The Journey of an Engineer from Jaffna

 

My childhood education started in a rural village school in Mankulam, Sri Lanka, and continued in Kodikamam, Valaichenai, Wattegama and Pesalai, all rural village schools across Sri lanka, because of my father’s frequent transfers working for the Railways. My father was an extremely hardworking, unassuming, and humble man who started his working life as a relatively young teenager due to pressing economic needs of his family. His contemporaries at Jaffna Hindu College grew up to be a chief justice, a university president, respected principals of many leading schools and many other successful professionals in Sri Lanka. My childhood days consisted of my parents scraping the barrel to get mine and my brothers’ educational dreams on track. Up to my early teenage years the environment I grew up in was optimistic, and the conditions were alluring compared to my university days and particularly the time I left Sri Lanka. During the tumultuous early to mid-1970’s, my mother made sure that I stayed within the sanctuary of her dreams of her children’s success. I am eternally thankful to her for constantly reminding me that the saddest words ever written or spoken were “it might have been”.
My parents were very encouraging and demanding at the same time with respect to our educational progress. They inspired, encouraged, and supported me and my brothers to take chances, expanding our choices and giving us the boost with whatever limited means and resources they had. My parents’ greatest contribution towards my educational and professional journey was in setting the bar high when I was really young. No specific words were spoken in this regard, but they made sure that we understood what was expected by their sacrifices and unselfish and focused determination towards this goal.
My engineering journey started when I entered the engineering faculty at the University of Sri Lanka, Peradeniya, from Jaffna Central College. It was a tumultuous time within the political climate of Sri Lanka and we endured multiple closings of the university during my four years in Peradeniya. It was a period of emancipation for us, “the Jaffna boys”, accepting the new realities of the changing political climate as well as questioning the long-term future of practicing the profession of engineering within the emerging landscape of chauvinistic Sinhala nationalism. Most of us, the Tamils, chose to become Civil Engineers at the end of the second year since that was the discipline that provided the most sense of professional security and also due to late Prof. Thurairajah who was a great influence on all of us. I wanted to specialize in Environmental Engineering and made sure that I took all the requisite courses and started my engineering career upon graduation at the National Water Supply and Drainage Board.
In reality, this job was just a stop gap measure while we all planned our departure from Sri Lanka looking for better professional prospects as well as a safe environment to settle down. I was able to gain a scholarship to the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok, Thailand to pursue my Master’s degree in Environmental Engineering. As the day of Master’s degree graduation reckoned … I realized that returning to Sri Lanka was not an option. This fortified my decision to pursue a Ph.D. in environmental engineering despite the economic pressures to take care of my family after my father’s retirement. I should really thank Professor Yoshimasa Watanabe who was my Master’s thesis advisor and a great mentor during that time. I chose University of Toronto for my Ph.D. over other equally prestigious universities due to the generous scholarship they provided. Taking care of my family’s needs while pursuing my dream had an equal priority during that stage of my journey. As I was writing my thesis and ready to graduate….. the daunting prospects of a recessionary environment of the mid 1980s hit me head on while learning to cope with the traumatizing realities taking shape in Sri Lanka. I got my degree in waste water engineering and it was simply difficult to get a job due to the regulatory changes enacted in this area during the Reagan era. I was able to get a research and development job at the University of Wyoming due to the courage and openness shown by two great ladies who had a significant impact in my early professional career … Sheryl Hill and Florence Barker.
Jaffna to Peradeniya to Bangkok to Toronto to Laramie, Wyoming – the stops along my engineering journey were as diverse as they can be and they were adventurous and unchartered experiences to say the least. During my stay in Wyoming, I got married to my wonderful wife Sumathy, who grew up in New York and was very eager to return to the northeast. At the same time, the hazardous waste industry started to grow from its infancy and I could get a job very easily and joined Clean Harbors in Boston, a pure hazardous waste handling and removal company. Very soon I realized that I wanted to be a consulting engineer and joined Groundwater Technology Inc. at their corporate office in Norwood, Massachusetts. It was a great place to learn and we used to call the place as the “Tech” where many of the leading practitioners of remediation were trained there during those early years of the industry. As I rose through the ranks my travel increased and we wanted to move closer to my wife’s parents place in Long Island, NY. The timing was great since I also had the desire of working for the much-respected consulting company in our industry – Geraghty and Miller – whose headquarters was also located in Long Island. Thus began the most productive, enjoyable and rewarding portion of my engineering journey …. and it is still continuing.
At Geraghty & Miller, I had the privilege and fortune of coming under the direct tutelage of David Miller ( the founder and an icon in our industry) to learn the ropes to be a good consultant. He also introduced me to Steve Blake (later CEO) and both encouraged and enabled me to build the technical foundation to make Geraghty and Miller, which later became Arcadis, the leading company in the remediation industry. They supported me to experiment and develop new technologies and apply for patents. Steve Blake and I were the first one to use the words “Remediation Engineering” to call the fast developing multi- disciplinary knowledge base in this nascent industry. They encouraged and supported me to write a book by the same title which became a widely-used text book. I was able to develop multiple technologies and write four books due to the great support and encouragement from the company under the leadership of Steve Blake.
Steve simply was a great person, loyal friend, humble colleague, and an inspiring CEO who believed in me that I will do the right things for the company according to his vision. I take great pride in saying that Steve Blake was very instrumental in making Arcadis one of the best engineering companies in the world, particularly in the environmental services arena. I was able to contribute towards this vision through the platform he gave me as the chief technical officer by focusing my efforts on using technical excellence to develop cutting-edge technologies and provide better services to our clients across multiple industries. Arcadis encouraged me to focus on the industry trends and constantly embrace the spheres of innovation and be a thought leader in our industry. I was able to develop two pioneering conferences in remediation emphasizing on the dissemination of required information and knowledge to tackle the waves of contaminants that become the focus in our industry every ten years or so.
I am also very proud to mention the very recent release of the combined second edition of all my previous books titled Remediation Engineering: Second Edition.

Groundwater Solutions Conference: Conference Chair Dr. S. Suthersan

Remediation Engineering: Second Edition

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