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Engineer from Oxford turned Doctor from Cambridge: Sri Lanka’s very own Dr. Udara Kularatne

2019 Feb 5

Udara Kularatne is a first class honours recipient of a degree in telecommunications software engineering at Monash University, Australia. He also has a postgraduate diploma on the same discipline through Oxford University. Following this, his career took a surprising turn as he went on to become a Doctor specializing in Radiology at Cambridge University!

In fact, he is known as one of England’s best Radiology Specialists. In a recent visit to the University of Colombo, he introduced his debut publication, a book titled “අරු¬ණෝද සීයක්” (A Hundred Daybreaks). Bringing much pride to Sri Lanka, Udara Kularatne is certainly a scholar of many fields. Here is what he had to say on his life and career.

1. Let’s begin with an introduction on your primary schooling. What can you tell us?

My first school was Dharmapala Vidyalaya in Kottawa. I received my primary education, up until fifth grade in this school. Although Dharmapala Vidyalaya has gained a lot of recognition now, it only provided primary education at the time. My mother taught at this school. The teachers at this school were known for being very competent in helping students earn good grades at the Grade 5 Scholarship exams. Almost half of the students who sat for the Scholarship Exam passed with flying colours and thereafter, gained entry to schools in Colombo.

2. You secured First Place from the entire country at the Grade 5 Scholarship Exam. Was this achievement a dream of yours?

It was something I never expected. However, my mother always hoped to send me to Royal College, Colombo. At the time, the Scholarship exam was the only way to gain entrance to Royal College, unless one sits for the placement exam of the school. Even in the past, there were several students from Dharmapala Vidyalaya, who had gained admission to Royal College. My mother encouraged me to make this my goal too. My mother’s only hope was to see me succeed academically. Although, when we were children, all we wanted to do was play around.

After exams ended, we spent most of our time playing with friends. The results had not been released yet. Unexpectedly, two people from Lakehouse visited the school at around 2pm. They had approached my mother and said that they had found out the results before it was released to the public. Apparently, it was a student of Dharmapala Vidyalaya that had secured first place at the Scholarship exam and his name was Udara Kularatne. They asked my mother for permission to meet me. My mother had been silent for some time since she could not believe the news she had just heard. That was an unforgettable moment for me.

3. How was your life at Royal College?

Back at my old school, I stood out, especially with my mother as a teacher at the school. But this was not the case at Royal College. I happened to be in the midst of some very intelligent peers. I did not stand out anymore. There was a competitive atmosphere among the students and the teachers at the school were also very intellectual. Apart from the standardized education, the discussions that took place in school were relatively complex and thought-provoking.

4. You secured Third Place in the island for Mathematics at the G.C.E Advanced Level Examination in 1991. You went overseas following this. At the time, the Australian government offered scholarships to the top 10 best students of the A/L exam. You pursued an engineering degree in Australia. What scope did you decide to pursue?

I gained admission to Monash University in 1993. We had no mobile phones at that time. Even the internet was just introduced. The Western world predicted that this would cause a technological revolution in the future. Due to this, the engineering division of our university became very passionate about telecommunications software. They conducted research extensively. I selected Electrical and Information Technology. We were supposed to specialize in a single field in our final year. I chose Telecommunications Engineering as my specialization. This is how I earned my first degree.

During the third year of my first degree, a company called Fujitsu in Singapore visited the university, looking for prospective employees. They recruited me. My job was to manage the creation of telecommunication equipment.

There was another company specializing in such tasks. It was a Canadian company called Nortel. However, the manufacturing took place in England. I applied for a job at this company and eventually got selected. Following my move to England, I gained an opportunity to pursue my postgraduate degree. A postgraduate degree in Telecommunications software was available at Oxford. Nortel helped sponsor my postgraduate education. However, I left the program once I completed my postgraduate diploma.

5. Why did you decide to discontinue your postgraduate degree?

I found a new passion. I wanted to pursue medicine, by that time.

6. These are two completely different subjects. What made you come to this decision?

There were several reasons. I had a passion to pursue the field of medicine since I was a child. I dreamt of becoming a doctor. However, at a certain period, all of us were uncertain about our future. The 88’ period was a time when the whole country was unstable; it was also the time for us to decide what we want in the future. So many people who were around my age passed away suddenly. Universities closed indefinitely. I had no dreams of studying abroad at that time. I was hoping to; at least, complete a CIMA programme following my A/L’s.

