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THE SRI LANKAN FULBRIGHTER – Volume 7 – Issue 1- 2010


­ Scientist by Morn and a Little Bit of Jazz by Night – Himal Kotelawala

­ Fulbright’s English Teaching Assistant Programme Takes Off – Renuka Sadanadan

­ Leading the way: Lahiru Jayatilaka wants to eradicate land mines in Sri Lanka – By Colleen Walsh

­ “The Post Colonial Social Contract” – Scholar Publication Abstract

­ News from the US-SLFC

­ US Fulbright Scholars 2010-11

­ The US-SLFC Board of Directors


Dr. Alan Ernst, PhD, gives the distinct impression of being something of a bright yet reluctant hero from a DC graphic novel. An expert on neuroscience by day and a talented jazz musician by night, this man, by his own admission, has been leading a double life since his college days. It’s hard to say if he’s a scientist or a professional musician. He clearly loves to talk about both science and music – with great gusto.


Alan Ernst

“It’s good to have some balance in your life,” is how he justifies his nocturnal passion of losing himself in the rhythmic sounds of piano, bass, drums and a bit of woodwind.

Dr. Ernst was here on a lecture and group discussion on the neurological background of disabilities such as autism and Down’s syndrome organised by the Fulbright Alumni Association of Sri Lanka (FAASL) which was held on Friday at the United States-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission Auditorium. That evening, he hit Park Street Mews, Colombo, for a solo piano performance followed by a jam session with local jazz artists. Talk about all in a day’s work.

“I’ve been playing for a long time, since childhood. I was trained to play Western Classical music and then at some point I felt I couldn’t make the classical music on the page come alive; I wanted to put more of my own interpretation into music and I think that’s why I got drawn to jazz, blues and improvisational music,” he says.

What, pray is improvisational music?

“You could think of it as composition in the moment. Spontaneous composition… Instead of writing out music on the score you’re creating music in the moment. There is a tricky balance to it,” he explains.
What this means is that he sits down at the piano and starts playing whatever comes to his head – on stage, with hundreds of people watching – and he has absolutely no idea what he’s going to play.
“Sure, it’s difficult. But I’ve done this a lot. It’s actually my favourite kind of music,” he insists.

Drawing inspiration from such celebrated greats in the jazz industry as Coltrane, Monk and Mingus, Dr. Ernst specialises in improvising and identifies himself as a pianist, although he plays the guitar and flute as well.

Getting back to Dr. Ernst’s ‘day job’, if you will, he holds a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Minnesota, USA and has post-doctoral research experience at the Harvard Medical School. His PhD was related to what is known as developmental neuroplasticity which, according to Dr. Ernst, is a complex discipline that studies the ability of the brain to physically and physiologically change in response to change in environment, practice or trauma.

“It’s been shown that in some musicians, like violin players, the part of the brain that controls their left hand, performing very complicated manouevres on the fretboard of the violin, is expanded more than other people’s. Because they put in so many hours of practice, you can actually see a change in the brain associated with practice. That’s kind of what neuroplasticity is. Now scientists are hoping to take that and help people with strokes and other kinds of brain damage and coax their brain to recover,” he explains.

How did he get into all this?

“I guess I’m very impressionable. I read some works by different neuroscientists and neurologists. A lot of the works by neurologist Oliver Sacks made a big impression on me,” he says, quite modestly.

As a scientist and gifted musician himself, does he feel that music too can help fight stress and bring normalcy to the lives of the differently abled ?

“I’m really interested in whether music can be used for therapy or for rehabilitation. We have also known all over the world that music is a stress buster and people like to dance and sing. But now we’re saying that it can help patients with Parkinson’s disease move with more typical rhythm to their movement.

Something about the rhythm of music helps release appropriate rhythm of movement. That wasn’t known before and people are starting to use it. They have been using it for a while, actually, with people with autism and other disabilities,” he says.

Dr. Ernst has worked for four years as the music director for the Interact Center for Performing Arts, a theatre group with disabled actors.

“All of the actors and performers had a disability of one kind or another – autism, Down’s syndrome, traumatic brain damage, schizophrenia, mental illness. We created a theatre together using improvisation to create theatre, collectively. We tended to use musical theatre and I think it was pretty profound,” he recounts.

