Indira Samarasekera: First Lankan Woman to Become President of a Major North American University


Dr. Indira Samarasekera is the 12th president of the University of Alberta, one of Canada’s most respected research-intensive universities. Building strong international partnerships is a signature feature of her leadership. The international aspect involves German Research Centres, the Aga Khan University, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) apart from others.

Indira Samarasekera is probably the first Tamil to become the president of a major North American university. She began her career at the University of British Columbia as a professor in the Department of Materials Engineering. Using her knowledge of heat transfer and stress analysis, she researched new processes of steel production involving a major emphasis on continuous casting and hot rolling. Samarasekera has also consulted for companies all around the world. Prior to her coming to the University of Alberta, Samarasekera, for five years, served as Vice-President Research at the University of British Columbia.

She was born in 1952 into a Tamil family in Sri Lanka, though her earliest memories are not of Ceylon, as it was then called, but of England. When she was three, her father, a surgeon, took his young family to the United Kingdom where he did a stint of post-graduate work. Consequently, her early impressions were very different from those of her peers back home: ballet, English gardens, very proper schooling, and the full gamut of Western technology, including television. But with this worldliness came challenges. Returning home three years later, she had to become trilingual in order to reintegrate into post-colonial Sri Lanka’s complex and divided society.

At the time, the country was drifting toward a lengthy civil war that would displace nearly 500,000 people and leave an estimated 70,000 dead. After the first countrywide riots broke out in 1958, permanently dividing the nation, Samarasekera’s family fled to the city of Jaffna, in the Tamil-dominated north, nearly losing their lives in the process. ``We felt it would be safer for us in the north,’’ she says. ``It was an incredible place to grow up: culture, hard-working people, extreme climate — it reminds me a little bit of Alberta.’’ However, the influx of Tamils attempting to escape violence meant that her young world was complicated: There was a growing political tension, although there was a great deal of goodwill at the population level. "My best friends are Sinhalese, and I [eventually] married one."

She was the eldest of four children, and while none of the women in her family had ever been to university, it seemed clear early on that her father, in particular, was absolutely determined that his daughters for sure — obviously his sons — ``four of us would receive a university education.’’ She excelled at math and physics, and became fascinated with the notion of developing technology to improve her world amid the strife of politics and religion.

What would the world be without airplanes that never fell out of the sky?, she wondered. After prep schooling in Colombo at Ladies College, which featured debating and athletics, she enrolled at the University of Ceylon, and in 1974 became the first woman in her country to become a mechanical engineer. But she had to push her way forward: she wanted to do mechanical engineering, and they hadn’t allowed any women up to then. She says, ``I went in and said `I want to do mechanical, and you are going to have to let me.’ I think that helped me overcome natural fears of operating at the frontier, of pushing boundaries.’’

At about this time, Sri Lanka passed laws making it more difficult for Tamils to enter university and find public employment. That, she says, was when young Tamils began to mobilize around the notion of having to fight for their rights and for their independence — ``which to me was writing on the wall.’’

An early incarnation of the Tamil Tigers had emerged in the early 1970s, and they were already experimenting with bombings and other tactics that would help define modern terrorism. Samarasekera loves her country — she still returns at least once every three years — but she knew she had to leave. After a brief stint as a maintenance engineer at a Shell oil refinery, (it was very boring) she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship.

``So I got married at age 23 to a fellow mechanical engineer, and we came to the United States; to the University of California at Davis, to be precise, and then on to the University of British Columbia for my doctorate.’’ Along the way, she had two children, one of whom grew up to study law, and the other medicine.

She became a Canadian citizen in 1980, amid a challenging period of balancing her young family and a demanding career. At one point, she was on the brink of quitting her doctoral studies, until her thesis adviser called her aside. ``You have no right to do that,’’ he said. ``You have been given all these talents. Don’t waste them.’’

Upon graduation, she could only find a temporary teaching contract at UBC, but in time it led to a tenure track position, and she became only the second woman appointed to the university’s engineering faculty. Her marriage eventually failed, but her career thrived: she went on to have a major influence on the international steel industry, using mathematical models to predict and correct subtle defects, which facilitated major advances in quality and efficiency.

Under her administration, many initiatives have been achieved at the University of Alberta, among them the development of a renewed vision and mission in Dare to Discover and new academic plan in Dare to Deliver; the establishment of the Killam Research Fund for the Social Sciences, Humanities, and Fine Arts and the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology; the redevelopment and opening of Enterprise Square ($86M); and the formation of the Schools for Energy and the Environment and Public Health. During her tenure, the university has completed and opened the Canadian Centre for Isotopic Microanalysis ($15M), the National Institute for Nanotechnology ($60M) and Health Research Innovation Facilities ($300M) and has initiated construction of the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science ($400M) and the Edmonton Clinic ($950M) in partnership with Alberta Health Services

Serving the wider community in several ways, Dr. Samarasekera sits on several local and national boards. She is Chair of NINT (the National Institute of Nanotechnology), sits on the Board of Directors of the Bank of Nova Scotia (Scotiabank), the Public Policy Forum of Canada, and STIC (Science, Technology and Innovation Council). She was part of a group of special advisors to the Canadian Minister of Environment at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, has been moderator, presenter and facilitator at the 2010 and 2011 World Economic Forum, and was a part of the Prime Minister’s roundtable on Canada-India higher education cooperation. She also participated in the 2008 and 2009 G8 summits of university presidents in Hokkaido and Turin respectively.

A sought-after speaker, Dr. Samarasekera has addressed local, national, and international audiences on various issues in post-secondary education and research. She has been invited to speak to the National Science Foundation in the US, the Science and Technology Forum in Japan and to the Canada-UK Chamber of Commerce in London.

Over a professional career spanning three decades, Dr. Samarasekera has distinguished herself as one of Canada’s leading metallurgical engineers. She was awarded the Order of Canada in 2002 in recognition of outstanding contributions to steel process engineering. Dr. Samarasekera has been a consultant to steel companies around the world.

She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIMM). She has received honorary degrees from the University of British Columbia, Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Waterloo.

Dr Samarasekera is also kept busy outside the University of Alberta. Her numerous activities include being a member of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service and sitting on the Conference Board of Canada. She is also involved with the Public Policy Forum of Canada, the Canadian Health Industries Partnership, the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, and the Visiting Committee for MIT.

Her international experiences and especially her deep ties to Sri Lanka have shaped Samarasekera’s view of the world and strengthened her humanitarian consciousness. She is passionate about eradicating violence and promoting equality, and she strongly believes in the value of education as a means of achieving prosperity and well-being.


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