Once I received the opportunity to go to Australia, I asked the scholarship providers if I have the opportunity to study medicine. I asked this because I had studied chemistry, physics and mathematics and therefore, there were opportunities to study medicine. This applied for both Australian and English universities. However, a degree in medicine takes six years but the engineering degree took only 4 years to complete. The scholarship providers told me that the funds available to me from the scholarship would only cover a four year degree. So I abandoned my dream to study medicine.

One moment that really prompted my passion to become a doctor was when my father fell sick. He had to undergo a bypass surgery. Although he suffered a lot before the surgery, I noticed that he felt so much better following the bypass. I saw this as some sort of miracle.

In order to study medicine, they not only examine your scientific knowledge, but your English skills as well. Prospective students are required to write at least two essays. Following the entrance exam, I got an opportunity to pursue the field of medicine at Adelaide University in Australia. I was in England at this time, so I applied for medicine at the Cambridge University in England. I sat for the placement exam at this university too, and passed. They also had an interview process following the exam. I attended this too and eventually got selected for the programme.

I officially started my degree in Medicine in September 2003. It was a four year programme and I was thirty years old by this time. I was slightly more mature and therefore, knew how to balance my work. I had to memorize more and work harder. I was not used to this pace, but neither were the others. Some of my peers were lawyers, engineers, and bankers who were studying medicine as their second degree, like me. Due to this, I had some very memorable times.

We did this degree as a group of people who had seen the world and its reality. However, even a robot is able to prescribe medicine to the sick. It is the humble and humane relationship between doctor and patient that is most important.

7. What influenced your decision to specialize in Radiology?

After serving as a junior medical officer, I applied to specialize in radiology. I had a reason for doing so. We were taught physiotherapy in our first year of studying medicine. It eventually became one of my favourite subjects. A radiologist named Ray Godwin taught me physiotherapy. He was an all-rounder who enjoyed both life and work. Even though he was a senior doctor, he would play in a band in the evenings. He did carvings and even studied medieval architecture. I was amused by his lifestyle and approach to work. I looked up to him and eventually decided to pursue radiology like him.

The postgraduate programme that I chose took five years. I even took a sixth year in order to specialize in osteotherapy.

8. You were born and raised in Sri Lanka. What have you contributed to your motherland?

Right now, I love teaching. I received many opportunities to share my expertise and knowledge in Sri Lanka. Here, radiology is a learnt generally. For example, there are no sub-divisional radiology units. Sri Lanka has a lot of intelligent people, who are curious to learn. Every time I come to Sri Lanka to teach, I also learn something new from my country. Sri Lanka has been exemplary in showing how so many patients can be managed with very little funding. The West can learn from this.

9. You have not abandoned your passion for literature and designing. Tell us more.
I received a lot of help from musicians Aruna Gunawardene and Harshana Dissanayake to write the song Sathkulu Mathin. When in England, I was unable to visit my mother when she fell sick. This song was a result of the sadness I felt at that time. The song that Aruna and Harshana produced out of it was very impressive. Many people have experienced the sadness that we feel when we are unable to visit a sick family member when they need us most. That is probably why so many find the song relatable.

10. Your publication Arunoda Seeyak was introduced at the University of Colombo recently. Is this your debut publication?

Yes. This book is a collection of songs that I wrote within the past years. It shows the love and respect I have for Sinhalese literature.

11. You have spent more than 30 years in a predominantly English speaking environment. However, you have not failed in keeping in close touch with your mother tongue. How?

A lot of successful Sri Lankans who have become trailblazers in their field are often multilingual. It is unlikely for someone who has his/her primary education in their mother tongue to forget the language later on.

My father is a university lecturer. He is Prof. W. G Kularatne, former Dean of the Education Faculty of the University of Colombo. My mother was a science teacher. They are wholly responsible for giving me a meaningful childhood. My wife Binisha has also been my life’s greatest gift.

 

Trailblazers such as Dr.Udara Kularatne inspire us fellow Lankans in many ways: it’s never too late to do what you truly want, passion is everything, and determination goes a long way!

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