Alumni

Alumni profile - Vidura Fonseka

I was part way into my third year and heading towards a failure when the University agreed to give me a year out so that I could prioritise my mental health. Mental health affects us all, therefore it’s something we all need to address openly in society. Acceptance is the first step in normalising admitting that we need help.

(Aerospace Engineering MEng, 2012)

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Why did you study Aerospace Engineering at Queen Mary? Did you have a particular career path in mind?

I was always fascinated by space, so I chose to study Space Engineering. However, during my course, I had to change my career path to study Aerospace Engineering. This was because the lecturers who taught the space modules had left the university when I returned following a gap year. Aerospace Engineering was a course I still thoroughly enjoyed, and I became specialised in stress engineering, which is the analysis of components for structural integrity. For example, stress engineering is used to determine how long a car engine will last due to repeated cycles of heat and pressure, which occur due to combustion. I found doing these computer simulations very fascinating.

Your battle with mental health reached a climax during your time at Queen Mary, which subsequently led to you taking a yearlong break from your studies. What was it that gave you the purpose to return to your studies?

I was suffering from major depression during my first two years at university, and I lost all motivation after battling for a long time with my issues growing up in the UK. My parents moved to the UK at the beginning of my teenage years, and I had found the relocation difficult to handle without a proper support network.
During my gap year, I took up dancing which gave me a purpose and a goal. It also started to relieve my depression, so I wanted to return to my studies and make up for my failures as I could see things more clearly. I don’t think I would have made it back to Queen Mary without my dancing.

Elsewhere, you speak openly and candidly about how you were not very good at street dancing when you first started. What motivated you to persevere with street dancing?

I was looking for a goal to give me the motivation to wake up in the morning. I knew I was awful at dancing, but it gave me a purpose and something to look forward to every day. I also fell in love with dancing and enjoyed being part of the dance community. I didn’t care what others thought of my ability, dance became total escapism for me.

I also knew that what I was attempting wasn’t impossible. I was not trying to be an Olympic gymnast or a professional ballet dancer. Those skills require training from a very young age. I was told by my dance teacher that with training, I could become a good dancer within 3 years. I took that advice on board and trained as much as I could and with time, my hard work was rewarded.

Through my STEM start-up, I get to work with children and educate them on science and engineering – all the while dancing. I hope to turn it into a permanent living and someday launch a public show for social change through science and engineering.

How would you describe the sensation you get when you dance?

It is such an uplifting feeling. I always thought my issues were chemical, and when I dance and exercise, I can feel such a relieving sensation inside my brain. It’s hard to describe but this gradual process of my pain ebbing away eventually pulled me out of my depression.

When I dance, it takes me to my interior world. I forget that the exterior world exists, and it’s just me and the music in that moment. Whenever I am about to perform, I always feel nervous, but when the music drops, I’m in my zone, and I just let go.

In street-dancing, we do something known as cyphers when we train. A cypher is a dance jam where a bunch of dancers makes a circle, and you go in the middle one at a time expressing yourself through whichever dance movements come to you in the moment. It’s something that brings the joy out in me.

When you returned to your studies, what did you enjoy most about studying Aerospace Engineering and were there any academics that had a strong influence on shaping your time and studies?

I made 3 really good friends from my course when I returned to university. They certainly made my university experience a lot better. We studied and laughed together. In terms of academics, Mr Motellabi was really helpful and revealed himself to be a true ally and overall great guy.

The University itself gave me my first break during my mental health crisis. I was part way into my third year and heading towards a failure when the University agreed to give me a year out, without charging me fees for that particular year, so that I could prioritise my mental health. I was very grateful for this at the time and I will remain forever grateful.

What advice would you give to a prospective student considering studying at Queen Mary?

Some of my most memorable moments in life were at university. I would encourage prospective students to explore the university in terms of space – I made some very good memories playing pool in the Students’ Union – and also in terms of clubs and societies. You need to build a strong support network to help you through university and clubs and societies are a great way to meet new people from different courses and years.

When it comes to your studies, get your coursework and assignments done early and don’t leave them to the last minute. Break down large assignments and spend an hour or two on them months in advance, even if that is just reading the question and jotting down your initial ideas. This will make your life a lot easier because your mind will unconsciously be working through ideas so that when you actually come to writing your big assignments, you will have a rough idea of which direction to take.

