Seeing His Future in the Stars

Tharindu Jayasinghe, the College of Science's valedictorian, prepares to graduate as part of the class of 2017.
Tharindu Jayasinghe, the College of Science’s valedictorian, prepares to graduate as part of the class of 2017.

Growing up curious about the world outside his window in Sri Lanka, 8-year-old Tharindu Jayasinghe would patiently wait for the slow internet dial-up connection to finally connect so he could look through hundreds of space images. He would spend hours poring over Hubble Space Telescope images and share all his newfound knowledge with his elementary class.

Jayasinghe, whose first name Tharindu means moon in his native Sinhalese, didn’t imagine his passion for astronomy would take him to where he is today. As the 2017 College of Science valedictorian with sights on earning his Ph.D. in astronomy at Ohio State University, Jayasinghe has well surpassed his humble beginnings.

Jayasinghe’s parents saw his passion early on, watching him trade book vouchers he received for academic excellence for more books on the moon and stars. Recognizing his potential, his parents sent him to international schools they could afford so he could pursue his dreams of learning more about astronomy.

“My family wasn’t especially wealthy,” Jayasinghe says. “My dad works as an agricultural consultant to the government and nonprofit agencies, while my mom works as the factory manager for a prominent biscuit manufacturing plant.”

In high school, Jayasinghe excelled in a series of international examinations conducted by the University of Cambridge. He received the highest scores in Sri Lanka for computing and biology, and was later chosen as the top student in the country based on the average of seven examinations.

Being from the working class in Sri Lanka, Jayasinghe’s parents knew they would have to make sacrifices to send their son to college. They worked overtime, procured loans, and dipped into their retirement to send him to the United States. Watching Jayasinghe succeed from a young age proved their sacrifice was worth it.

From there, he attended a satellite campus of John F. Kennedy University that focused on preparing students to transfer to United States universities. He spent two years taking introductory courses until coming to Cal Poly Pomona as a junior physics major in fall 2015.

“Given the financial difficulties I faced as an international student, I chose Cal Poly Pomona knowing I would get a great education at a great value,” Jayasinghe says. “I was excited to be a part of the strong, growing astronomy program with its emphasis on undergraduate research.”

With his passion for the moon, stars and galaxies still at the forefront of his aspirations, he was thrilled when professors reached out to him to discuss the astronomy and physics programs at Cal Poly Pomona. In the first quarter, Jayasinghe quickly discovered that he had to adapt to a new world in America while juggling the rigor of college.

Being alone in a foreign country was among the many challenges he faced. In his first year at the university, his grandparents died and his workload piled high. He looked to those around him for support; most of the encouragement came from his host family and his professors on campus. He was relieved when then-Physics Chair Steven McCauley, as well as Professor Matthew Povich and Professor Homeyra Sadaghiani, came alongside him and encouraged him to continue.

“I owe a lot of my success to them,” Jayasinghe says. “They gave me support throughout my time here. Povich was one professor who saw my potential and challenged me to believe in myself not only academically, but professionally.”

Trusting Jayasinghe’s background and experience in programming and database management, Povich assigned him to restore the Milky Way Project (MWP), a highly successful citizen science endeavor that began in 2010 as one of the first 10 Zooniverse projects in data analysis and collection. Eager to put his skills to the test, Jayasinghe rebuilt the MWP interface in a matter of weeks and continued to format years’ worth of data. Last year, he spent his summer developing data analysis tools for the MWP and was able to create a new system to code hundreds of thousands of citizen classifications.

“Tharindu Jayasinghe is one of the most remarkable undergraduate students I have encountered in my 20-year academic career,” Povich says. “Beyond his keen intellect and exceptional academic ability, he is a fundamentally decent human being — kind, giving, and without a hint of arrogance.”

Povich is among many professors who think highly of Jayasinghe and his academic success, and they are more than professors — they are mentors. They sharpened his natural skills as a researcher and provided personal advice when life’s burdens weighed on him.

Working with the MWP opened the doors for Jayasinghe’s interest in research. He joined Sadaghiani on a physics education research project that looked at students’ understanding of continuous charge distributions, in which an entire surface has the same amount of electrical charge. Sadaghiani noticed Jayasinghe from the first day because of the thoughtful questions he asked in class.

“I am always thinking of what is next to come for me. I want to be prepared for my teaching assignments in graduate school and beyond,” Jayasinghe says. “Looking up at the stars, I know my passions will take me far.”

Jayasinghe will start this fall in the doctoral program at Ohio State University. His plans include becoming a college professor like his mentors.

Povich is confident that his protégé will succeed. “If in a decade I find myself sending some future graduating senior of mine to become Professor Jayasinghe’s Ph.D. student, I would be secure knowing he or she would be in the best of hands.”