Professor Feature: Rohan Jayasundera

Rohan Jayasundera is a physics professor, who will be retiring after this year. He was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and moved to Canada in 1974, where he pursued his life-long interests in math, physics and education. I managed to arrange an interview with him, despite his busy schedule, to ask him some questions that many of his students, including myself, have been wondering.

What motivated you to become a professor? Was teaching something you’ve always been interested in?

Yes, teaching was something that was probably in my blood because generations of my family were teachers. My grandmother was a teacher, my aunt was a teacher, I’m a teacher, my daughter is a teacher, so I think that’s 4 generations now altogether. But I always enjoy it and when I see my students talk to me and all of a sudden understand things, their faces light up, and that’s a joyful moment for me. That’s the type of joy which really got me going into teaching.

Name any quote or philosophy that has been central to your life and the way you choose to live.

The philosophy that I have is, “Whatever you do, you should do it with pride, or you shouldn’t do it all.” So, whether it’s teaching or any other job that I do, I take pride in it. And there are certain things that if I think I cannot take pride in doing it, I won’t do it. I advise my students the same thing because if you take pride in what you do, you do a good job, and if you do a good job, you make your customer happy. If the customer is happy, it shows, and then you go home happy yourself, and there is no dollar value you can put to that happiness.

Where do you get your jokes from?

[laughing] Well the jokes, first of all, come from one of my mentors. I had a mentor by the name of Phil Eastman, he had a lot of physics jokes. He’s also the founder of the Isaac Newton exam which I run now. He always had a good sense of humour, and I thought that it would be the best way to teach physics because when I’m teaching, after 20 minutes, students need a break. So rather than telling them to take a break, I tell them a joke. It puts their minds at ease. Laughter is very important in life. And when you start laughing in class, you’re re-energized, so now I can teach you for another 20 minutes without any problems.

So you find that jokes are a good way to engage the class?

That is the main reason I use jokes in class, to get you engaged. By the way, I’ve heard people saying that sometimes they don’t remember the content I taught them, they only remember the joke, but it doesn’t matter. [laughing]

Can you tell me more about your research on education?

Yeah, this was something that fascinated me for a long time. A lot of people don’t care about education. They think that okay, if you know the subject, then you’re the best person to come to for that but it’s not just about knowing the subject, it’s the ability to convey the message to your students. And there are various ways students learn. You have to try and understand, are they surface learners? Are they deep learners? What ways do they have to learn? And then you have to consider all these things. Especially when you have a big class, how are you going to create a lecture that everybody will enjoy? And then, before doing a lecture, you have to think very hard, write your set of notes, and consider the best way to do it, which is what I have been doing. It didn’t happen overnight. In the past, after every lecture, I used to come to my office and write down the questions my students asked. Then I would go back and change my notes so that the next time I had to deal with that lecture I would have answers to those questions already embedded. So, in this way, my lectures got better as the years progressed, and now as you would have seen, it is very seldom that people ask me questions, even if I stop and ask them, because most of the answers to the questions are embedded in the lecture.

Would you ever consider coming back to teach as a substitute?

That’s something that a lot of people have been telling me to do. They have been bugging me that I shouldn’t retire, and that I should definitely come back and teach. But at least for a couple years, I’d like to see the youngsters in my department pick up the slack and promote their ideas. If I come here, even as a sessional, then it would still be my ideas coming forward. I like the department and the faculty, and the young professors should start doing things on their own. So the short answer to your question is no. But will I be teaching? Yes, I’ll be teaching various things that I like to do.

So, you plan on teaching more after you retire? What do you want to do after you retire?

As you know, we both have Sri Lankan heritage, and there a lot of people who can benefit from our knowledge, so I may do some missionary work.

What is your favourite passage from the Bible?

Actually, there are several passages I like but if I had to talk about the commandments, I think I love the second commandment, which is “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” That’s the thing that should govern everybody’s life. It is a very powerful statement. Practising it is very difficult, but I try my best to do it.

So on that note, what is your favourite dirty movie?

[laughing] Once again that’s a joke. Being a Catholic, I try to avoid watching any dirty movies. No, I just make fun of it to get the students motivated more and more, but what to say? No dirty movies. [laughing]

Where do you see the field of physics (or engineering) going and what do you think is going to be its impact in the future?

Well, I think the impact is tremendous. I think in every way, technology is improving in such a great manner. With the students that we have now, with their curious mindsets, the future is very, very bright. And I have the luxury of teaching the elite in Ontario, so I’m very grateful for that as well. And I know you guys will eventually turn things around. I have been very lucky to work with Professor Strickland, we taught a course together and that will always stay as a great honour for me. The impact of that itself is huge. I think the programs we have at Waterloo and the dedicated faculty we have at Waterloo will guide our students into very, very strong positions in the future. But I still like to tell my students, whatever you do, do it with pride, or don’t do it all.

You keep coming back to that idea. Is this something you tell all your students?

Yes, I tell that to all my students. If you take pride in what you do, you do a great job. And if you can do a great job, you succeed in life. Because what is success? It is not the dollar value you have in the end, it is the happiness you take when you go home. And if you can leave this place and go home and stay happy and say “Yes! I did my job,” well, there is no dollar value you can put to that.

So you don’t think of teaching as a job but more like what you’ve always wanted to do with your life?

I think teaching has to be a service. It should never be a profession. A lot of people think that you teach only because you get a paycheck. No, you teach because you see students succeed in life, and that’s the greatest joy you can have.

If you weren’t teaching, what would you see yourself doing?

It’ll be something teaching-related I believe. I think every one of us has this teaching quality in us. Say you are having an argument with somebody. Even when you fight with that person, you are teaching that person something. Teaching is something we all have, so no matter what I do, there will be some teaching involved.

What is your best advice for first-year engineering students?

There are several things I want to say to first-year engineering students. I think that the sooner you learn how to become a professional student, the better it is for you. A lot of students coming from high school have this high-school mentality and are brought up by helicopter parents. You have to get out of that mentality as soon as possible and learn how to extract information from every person you see. You cannot say this is my learning style, I need a teacher who can cater to me. You should be able to change your viewpoint and extract information from anybody willing to give it. That’s what makes a professional student.

Is there anything else you want to add?

I’ll miss my students. I have two children of my own, but I always think I have 2000 children here when I come and teach them, so I’m going to miss all of my students. I think my students know that I always had a love for them, and always wanted to see them succeed. The love will always be there.

Before you go, would you rather kiss your wife or a beautiful physics question?

Always a beautiful question, ha ha.

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