Prof. Samantha Hettiarachchi – an academic par excellence | Sunday Observer

Prof. Samantha Hettiarachchi – an academic par excellence

Samantha Hettiarachchi entered the Engineering Faculty of the University of Sri Lanka’s Katubedda Campus (the precursor to Moratuwa University) as a student in 1975. At that time, the Engineering Faculty of Peradeniya had the greater reputation; so the government of the day, with a view to upgrade Katubedda, sent all high performing A/L students in the Colombo District to Katubedda. The situation vis-à-vis the two institutions are today arguably reversed, and Prof Hettiarachchi, who passed away in April 2018 at the relatively young age of 62, was an integral part of that reversal.

Prior to entering university, young Hettiarachchi had a brilliant career at S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia, ending up as Head Prefect and winning the Victoria Gold Medal for the best all round student in 1975. He was also co-editor of the college magazine, won many school prizes and won the Bishop Chapman memorial Scholarship.

Hettiarachchi graduated from the Civil Engineering Faculty in 1980. His potential was spotted by the then Head of the Department, Prof Dayantha Wijeyesekera, who immediately absorbed him as an academic staff member, earmarked to specialize in coastal engineering. This he did at Imperial College, London under the supervision of Prof Patrick Holmes, who had a worldwide reputation. He also collaborated with the Hydraulics Research Station at Wallingford during this time. Although duly reporting to the Moratuwa University after his doctorate in 1987, he returned to the U.K. in 1990 on special leave from the university, to work for a year at Ove Arup and Partners, a well known civil engineering consultancy firm in the world. This was around the time that the entire university system in Sri Lanka had ground to a halt as a result of the Southern insurrection.

In the early 1990s, Dr. Hettiarachchi consolidated the subject of coastal engineering in the Civil Engineering Department, conducted research with grants, won two national merit awards from the NSF, read papers regularly at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), established link programs with U.K. institutions, engaged professionally with the Coast Conservation Department and later the Lanka Hydraulics Institute, and offered his consultancy services to many coastal engineering projects, notably fishery harbours and breakwater designs. He developed an intimate knowledge and understanding of the entire Sri Lankan coastline. He also persuaded his department to allocate a research room for coastal engineering to house his many books and reports, and of course, his postgraduate research students. In 1995, he went back to Imperial College London on a prestigious Commonwealth Fellowship.

Prof Hettiarachchi was the Head of the Civil Engineering Department from 1997 to 2000. He is remembered for streamlining the department’s administrative procedures, many of which are being followed to this day. As Head and even later, he went out of his way to help colleagues and students who had particular difficulties. He was also their staunch advocate before the higher management. His familiarity and stature within the ICE smoothed the way for the department’s undergraduate degree to be formally recognized in the U.K. and elsewhere. As a member of the Engineering Faculty Board and University Senate, his voice was one of moderation that sought to capture and consolidate consensus opinion. This did not prevent him from calling a spade a spade, especially, when he was speaking truth to power. Although he would have made an excellent Dean and Vice-Chancellor, he preferred to pursue a more scientific and technical rather than administrative career.

He was appointed Associate Professor in 1997, Professor in 2002 and Senior Professor in 2010. Over this time, he became acknowledged as a coastal engineering expert both, nationally and internationally. He served in many of the panels at the National Science Foundation (NSF), notably the Engineering & Built Environment working committee that he eventually chaired, and the editorial committee that succeeded in getting NSF’s journal included in the Science Citation Index Expanded. He also served on the Technical Advisory Committee of the Disaster Management Centre, set up after the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. He played key roles in many environmental impact assessment studies, including ones for the Mattala Airport, Hambantota Port, Colombo Port and Colombo Port City. His expertise was sought not only in Sri Lanka but also in Oman and Indonesia. He was able to secure, within a consortium, many EU funded projects relating to disaster management. He was a keynote speaker at many international conferences, both, in Sri Lanka and overseas.

Prof Hettiarachchi’s value, both, to the nation and the world was fully realized only in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. He engaged with many top scientists worldwide while giving leadership to the installation of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning & Mitigation System under the auspices of UNESCO, ending up as Vice-Chairman and Acting Chairman of its steering group. This involved reaching consensus among both bureaucrats and subject specialists from 26 Indian Ocean rim states. Under his leadership UNESCO has produced two definitive guidelines on Tsunami Risk Assessment and Probabilistic Tsunami Hazard Analysis.

In the midst of all these achievements he remained a committed teacher. He taught at 3 of the 4 levels (years) in the undergraduate program in his inimitable style, and his students remember many of the things he taught them not only about engineering but also about life. He guided many postgraduate students with care and diligence. Some of his students are themselves teaching in universities across the world, a few as professors. Both he and his wife Premini, who also completed her doctorate at Imperial College and is on the staff of Moratuwa’s Civil Engineering Department, contributed immensely to create a congenial staff-student relationships in the department.

In the many speeches he made at the Moratuwa University, both formal and informal, Prof Hettiarachchi often recalled with gratitude the contributions made by the pioneers of the University. He has taken his leave of life however before many of them have. He was undoubtedly one of Moratuwa University’s most illustrious sons; and one of its most valuable assets. He will be missed by us all; but in smaller or greater measure all of us would have imbibed his values.

Prof. K.K.C.Kapila Perera,
University of Moratuwa