White House honors physicist as immigrant entrepreneur

Siva Sivananthan

Siva Sivananthan is honored as distinguished professor of physics by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2011. A photo of his family is displayed in the background. Photo: Matthew Kaplan (click on image for larger file size)

Read Professor Sivalingam Sivananthan’s blog about being named a White House Champion of Change, “Conquering Darkness and Harnessing the Sun.”

When Sivalingam Sivananthan arrived at UIC from Sri Lanka in 1982 as a graduate student, he had “nothing but a boundless amount of hope, energy and enthusiasm,” he said.

Sivananthan, now a distinguished professor of physics, was honored last week in Washington, D.C., as an immigrant entrepreneur and White House Champion of Change — an award recognizing “the best and brightest from around the world who are helping create American jobs, grow the economy and make our nation competitive in the world.”

“Immigrants have long made America more prosperous and innovative, and the champions we are celebrating today represent the very best in leadership, entrepreneurship and public service,” said U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park.

“We are proud to recognize these leaders who work every day to grow our economy, advance science and technology, and support their home communities.”

Sivananthan is the founder of the high-tech, Bell-Labs-styled incubator, Sivananthan Laboratories Inc. in Bolingbrook. The company focuses on infrared technology, radiation detection, materials research and biosensors.

Sivananthan’s work with a semiconductor material called mercury cadmium telluride (MCT) is at the heart of night vision technology used by the U.S. military.

Developing “technology that protects our protectors” gives him the opportunity to give back to his adopted country, Sivananthan said.

Because, at its most fundamental, MCT technology is about transforming light into electricity, Sivananthan is leading the effort to develop next-generation solar power.

To that end, he helped found InSPIRE (Institute for Solar Photovoltaic Innovation, Research and Edu-training), a nonprofit with the mission of training workers and encouraging high school and college students to pursue careers in renewable energy.

Sivananthan Laboratories promotes economic growth by fostering cutting-edge, fundamental research and development that bridges the gap between academia and industry.

“Our success has been and always will be a product of teamwork,” Sivananthan said.

“I have been blessed with having talented people around me. I can take credit only for hiring them.”

Sivananthan said he is grateful for the support he has received from UIC throughout his career.

The son of teachers and the sixth of nine children, he sold coconuts and mangoes as a child to earn money for his family. He earned a bachelor’s in physics at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka before coming to UIC.

Civil war broke out in Sri Lanka shortly after he arrived in Chicago and he considered dropping out to return to his homeland. His adviser, James Garland, now emeritus professor of physics, convinced Sivananthan to stay, finish his degree and bring his family to the U.S.

“UIC is a community of individuals that has treated me with respect for who I am,” Sivananthan said.

More than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies — from GE and Ford to Google and Yahoo! — were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants, a White House statement said.

The White House ceremony can be viewed online.


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