Dancing has become such a big part of your life and your identity that you now refer to yourself as an ‘Engineer, Dancer and Speaker’. Can you describe your career path to date and touch on your time at Rolls-Royce?

As mentioned, I started professional dance training during my gap year. However, by the end of university, I still wasn’t good enough to make money from it or to become a pro. I had to look for an engineering job so that I could move out of home and build my own life. I joined Rolls-Royce and although it was very comfortable and well paid, I missed the active life and working full-time and managing dancing was very difficult.

After a few years at Rolls-Royce, I decided to pursue another journey. I still loved engineering, but I wanted to find a field that I was truly passionate about. My experience at Rolls-Royce gave me a good platform to build on once I left. I then went on a speaking journey for a few years to refine my public speaking skills and presence and to promote sustainability. At the same time, I started developing STEM workshops for children while working part-time in education. I had always had a passion for working with children, and I felt that I had the ingredients and experience to produce and deliver something amazing for this audience.

Today you run a STEM start-up for schools which has gone on to receive international recognition. How does your startup allow you to explore your passions and/or work on the things that you feel passionate about in life?

It’s pretty much a culmination of all my work and life experiences. I get to work with children and educate them on science and engineering – all the while dancing. I also hire dancers sometimes to assist me with engagements, and it is a lot of fun. I hope to turn it into a permanent living and hopefully someday launch a public show for social change through science and engineering.

Which aspects of your degree have remained relevant throughout your career and in your current role?

Stress engineering was useful when I was working at Rolls-Royce, as this was the area that I specialised in. Overall, I would say the general understanding of engineering fundamentals, maths, and problem-solving skills have been the most useful throughout my career. Engineering is vast, and there is no way you can remember everything, but a good engineer should be able to find the relevant knowledge and apply it when required and this is the exact skill I developed during my time at Queen Mary and through the practical nature of my course.

I have recently started learning to code and the ability to think logically, another skill I gained through my degree, has been very useful.

Engineering is vast, and there is no way you can remember everything, but a good engineer should be able to find the relevant knowledge and apply it when required and this is the exact skill I developed during my time at Queen Mary.

Based on your own experiences, why do you think it is important to have open and continuous dialogues about mental health?

Mental health affects us all, therefore it’s something we all need to address openly in society. Acceptance is the first step in addressing mental health issues and normalising admitting that we need help. I would advise any young person who is struggling to seek help from medical professionals, family and friends. I recently wrote a guide with tips for dealing with depression, as well as tips for dealing with stress and developing mental strength for students. Have a read of those for some practical tips for your daily life.

Are there any mental health resources or organisations you’d like to raise awareness of that have helped you and which could help other people reading this?

If you experience problems with your mental health, then let people that you trust know, whether that’s people at work, home, or a place of study. This is so that you can continuously receive support to deal with your issues daily and have a strong support network around you. I used to forget things often because of my mental health, but I had a colleague assigned to me at Rolls-Royce who reminded me of important meetings 5 minutes beforehand which was really helpful.

In terms of specific organisations, I would recommend Mind as a source of help and advice.

When you reflect on your life so far, what has your relationship with your mental health taught you about yourself as a person?

It has taught me that I am stronger than I thought. I remember many nights in my teenage years where I didn’t think that I could get through the struggle, but I did. Unfortunately, at the height of my mental health struggle, I had problems getting help, and I battled through it for decades, but I understand my issues a lot better now and how to cope with them.

My experience has also taught me to be aware of others and to look out for signs. When working with children, I can often identify problems that they are having based on my own experiences, which means that I am able to help them better.

Finally, what are your future aspirations in terms of your career and life?

My short-term goal is to make my STEM workshops startup a global success. I would like to eventually bring together scientists, engineers, and artists to promote social change through sustainability. I believe our society can do a lot better if we utilise science and technology for the benefit of everyone. Our economic system is inadequate and fast becoming obsolete due to the growth of science and technology, such as automation, vertical farming, robotics, 3D printing, AI, etc.

I believe everyone can enjoy a fulfilling life if we work towards building a self-sustainable society, and that remains my far-distant goal.

This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Vidura or engage him in your work, please contact Nicole at n.brownfield@qmul.ac.uk.