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Against the Odds – Recollections of Dr. Suranga Nanayakkara

Dr. Suranga Nanayakkara currently works as an Assistant Professor at engineering product development pillar of Singapore University of Technology and Design. He was a Postdoctoral Associate at MIT media labs before that. This is his message in retrospect of the 12 years of challenging times.

“Don’t be intimidated by the language barriers, or fanciful technologies. If you work hard and if you’re determined, you will do well. It’s easy to say this. But I know how hard it is because I have gone through those situations”

It was year 2001 when NUS ECE selected a Sri Lankan undergraduate who became 5th in country in GCE A/Level examination. Nine years down the lane, on the 7th of June 2010, this same student stood in front of NUS community as Dr. Suranga Nanayakkara. This is how his NUS story unfolds…

The first semester at NUS was rather a bumpy start. It was not just the cultural shock or home sickness that was unbearable but computers and mode of communication. Computers were completely new to my world and studying in English medium was not much of a difference.

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I was nominated for the undergraduate scholarship. But it required me to write up an essay on any topic! I barely managed to scribble two paragraphs about my mother. I could have poured my heart out for an essay on my mom, but that was all I could manage in an essay in English. At the end surprisingly I won the scholarship! It gave me the extra motivation I needed to aim higher.

New to computers as well as to study in English medium, I had a hard time surviving my first semester. Friends had to help me to install software applications and to show me how to use even MSN messenger! Most of the terms used in lectures were way out of my vocabulary. I knew I had to do something before it was too late. I started sitting in the very first row in lectures. I couldn’t afford to skip any of the lectures. I carried small cassettes with me to record the whole lecture. I went back and sat down with dictionaries to make sense out of what the lecturer had said. It was a tiring process, but I enjoyed the challenge.

“My wakeup call was getting an ‘F’ for my computer programming practical exam since I couldn’t type the code in time”

My wakeup call was getting an ‘F’ for my computer programming practical exam since I couldn’t type the code in time. But I didn’t give up. On the contrary, I put in a lot of efforts not just to pass but to excel. Finally all my hard work was paid off when I received all A’s along with two A* distinctions by the end of the semester. I was glad that rest of the semesters smoothly sailed through once I got a hang of it. I even managed to successfully complete a semester at the University of Birmingham, UK on a student exchange program. I managed to engage in extracurricular activities in addition to academics. It gave me pride to represent TeamNUS cricket for eight years and to be recognized as ‘The Most Valuable Player’ in 2007.

“Finally all my hard work was paid off when I received all A’s along with two A* distinctions by the end of the semester with 4.95 GPA out of 5”

Upon graduating in 2005 with a first class honors, I decided to pursue my PhD with NUS. I was blessed with three outstanding research faculties—Dr. Elizabeth Taylor from TMSI, Prof Lonce Wyse from IDMI and Prof Ong Sim Heng from ECE. They supervised and guided me over the four years of my graduate studies. They were friendly, approachable and supportive all the way through. Most importantly they believed in me, which helped me gain that extra confidence to go through very difficult situations.

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During my four-year doctoral research, I developed a cross-modal sensory system to enhance the musical experience of the hearing-impaired. Part of this research was carried out in California and Sri Lanka. The system received exceptional feedback: many hearing-impaired users confirmed that their musical experience was vastly enhanced by it. Our work was featured in printed and electronic media including NUS research gallery, Straits Times newspaper in Singapore and the national television channel in Sri Lanka.  We published our work in CHI’09, which was the first ever full-paper by an all-NUS team accepted for this premier conference.

Presenting my work at CHI’09 was a memorable experience; I got the chance to interact with renowned researchers in the field of Human Computer Interaction. The CHI experience helped me secure a postdoctoral attachment at MIT Media Lab where I worked with Professor Pattie Maes.

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Overall I had wonderful nine years at NUS and am grateful for giving me the opportunity to excel. Looking back I am happy to have made the best out of what NUS had given me. I should thank all my friends, colleagues and my family for being there for me all these years. Without them I wouldn’t have survived.

Dr. Suranga Nanayakkara was interviewed by his university on the same topic and his interview is available below.

Dr. Suranga Nanayakkara was interviewed by Rupawahini on their project enhancing musical experiences for the hearing-impaired. That interview is available below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwqYVa8E3E0