud to be a Sri Lankan?
A. I am a product of Sri Lanka so I am proud to be a Sri Lankan.
Are you coming back to live in Sri Lanka?
A. I haven’t made a proper decision but I might come back to Sri Lanka or maybe I’ll live in Sri Lanka and America both. Anyway I will decide that after my retirement.
Working 80 hours a week is hard. As a scientist you have to relax your mind to get ideas, so what do you do to relax your mind when you’re free?
A. A lot of people ask me this question as to what do I do during my free time? Or what do I do as a hobby? Even as a hobby I work. I don’t have an actual hobby like other people.
Any final thoughts you would like to wind up with?
A. Yes, Science is the future and I will promote science in Sri Lanka because more inventions are better for life.