|Myu presenting at the Celebration on May 5th.|
Good afternoon everyone! Congratulations to OSCAR for celebrating their 5th anniversary. My best wishes to all our student presenters and their mentor who are here today.
Acquiring an education amidst the entrenched warzone of my childhood was not guaranteed. The road to school was paved with bomb blasts, gunshots, persistent power outages for years. Curfews were enforced and students were interrogated – these were the obstacles I had to overcome to even enter the classroom. My Tamil heritage made me a suspect by default, and my character was challenged on every front in my community. Among these circumstances and thanks to a few teachers my affinity towards Science was growing but without the opportunities to invest myself it was just a dream. When my country Sri Lanka was at the bloody end of a 30 year warm, few fortunate circumstances brought me to Mason as an international student in January in 2009 away from the war seeking an opportunity.
I was always under the impression that for someone to do research they have to be enrolled in a PhD program. Clearly I was not thinking straight! Am I right?! I am not sure if it was luck/chance or not but my first semester biology professor Dr. Daniel Cox became my mentor and research adviser throughout my undergraduate and graduate days for almost 6 years here at Mason. I was researching the underlying molecular and genetic mechanisms governing neuronal architecture, its development and function using the fruit fly larvae as a model with a greater implication of understanding neurodegenerative diseases. Basically, I was shooting lasers via a half a million dollar laser confocal microscope to visualize nanoscale neurons which were genetically recombined with green fluorescent proteins in a fully intact live organism. Many a time while observing neuronal morphological changes (after silencing specific genes), I came to realize that I was observing something that no one else has seen in the world before. Research made me experience the process of discovery and ultimately gave me the moment of discovery.
I had the opportunity to present my research representing Mason and the Cox lab at more than a dozen national, international research conferences and giving key note presentations. I met and networked with some remarkable undergrad, graduate researchers, professors and directors of various companies whom I am still in touch with. This made me realize the vibrant and diverse research culture out there and made me appreciate the collective curiosity we all have. I am glad to see a growing number of Mason Students at NCUR conference. In 2012, when Mason was first represented at NCUR in Utah it was just my good friend Luis and I, just two of us presenting our research. I had my first skiing experience there and managed to survive with all my limbs intact. Just so you know I grew up in a tropical country.
Maya Angelou says “If you get, give. If you learn, teach”. I had wonderful mentors who live and breathe by this quote and have inspired me to do so. I took on as many roles as possible to pass on what I have acquired during my time at Mason. On a spring day in 2010, Dr. Usher and I were walking out of Krasnow Institute having a conversation about students sharing their research with their peers. The next thing you know, Dr. Usher and I were going from one class to the other talking about undergraduate research which then led to the foundation of OSCAR Fellows, which was then further developed by my friend Luis and I. The students were always surprised when we told them they were going to get paid to do research.
I also had the opportunity to work as a student representative for the Quality Enhancement Plan planning committee that lead to the formation of Students as Scholars program and OSCAR. I witnessed professors and directors from many departments (who were part of the committee) having a passionate civil discourse for hours over minute details in policy or just a word in a statement so that the research model we were envisioning incorporated research and ideas from all disciplines. Finally, I remember the day OSCAR was presented to SACS for approval. There was a great sense of accomplishment, joy and pride that was felt collectively by all. Good times!
My appreciation and interest in research did not end within the confines of a lab. The exposure to one field made me curious about how research was done in other disciplines. I was part of the Students as Scholars committee which reviewed and approved numerous undergraduate research submissions which exposed me to research in various fields. As the Assistant Editor for George Mason review, our undergraduate cross disciplinary journal, I was leading a team of undergraduates (mostly past exceptional URSP recipients) from various disciplines, reviewing submissions that were re-visioning scholarship. I was able to witness how my peers were challenging the boundaries that were separating the humanities and the sciences through their work. For three years I worked as the vice curator of TEDxGeorgeMasonU, creating another platform for Mason’s outstanding research to reach our community and beyond. We even had talented undergraduates to present their work through TEDxMasonSalon events. As a graduate teaching assistant for cell biology lab, I would discuss about the opportunities available through OSCAR and the importance of research with my students during down time between experiments. I am really happy to see most of my former students getting involved in research. I guess they did take me seriously.
Sharing my experience and enthusiasm on research with my peers and getting them motivated towards research always gave me great joy and satisfaction.
I strongly believe that what I was able to do and what I continue to aspire to be, all connects back to my research journey here at Mason.
My thanks to Dr. Daniel Cox, my past colleagues Sri and Eswar, my parents, my mum Mrs. Thakshayini Shivanandarajah the strongest person I know, my uncle Mohan and aunt Shobana, Haren, my cousins, my family members around the world, Sullivan and Boddu family and friends. Without these generous people, I would not be standing here. I thank my guest Helen. I thank Dr. Usher and OSCAR Staff for inviting me to speak today.
My fellow students, keeping an open mind to new ideas is essential to success but "do not accept any doctrine from reverence, but first try it as gold is tried by fire". Seize the opportunities that are presented to you, have the courage to make opportunities for yourselves and pay it forward. Leave the place better than you found it.
I would like to end this speech by quoting my friend and CEO of Educate Lanka Foundation “Talent is universal, opportunity is not!”
Thank you for all the opportunities Mason!