As for integrating the differently abled, “I think there needs to be a revolution in how we look at people with disabilities and understand that you don’t need to be defined by your “disability”. It takes a change in consciousness. But if you have that change in consciousness, I don’t see any reason why there shouldn’t be help for folks with disability.

I don’t want to get too political but I think there are some differences I’ve observed in how people with disability are talked about or treated in the West vs. in some countries in Asia where I think often times disability is hidden away, and I don’t know what the reasons for that are. But I don’t think that helps, obviously to those with disability. So, I would hope that in the future there’s more consciousness raised,” he says.

Dr. Ernst is currently working on a Fulbright Commission grant in Nepal where he will reside till July, after which he will return to teaching medicine in the US.

clip_image003Courtesy: The Sunday Times

Sipping an after-lunch coffee, Theresa M.V. Drake quips ruefully that she has brought the rains. True, she arrived the previous Friday to some of the worst showers to lash Sri Lanka in recent months. But flooded roads and thunderstorms notwithstanding, the dynamic US State Department program officer for South and Central Asia was soon heading down south to see firsthand, in a crowded classroom in Matara the results of some of the work she had been putting through from her desk in Washington, DC- half a world away.


Theresa M.V. Drake

As she watched primary schoolchildren of Sujatha Vidayalaya, Matara clap their hands and recite in English, fully engrossed in playing a modified version of ‘Simon Says’ led by a young American on a Fulbright scholarship, Theresa was more than pleased with the impact of the new Énglish Teaching Assistant (ETA) programme her office has recently begun.

As an officer of the State Department, working for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, in the office of academic exchanges which is responsible for the Fulbright programme, she has been liasing with local Fulbright Executive Director Tissa Jayatilaka in bringing three young Americans here to help with English teaching in Sri Lanka.

Every year the Fulbright programme which had its aegis through a visionary young Senator from Arkansas enables Americans to embark on study in other countries and similarly have scholars from those countries visit America. J. William Fulbright’s legacy continues to be one of the most extraordinarily successful and enduring international exchange programmes, the aim being one of cultural interaction and the building of mutual understanding, the recipients being chosen through a stringent procedure and purely on merit. Theresa and her office of academic exchange work closely with the local Fulbright Commissions to help them programme the annual allocation that they get from the State Department that funds an even number of Americans coming here and Sri Lankans going to the US.

The core programme is for US scholars and students, Sri Lankan scholars and Sri Lankan students, Theresa explains. The Ämerican students are recent undergrads, some may have a Masters degree and they come here to do research not to lecture. The students from Sri Lanka on the other hand go to the US to follow a Masters and return with a Master’s degree. “They’re known for getting into terrific universities, with awards, tuition remission etc,” Theresa remarks on how they have always been very impressed with the calibre of Sri Lankan scholars.

Fulbright’s English Teaching Assistant programme is a first here, having been initially launched in Nepal. The response was so great that they decided to look to another Asian country- Sri Lanka was interested and so with the active participation of the local Fulbright Commission three young Americans arrived late last year to experience a whole different culture and share their skills.

Theresa herself has experienced different fields – armed with a degree in political science from the University of Washington in Seattle and a masters from Georgetown University, she started off specializing in Latin America but now affirms that she is well into South and Central Asia. Describing herself as a civil servant as opposed to the Foreign Service officers at the State Department, her portfolio includes Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan.

The ETA though not one of their core programmes here is one that resonates with the Fulbright philosophy. Theresa explains that that the idea is to hopefully make an impact in improving English language skills – “they’re not teachers or professors, but undergraduates with an interest in assisting in that capacity.”

Particularly gratifying for her was being able to see the two young women ETAs in action at Sujatha Vidyalaya. “They go to the primary school in the morning and secondary school in the afternoon. They’ve had some training in methodology and they are working with the teachers, side by side in how they implement the curriculum in the classroom, and just enhance and supplement the teachers’ classroom experience.”

