Viranga Perera

Postdoc at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab


A pistol goes off and several people, who were waiting in anticipation, take off running with the single goal of being the first. This means that while running nothing else matters but crossing the finish line before anyone else does. There is a particular race that my mom has told me about many times over the years. It took place several decades ago during a school sports meet at St. Joseph’s College. Though called a college, it was an all-boys Catholic school that taught kindergarten through high school in Sri Lanka. Located in the commercial capital of Colombo, it was a large school with a cricket field near the entrance and a church just behind the field. 

On that particular day, my mom was sitting in the stands by the cricket field. A small crowd had gathered for the school sports meet where students from various grades would compete against their classmates in an amateur version of the Olympic games. As she tells the story, one of the races was about to start. The race began and she watched as a boy took off quickly. The crowd cheered as it was clear that this boy was going to win the race handily. However, a few yards away from the finish line the boy stopped. The crowd was confused and in their confusion they started to yell at the boy to keep going. That way! They pointed and shouted. Finish the race! The boy perhaps did not hear or did not care. After having stopped running, he turned around as if he was looking for something he had lost. After a few moments, the boy turned back around and finished the race. However, by that time two of his classmates had overtaken him; therefore, he came in third.

Ever since hearing this story for the first time, I asked my mom why that boy stopped before finishing the race. She believes that the boy was looking for his friend. He had noticed that he had dashed off and his friend who was there at the start of the race was no longer with him.

I know what that feels like. Around my junior year of high school, I started to focus and be driven to excel in my academics. This led me to completing two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree, and being half-way through my Ph.D program all by the age of 28. Someone fired a pistol and I, like that boy, took off running. I had to get to that finish line. Was it my idea? Was it that boy’s idea? Perhaps. Maybe, on the other hand, we both started running because that’s what we thought we had to do.

My mom had the podium picture of the top three finishers of that race. It was just another picture until I slowly started to realize how important that boy’s actions were. Therefore, I asked my mom for a copy of that picture and now I have it as a reminder to try to be as altruistic as that boy was running that race. I admire that boy. He had it right. He could have easily won that race but he thought about something more important. He thought about his friend. Where is my friend? I could imagine him wondering as he hit the brakes and turned around. 

That picture and the story that goes with it has helped me reformulate my plans for the future. When people ask me what I want to do when I graduate and who I want to be, as much as careers and jobs are important, I hope not to lose sight of what is vital. Therefore, when I grow up, I would like to be as good as I once was when, those decades ago, I turned around looking for my friend.