By Tiffany Whitfield and Jefferson Huddle

Graduate students in the college of sciences at Old Dominion University come from all over the globe. For each graduate student, the choice to come to ODU is filled with a plethora of emotions, and for one mathematics doctoral student, it involves being the first in her family to achieve the highest level of education. And if anyone knows what it truly means to be a woman in STEM and work to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics it is Hasika Wickrama Senevirathne.

Growing up, both of her parents worked as educators in Sri Lanka. Her father was the head of school up until his sudden death in 2006. “We never expected this to happen,” said Senevirathne. “I was 16 when he passed and I did all I could to help my mother, but my mother is the strongest person I know.” Her mother continued teaching geography and history at her hometown high school. As the oldest of three siblings, Senevirathne stepped up to help her mother care for her younger siblings. Additionally, she has learned to lead by example and the value of setting goals and putting plans in place to achieve her dreams. Getting a good education laid the foundation for her to catapult into new experiences.

After graduating from the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka, she made a big decision. to leave her home country behind and become the first in her family to move to the United States. She found her way to Huntsville, Texas in 2018 to pursue a master’s degree in statistics at Sam Houston State University (SHSU).

“When I first came to the United States, I was homesick; and I always called my mom, saying, ‘Mom, I can’t stay here. I have to come home,’” said Senevirathne. To which her mother would reply, ‘Did I tell you to move to the U.S.? No, you chose this because you want to pursue higher education. That’s why you’re here. Think about it.’ “My mom is the strongest person in my life.”

Senevirathne eventually became less homesick and remembered the words her mother echoed to her about why she chose to come to America and  channeled her anxiousness  into motivation to succeed.

At SHSU she blossomed. She received the outstanding student award for maintaining and graduating with a 4.0 GPA and was awarded the graduate research excellence award from SHSU’s College of Science and Engineering Technology. Upon graduation, she made the choice to come to ODU because of the reputable faculty and rigorous education. Once again, she relocated to a place unfamiliar to her, but she knew moving to the east coast to study at ODU would help her achieve her ultimate goal.  

At ODU, Senevirathne is working on completing her doctoral degree in Computational and Applied Mathematics with a concentration in statistics and has worked to maintain a 4.0 GPA.

Research has been one of her biggest accomplishments at ODU and SHSU. “I am still working with my master’s advisor Dr. Ananda Manage at Sam Houston State University with sports Analytics. I published several research works in the Journal of Sports Analytics with him and his group as well; “Predicting the winning percentage of limited-overs cricket using the Pythagorean formula” and ‘Modelling Cricket Scores with Copulas’.”  

Senevirathne’s research at ODU is in the field of non-parametric statistics for clustered data. She can demonstrate the utility of a proposed statistical testing method through simulated datasets.

Doing rigorous research along with her Ph.D. advisor, Assistant Professor Sandipan Dutta, Ph.D., has proven challenging, yet rewarding. His interest fields include statistical methods, clustered data analysis, survival analysis, and prognostic modeling of clinical outcomes.

Dutta speaks highly of Senevirathne. “Hasika is working on her dissertation in statistics under my supervision. She is an extremely talented student with a strong knowledge of statistics. It is amazing to see her enthusiasm in exploring new research areas. Her strong motivation and dedication in trying to solve any challenging research question is a definite sign of her bright future as a researcher. In addition to her inquisitive mind, she possesses the rare combination of being diligent, passionate, and persistent in all the tasks she undertakes. Her impeccable performances in all her graduate courses at ODU speak highly of her academic and intellectual abilities.”

Senevirathne is very active on campus both academically and in student organizations. She is a graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and a research assistant in the Department of Mathematics & Statistics as part of a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Program in Dr. Rao Chaganty’s lab.  

She serves as president of both the Association for Women in Mathematics and the Sri Lankan Association. Moreover, she is secretary of the Global Monarch Club and the Mathematics/Statistics Club and is a student leader in the Global Student Friendship.

“Being active on campus helps me to overcome the stress from the academic work, and it makes me happy allowing for a balanced life,” said Senevirathne. “It is a great opportunity to associate with people in different fields, volunteer, and support others to help improve their lives and make deep connections in the community.

Making a difference on campus and forming bonds are equally important to Senevirathne. Using skills acquired from graduate-level research, she hopes to inspire a new generation of students, more specifically female students to be more appreciative of mathematics and statistics.

“Educating females is necessary for the growth and development of any nation in the world,” says Senevirathne. “It also helps to eliminate the social stigma surrounding it, such as female abuse, female infanticide, dowry, harassment, etc. Educating females help the female population in improving their standard of living. STEM makes women smarter independent, and innovative to conquer the world.”

Her career goal is to become a researcher and professor in mathematics and statistics at a university that contributes to national and international education. Whether student or professor, Senevirathne will continue to lead by example.