The day I was there they were actually teaching the curriculum while the teacher watched and gave pointers, she says. “The classes are quite large here when compared to the US and I sort of wondered how they would handle that, but they were wonderful. They were teaching 4th Grade class. They were asking them questions and the kids were very receptive. They seemed to have a sort of affinity with these young women – they’re fun and they bring a different sort of attitude to the classroom – more interactive.”

At secondary school level, Theresa shared in a session as their student advisor spoke to an eager batch about preparing for University and the two ETAs offered their experiences of college life. “It was really great to see their enthusiasm, she says of the Sujatha students.”

Arriving in Sri Lanka on their nine month assignment, the ETAs were first given an orientation, then had language expert Michael Meyler teaching them Sinhala for- two months. “They raved about this,” says Theresa. In January, it was off to the field and it has helped that they were received very well by the school.

Outlining the two primary reasons behind the programme, Theresa mentions the value of the exchange itself, in their mission of cultural understanding and the secondary aim of imparting some of their skills as native English speakers.

Teaching English is a priority for Fulbright in Sri Lanka, whatever we can do to help, both in terms of professors who come and help in curriculum reform and also now in this new initiative both at primary and secondary school level, adds Tissa Jayatilaka.

It’s also an Embassy priority, affirms US Embassy Cultural Officer in Colombo Glen Davis, explaining that they are very keen to support different language programmes and could bring over English language specialists in the teaching and learning of English as a second language. ‘We brought over Dr. Jill Robbins who spent two months at the University of Ruhuna working with the new English Teaching Unit there which was explicitly set up to train teachers of English at secondary schools. She did a big workshop for 160 provincial teachers.”

The need is evident, he feels, with everybody, echoing the reality that proficiency in English is the key to job opportunities. That it helps with reconciliation, building a stable, united society by bridging the gaps that may exist is another factor.

Theresa’s brief visit is over but she leaves full of optimism for the ETA programme, affirming that the next academic calendar which runs from September to June will see five ETAs coming to Sri Lanka. Änd while two of the current scholars are based in the South, there’s no saying where the new scholars may be posted. “We’ll see where they end up,” she smiles, for there have been requests aplenty for them.

Courtesy: The Sunday Times


By Colleen Walsh

Harvard Staff Writer

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Justin Ide/Harvard Staff Photographer

Lahiru Jayatilaka grew up in Sri Lanka, the son of an engineer and a lawyer, and was largely sheltered from the civil war raging between the government and the separatist Tamil Tigers. But at Harvard, he began to understand the repercussions of the conflict, which ended last year, and in particular the brutal legacy of land mines.

On May 27, thousands of students are graduating from Harvard. Each has a successful past to relate, and a promising future to embrace. In a series of profiles, Gazette writers showcase some of these stellar graduates.

As a young computer whiz, Lahiru Jayatilaka learned a lasting lesson about the importance of precision.

His father agreed to let him build a computer for their home, so the eager teen confidently studied “how to” tips, then set about connecting the intricate, costly hardware. In the final step, he quickly inserted a small component into the system’s main control panel. Triumphantly, Jayatilaka pressed the start button, and then watched the “blue screen of death” appear.

Everything seemed to be in order, but when he re-examined the final piece, Jayatilaka noticed an arrow and three little words: This side up. “The most important part of the machine had been inserted the wrong way,” and every part had to be bought again, he recalled. “I’ll never forget that.”

Jayatilaka brought that lesson with him to Harvard. As an undergraduate computer science concentrator, the Currier House resident helped to build robotic devices for detecting land mines. It was work in which precision was everything. “I have learned that going slow, taking time, following instructions, and taking a step back are very important,” he said.

Jayatilaka grew up in Sri Lanka, the son of an engineer and a lawyer, and was largely sheltered from the civil war raging between the government and the separatist Tamil Tigers. But at Harvard, he began to understand the repercussions of the conflict, which ended last year, and in particular the brutal legacy of land mines.

After a chance encounter at dinner, Jayatilaka spent two years collaborating with Thrishantha Nanayakkara, a one-time Radcliffe Fellow and member of the Scholars at Risk program, administered by the Harvard University Committee on Human Rights Studies, on a robot that would detect land mines. The process deepened his understanding of the explosive devices, which carry sweeping social costs.

