The head of the University of Illinois at Chicago's microphysics laboratory and founder of a Bolingbrook tech company was recently named one of the White House's 11 national "Champions of Change," a distinction that honors immigrant innovators in America.
Dr. Sivalingam Sivananthan, 56, received the honor late last month.
It was a long time coming for Sivananthan, who said he still remembers when he arrived in Chicago from his native Sri Lanka in 1982 to pursue his doctorate.
"His mission in life has been always to give his very best—to his family and friends, his students, his research, his business, his country, and the world at large," the White House citation for Sivananthan's award reads.
Sivananthan, who lives in Naperville and has a wife and two grown children, said he had never been outside of Sri Lanka, let alone on an airplane, before he made that first long flight.
"I didn't know anything about Chicago," he recalled. "My reactions when I saw the first hot dog (was) I didn't know Americans eat dog meat."
But UIC faculty were quick to ensure Sivananthan felt at home as he embarked on his new life in the U.S.
"They guided me," he said. "That always makes a huge difference in someone's life."
Fast forward more than 30 years, and Sivananthan is a pillar of the physics community.
He started EPIR Technologies in Bolingbrook about 15 years ago, and its work became the heart of the military's night vision technology.
"Everything I have belongs to this country," he said. "It's our job to protect those who are protecting us. I know they make mistakes and we criticize mistakes, but it's equally important we give them the best technology we can."
He then founded Sivananthan Laboratories in 2009, also in Bolingbrook, where work is being done that is taking his prior research and applying it to the world of solar power cells.
Sivananthan Laboratories also serves as an incubator for small businesses, helping them to research new technologies and improve existing products, he said.
He is also a founder of InSPIRE Illinois, an institute that aims to promote innovation in the world of solar power, an industry Sivananthan said he sees as the future.
The institute also seek to promote a trickle-down interest in the field, Sivananthan said.
He teaches his graduate students, and those students teach undergraduates. The undergraduates have gone to high schools in Chicago's poorer neighborhoods to show kids how to do hands-on things like power a robot with a solar battery.
Getting young people interested in such fields is key to making the U.S. a leader in the solar field, he said.
"You realize the diamond you have there, but someone has to help them shape it," Sivananthan said. "Give them the opportunity, and they will take it and run."
Sivananthan said he is also working to bring solar technology to Sri Lanka's universities.
"I'm a very proud Sri Lankan," he said. "There are issues just like every country, but the foundation in Sri Lanka as a whole is what gave me a really good start."
Aside from trailblazing research, Sivananthan expresses a deep care for his UIC students, according to Professor David Hofman, acting director of the physics department.
"From the very earliest times I've worked with him, it's been so clear to me how much he wants to give back," Hofman said. "I wish I had a whole department of Sivas."
Overall, 2013 has been a year of kudos for Sivananthan.
Last month, he was also named a fellow of SPIE, a prestigious international society for those studying optics, photonics and imaging.
Earlier this year, Sivananthan was also honored with an "American by Choice" award from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
He said he initially didn't know what to think when the department called him to notify him of the award.
"As an immigrant, that's the last call you want to have," he said, laughing. "I said, what did I do?"