In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Vijitha Herath, a professor in the department of electrical and electronic engineering, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. He obtained a bachelor of engineering degree specializing in electrical and electronic engineering from the same university in 1998; an M.S. in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Miami, USA, in 2002; and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Paderborn, Germany, in 2009.
Herath is a chartered engineer in Sri Lanka and a senior member of IEEE and Optica He was a recipient of the Sri Lanka Presidential Award for Scientific Publications, the Engineering Faculty Research Excellence Award of the University of Peradeniya, and the Lady Davis Visiting Professors Fellowship from The Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, Israel. His research interests include spectral imaging for remote sensing and agricultural product quality estimation, AI applications in population dynamics, visible light communications, optical fiber communications and integrated circuit design.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
Growing up in rural Sri Lanka in the 1980s, our access to scientific information was quite limited. However, there was a silver lining—a local newspaper dedicated solely to science. This weekly publication became an essential read for me during that period. Its pages contained a wide array of articles covering various scientific topics. This newspaper played a pivotal role in igniting my interest in science.
I can still vividly recall my enthusiasm for attempting different chemical experiments that were discussed in those pages. The world of chemical reactions fascinated me greatly during that time. Notably, I have distinct memories of conducting diverse chemical experiments within the confines of both my home and the school laboratory. Among these, the experiments in organic chemistry stand out, particularly those involving the creation of esters imbued with distinct aromas.
If your ten-years-younger self was looking at your career now, what would he/she be most surprised by?
By how much I have broadened my research scope. A decade ago, my primary area of study centered around optical fiber communications. However, the constraints of limited funding and a lack of collaborative opportunities hindered my ability to undertake impactful research in this realm. It was at that juncture that myself and two colleagues made the decision to shift our focus toward spectral imaging and its applications in fields like remote sensing, food and agriculture. This decision was assisted by an article that appeared in OPN regarding spectral imaging.
Fast-forwarding to the present day, a full 10 years later, the transformation is remarkable. We've successfully established a robust research collective dedicated to these domains. Our endeavors have facilitated productive partnerships with diverse groups and institutions. The outcomes of our work have been featured in top-tier journals and conferences, and we've even submitted several patent applications. This progress is a testament to the unforeseen possibilities that have unfolded over the past decade.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals
“Embracing proactive networking can yield remarkable results, fostering connections that enrich both personal and professional growth.”
During my younger years, networking wasn't exactly my strong suit. I did not proactively reach out to individuals with complementary interests to mine. As I matured, I managed to overcome this shortcoming and began proactively engaging with those whose research aligned harmoniously with mine. This led to the initiation of meaningful collaborations that had a profound impact on the caliber of my research achievements.
Consequently, my guidance for budding professionals in their early careers is to discard any apprehensions about reaching out. Embracing proactive networking can yield remarkable results, fostering connections that enrich both personal and professional growth.
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
Upon attaining my bachelor's degree, I found myself at a crossroads between two potential career trajectories. One path entailed entering industry as an engineer, while the other involved pursuing postgraduate studies and delving into academia. Without much deliberation, I opted for the latter, setting out to explore opportunities for further education.
Although the academic route may be less financially rewarding, I wouldn't have had it any other way. I derive immense satisfaction from the perpetual pursuit of knowledge and the inherent innovation embedded in an academic journey. Equally fulfilling is the opportunity to guide and mentor bright young minds, aiding them in charting successful courses in their chosen vocations.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
I work in academia, where my role predominantly involves engaging in research and teaching activities, complemented by certain administrative responsibilities. In this realm, the cultivation of research and innovation hinges on a collaborative atmosphere, underscoring the indispensability of networking and collaborative competencies for prospering in academia.
A substantial fraction of my duties revolves around educating students. Ultimately, the objective is to facilitate effective learning for these students. Consequently, the ability to convey intricate concepts in a manner that gradually enhances student comprehension is paramount. Given the multifaceted nature of academic responsibilities, efficient time management stands out as an indispensable skill requisite for this profession.
Describe a major turning point in your career. Was there a specific action/accomplishment that got you there?
In low-middle-income countries like mine, research funding opportunities are limited. As a result, research involving relatively expensive equipment is difficult to carry out. Therefore, research questions need to be selected strategically.
Earlier in my academic career, I was handicapped by the lack of funding to acquire equipment for research. Later, I decided to move into a research area where expensive equipment is not necessary and sometimes equipment can be custom built at our laboratories. This resulted in me working in remote sensing as well as multispectral imaging. For multispectral imaging research, we built a low-cost imaging system in my laboratory. With this change, my research output increased considerably and I was able to broaden my collaborator pool.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
I wish I had received a clear emphasis on the significance of focus, diligent effort and effective time management right from the beginning of my career, as these are crucial factors for achieving success.
What have you learned by being a mentor to others, and what have you learned from mentors who helped shepherd your career?
“When mentoring such a diverse group of students, one ought to be flexible and openminded. Only then can a mentor provide effective advice.”
Growing up as an aspiring academic, I did not have mentors to speak of. That may be because I did not reach out more proactively for help and advice. I may have been a bit too introverted for my own good.
As a mentor to a large number of students, I learned that there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to mentoring. Different students have different strengths and aspirations, and they have grown up in different circumstances. When mentoring such a diverse group of students, one ought to be flexible and openminded. Only then can a mentor provide effective advice.
At this point in your career, what are you most looking forward to next?
I am looking forward to developing innovative solutions in spectral imaging and remote sensing with my students that would improve the food and agriculture industry. Furthermore, I am looking forward to working toward growing the AI and machine vision startup I cofounded with two of my colleagues.
Outside of work, what is your favorite thing to do in your free time, and why?
I love to cook in my free time. My approach to cooking is mainly experimental. Normally, I do not like to follow recipes to the last detail. I like to put my own intuition into any dish I prepare. It may be that I put my innovative mind to use. Barring a few failures, most of those experiments result in tasty outcomes.