“Children can’t play or roam freely, farmers can’t farm their land and don’t have ways to feed their family, the government can’t support the number of people suffering from injuries and disabilities,” he said of the “frozen societies” that mines create, “not to mention the thousands of refugees displaced from their lands.”

The work on robots was exciting. But its prohibitive costs, and the challenges of using the technology in such rugged terrain and difficult weather, meant its immediate applications were limited. Wanting to address the problem in the near term, Jayatilaka wrote his senior thesis on patterns of land mine detection.

His research has produced a visual interface that may enable workers searching for mines to determine the type and location of buried objects with significantly more precision than is possible with currently available equipment.

He hopes to continue his work with Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences next year, to test his prototype mine detector in the field, and to start a Ph.D. in computer science at Harvard.

But Harvard doesn’t fit into Jayatilaka’s longest-range plans. Sri Lanka does.

“I have strong opinions about where the country needs to go,” said Jayatilaka, who is interested in politics. “There need to be certain fundamental changes in the way we approach electing our leaders, and the way our leaders approach leading our country.”

The irony is, he never planned to come to Harvard. His mother submitted the application for him.

“I didn’t think it was the right fit,” said Jayatilaka, who assumed his mechanical background would be better suited for a certain engineering school farther down Massachusetts Avenue.But today, Jayatilaka wouldn’t change a thing, acknowledging that Harvard’s broad exposure to the liberal arts has led to “one of the most formative experiences of my life.”

He used his time to pursue his passion for computers, but also to dive into courses in government, politics, and economics. That helped him to understand the conflict and unrest in his own country, said Jayatilaka. He also relished exploring history, literature, and philosophy.He credits the experience with reshaping the way he channeled his skills as an engineer. “It has pushed me to be more practical and hands-on in addressing an issue,” said Jayatilaka, “rather than being in love with the abstract and theoretical.”

Courtesy: Harvard Gazzette


The Postcolonial Social Contract highlights the movement for Indian independence, the framing of the Indian Constitution, and contemporary contestations over women’s legal and political status as crucial moments of transition in which democracy’s social contract have been and are being challenged and reworked. In doing so, the project argues for the importance of the Indian political theoretical and activist tradition to the history of democratic theory more generally.

Attending to India’s successes and setbacks in building an inclusive and egalitarian democracy, the study maintains, helps to enable a fuller understanding of democracy’s history and its future possibilities.

The Postcolonial Social Contract combines a contract theory approach with an analysis of historical and contemporary feminist interventions in Indian politics. In the social contract tradition, theorists such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke have argued that legitimate political authority is grounded in an agreement among equals, a social contract, and have used this notion to explore as well as justify the terms and conditions of political authority. Within this tradition, critical contract theories, such as found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract, and Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract, tell contract stories in order to uncover the operative power relations in the polity and the values that justify them. Instead of seeking to legitimate political authority, critical contract theorists ask the following kinds of

questions: What are the terms and conditions of the social contract?

What groups are included or excluded as signatories of such a contract? Does the social contract benefit some groups over others?

In exploring these critical contract questions in the Indian context, the book posits the racialized fraternal order underpinning the social contract of western political theory and practice was challenged by the nationalist and feminist struggles against British colonialism but reshaped in the transition to independence into a “postcolonial social contract” that both advances and compromises gender, caste, and minority group rights. Based on an analysis of strategies that feminist and other progressive groups in India are pursuing to address women’s legal subordination and political marginalization, the study argues for a social contract grounded in commitments to democracy as non-domination and suggests ways that such agreements could be motivated and fostered.

The Postcolonial Sexual Contract contributes to a rich and expanding literature on the racialized and gendered underpinnings of democratic thought and practice, on group rights and gender rights in multicultural democracies, and on gender and politics in colonial and postcolonial India. The study develops and extends this literature by pointing to a politics of compensatory domination that mobilizes racial, gender, caste, religious, class, and other cleavages within and between groups to engender consent to political authority.

