I'd like to share a bit about myself in a story:
Appamma, pronounced /Upp-uh-ma/, means “father’s mother” in the Tamil language. Appamma was a traditional South Asian grandmother who enjoyed helicoptering over the young and ensuring their stomachs were full. Appamma’s home was a vestige of Sri Lanka nestled inconspicuously in the heart of Dallas. Even as a devout Christian, I was always fascinated by her decadently adorned, Hindu shrines and the colorful half-human, half-beast gods and goddesses they celebrated. And the lemons. There were always lemons. Appamma carefully hid fresh lemons around her home like little yellow Easter eggs to absorb evil spirits.
I am the product of an unlikely clash of cultures. My father was a Sri Lankan, Hindu, college senior at Iowa State University. My mother was a Black, evangelical Christian, high school senior from rural Louisiana. My father tutored my mother in calculus and advanced math. A year later, I was born, dangerously premature, weighing two pounds. I was given a simple American name (Justin) to balance my apparently difficult-to-pronounce, South Asian last name. (Sivasothy /SEE-vuh-SOH-thee/)
My name tells my story better than my features do. My skin is the deepest ebony, and my hair stands away from my head in a rebellious, explosion of curls. But when most people think of the Asian diaspora, East Asian beauty predominates. No one sees me. When they consider the biracial diaspora, the beauty of Black-white or Asian-white populations is conjured. They still do not see me. My dark skin is often dismissed as a conventional signifier of my Blackness, and too often, my very equal Asian-ness is forgotten because it is not obvious. Ironically, I owe my rich, ebony complexion to my Asian-ness. My father’s Asian skin is much darker than my mother’s Black skin.
Living in this rich, cultural duality makes me intentional about delving beneath the surface of my experiences to see what may not be obvious. Science and engineering naturally challenge us to probe deeply to discover the constituent parts of every whole. Geology, in particular, interests me because it is more than just the study of rocks tied to an ancient past—it is a science of deep observation with important lessons for our collective future. Going beyond what we can readily see, opens up unimaginable worlds and possibilities to us.
As an electronic test technician in a counterfeit parts detection lab, I also spend much of my shift diligently trying to see the unseen. In the lab, I am always challenged to see beyond a part’s outer packaging. Everything in the lab is about enhancing our observation skills so that we can see as deeply as possible. My favorite tool is the X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy analyzer. With XRF, we can determine the elemental make-up of a subject component’s surface and compare it to known samples. High-powered digital microscopy allows us to see finer surface irregularities, while heated solvent testing allows us to chemically peel away painted coatings to detect surface nonconformities. With manual decapsulation, we can even drill directly into the heart of a device to ensure its authenticity.
In this environment, every dimension and characteristic matters. The capacitors, resistors, and microchips that I test are built into engineered systems for aerospace, defense and healthcare. Performing a quick, surface-level review of a component’s authenticity could result in mistakes that substantially impact human lives. So, even if I have seen the same component type come across my lab table a thousand times before, I am still obligated to scrutinize each new presentation as sincerely and as deeply as the first. We should strive to afford the people we encounter the same level of deference.
In the lab, we can leverage various physical tools to help us see deeply. In life, our only tool is consistent, meaningful dialogue. Taking the time to venture beyond initial impressions to truly understand what lies beneath the surface of people, situations, and things makes us better humans. Seeing others deeply is active, daily work. However, when we are intentional, flexible, and open to the unexpected, it is no longer surprising that someone like me could also have a loving appamma who has fresh lemons hidden in her couch cushions. When the world understands that, then I will know— I’ve been seen.
I will be studying Geosystems engineering and Hydrogeology at UT-Austin in the Fall. My love for engineering and the geological sciences started 500 feet below the surface of the earth in the underbelly of the Hoover Dam. I plan to use my education to proactively research and identify new energy opportunities. I also envision myself working at the forefront of the sustainability conversation as a thought leader, either in industry or in academia, helping countries and companies shape and achieve their sustainability plans.