Physics Ph.D. Program Is a Family Affair for This Alumna

May 18, 2023

Nishani Jayakody launches her physics career at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

Nishani Jayakody headshot
Nishani Jayakody (Ph.D. ’22, Physics) (Photo courtesy of Nishani Jayakody)

When Nishani Jayakody graduated from the Ph.D. program in Physics at the Graduate Center, it was a family affair. The day marked both the start of her career in physics and a second generation of Jayakody physicists to emerge from the Graduate Center.

This year, Jayakody (Ph.D. ’22, Physics) began a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. “I never thought I would get this,” said Jayakody, who began her studies there in February. “This is a big deal for us.”

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Physics

Jayakody was talking about her family, specifically her father, for whom her success has special meaning, not only because she graduated from the same program as he did, with the same adviser, but also in the same area of research: lithium-ion batteries.

In the late 1980s, lithium-ion batteries were still being developed for commercial use. Around the same time, a young physics student was studying fuel cells and other renewable energy technologies. J. R. P. Jayakody had recently come from Sri Lanka to join the Graduate Center’s Physics Ph.D. program. “He got a scholarship,” said his daughter, who was born in Brooklyn while he completed his graduate studies.

After earning his degree, he returned to Sri Lanka with his family and joined the faculty at the University of Kelaniya. Years later, Nishani Jayakodi would attend the same university. “I wanted to do math,” she said. “But then, I had the feeling that my father wanted me to do physics, too. They’re not the same. But physics requires a lot of math. So, I thought, maybe I’d like to major in physics.”

And she would.

In 2016, she began her doctoral studies at the Graduate Center. Soon, she found herself back in New York City, studying lithium–ion batteries and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, as her father had done so many years earlier.

By the fourth year of the program, she was married and pregnant with her first child. A year later, she had another child. “I had both kids during my Ph.D. program,” she said. “So, I had to take an extra semester to finish my Ph.D."

Jayakody had her hands full enough being a graduate student with two babies. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Overwhelmed, she leaned on the Graduate Center for support. “I was able to work from home,” Jayakody said. “The Graduate Center helped me financially as well. I never expected I would get that kind of help.”

Her adviser, Professor Steven Greenbaum (GC/Hunter, Physics, Chemistry, Nanoscience) had been her father’s adviser decades earlier. The two men had stayed in touch over the years. On his last visit to the U.S., Jayakody’s father told Greenbaum his daughter was interested in studying physics. “The rest is history,” said Greenbaum, to whom Jayakody credits her research position at the naval lab. “I cannot describe in words how fulfilling it is to be the Ph.D. mentor of father and daughter, and what a unique experience it has been for me.”

Nishani Jayakody (left) and her adviser Professor Steven Greenbaum (right) are pictured at a study presentation at a Materials Research Society meeting in Boston, 2019.
Nishani Jayakody (left) and her adviser Professor Steven Greenbaum (right) are pictured at a study presentation at a Materials Research Society meeting in Boston, 2019.

Jayakody celebrated completing her Ph.D. in a sunny graduation ceremony, held last year. Due to COVID, guests attended the event by Zoom, including her family in Sri Lanka.

When asked for advice to students, especially immigrants who are considering coming to study at the Graduate Center from far away, she was to the point. “Don’t be afraid,” she said.

“I grew up in Sri Lanka. I didn't know the culture. I didn't know the language. Everything was new to me. I never thought I would pass all the exams and finish the Ph.D. with two kids. If I can do it, I feel that anybody can do it.”

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