Further, the book highlights the transformative work being done by theorists and activists in India to recast democracy on more egalitarian and inclusive terms. Drawing upon these interventions, the study argues for a politics of democracy against domination grounded in a re-conceptualization of democracy’s social contract as a series of mutually reinforcing non-domination agreements.



· FAASL Lectures:

The FAASL lecture series was inaugurated in May 2006 and the Commission has hosted over 25 lectures by scholars, artists and public figures. The following lectures were held in April/May 2010:

· The neurological background of disabilities, esp. downs syndrome and autism, and the need to look beyond the label of “disability”- Dr. Alan Ernst

(US Fulbrighter in Nepal) – April 2010

· Kalpitiya: The Lagoon, the islands and the Sea – Devaka Seneviratne and Deshan Tennekoon – April/May 2010

· Guest Lecture on the Plasticity of the Brain by Dr. Alan Ernst at the University of Ruhuna – April 2010

· Guest Lecture on Genetics by Dr. Phyliss Struss (US Fulbrighter in India) at Genetech – April 2010

· Guest Lecture on Religion by Karma Lekshe Tsumo (US Fulbrighter in Nepal) at the American Center – May 2010

· Guest Lecture on Post Colonial Literature by Dr. Alan Johnson (US Fulbrighter in India) at the University of Peradeniya – May 2010

· Workshops:

Dr. Alan Ernst’s lecture was followed by a focus group for therapists from the University of Kelaniya, Disability Studies Unit (Faculty of Medicine) and parents.

Dr. Alan Ernst holds a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Minnesota and has post-doctoral research experience at the Harvard Medical School. He has worked as an instructor and Music Director at the Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Minnesota, where he worked with adults with a range of mental illnesses and disabilities. Dr. Ernst is Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Medicine and Health Sciences, West Indies. He is currently working in Nepal on a Fulbright Senior Scholar Grant.

· Jazz Performance: US-SL Fulbright Commission and Harpo’s Entertainment group collaborated in hosting a jazz evening by Dr. Alan Ernst at the Park Street Mews on the 22nd of April 2010. Dr. Ernst has preformed as a solo jazz musician at the Sophitel in Hanoi, at the 2009 Hanoi Music Festival and in Minnesota, U.S.A.

· Reception in honour of Mrs. Theresa Drake, of the Office of the South and Central Asia Fulbright Program, U.S. Department of State:

Mrs. Drake arrived in Sri Lanka on the 14th of May and met Vice Chancellor’s, current Fulbrighters, the English Teaching Assistants in Matara and alumni in Sri Lanka. She also gave an interview to the Sunday Times, Feature’s Editor, Mrs. Renuka Sadanandan.

The Fulbright Commission held a reception in her honour on the 19th of May 2010

· US-SLFC nominations for the Science and Technology Award:

The International Fulbright Science and Technology award is for Ph.D. study at top U.S. institutions in science, technology, or engineering. The award is designed to be among the most prestigious international scholarships in science and technology. The program is funded by ECA and aims to convey the message that the U.S. remains the premier destination for serious scientific study and research, and that America not only welcomes top-notch talent, but encourages future leaders to

shape their careers through U.S. study. Approximately 45 awards will be granted worldwide for candidates who demonstrate unique aptitude and innovation in

scientific fields in 2010.

The US-SLFC nominated the following graduates for the Science and Technology Award 2010-11:

o Principals:

o Mohamed Jiffry Ruzmyn Vilcassim – Environmental Science

o Girisha Durrel De Silva – Computer Science

o Alternate:

o Anusara Mihirani Herath – Microbiology

The South and Central Asia Regional Travel Grant for US Scholars:

The program is designed to offer posts, Commissions, and local academic institutions the opportunity to benefit from the academic and professional expertise of U.S. Fulbright Scholars who are based in other South and Central Asian countries in a given academic year. Travel grants allow scholars, currently in their host country, to spend a period of three to 14 days, including travel days, in another SCA country.

The US-SLFC hosted and/or administered the visits of the following scholars:

Dr. Alan Ernst – Neuroscience

Dr. Phyliss Struss – Genetics

Dr. Alan Johnson – Literature

Dr. Karma Lekshe – Religion



Ambassador Patricia A. Butenis