In 1991, after finishing his first year at Yale University, Dr. Ray Jayawardhana completed a summer internship as a science writer at the Economist magazine in London, England. "It was a lot of fun, because everybody wanted to talk to you. I might have become a journalist."
Instead, Dr. Jayawardhana, who was born and raised in Sri Lanka and is known as RayJay to his colleagues, made a fateful choice and pursued his studies in astronomy and astrophysics. That decision has led to some dramatic findings, such as the 1998 discovery of a so-called "planet-forming disk" (the dusty signposts of a new solar system in the making) that put him on the cover of Newsweek magazine while he was a Harvard University graduate student.
Last year, he pulled off another coup at the University of Toronto when he and two colleagues photographed a planet that is eight times the mass of Jupiter and orbiting a star (called 1RXS J160929.1-210524) that is similar to our sun and 500 light years away.
"I grew up in Sri Lanka and didn't get to do astronomy research until I got to Yale. Ever since then, I've actually done both research and writing. In a way, I've tried not to make that ultimate decision," says Dr. Jayawardhana, noting that he continues to write for popular magazines and is completing his second book, Worlds Beyond, which will be published in 2010.
His interest in astronomy was sparked at the age of four, when his father pointed at the night sky and told him that men had walked on the moon. "It struck me that if people can walk on the moon, anything was possible."
Three people influenced his choice of career: Arthur C. Clarke, the British-born science fiction writer who supported the activities of the Young Astronomers Association in Colombo, Sri Lanka; Cyril Ponnamperuma, a Sri Lankan-born biochemist and NASA adviser whose public lectures Dr. Jayawardhana attended as a high school student; and Carl Sagan, the U.S. astronomer and host of the popular TV series Cosmos, whom he met as a university student in 1993.
"I grew up with the sense that if I were to go into science, I would be a publicly engaged scientist, not someone locked away in a laboratory," says Dr. Jayawardhana, who helped organize a campaign of 3,000 high-impact ads on Toronto Transit Commission vehicles that highlight the intimate connections between humanity and the cosmos.
Dr. Jayawardhana was recruited by the University of Toronto in 2004 from the University of Michigan, where he was a faculty member. He earned his PhD in astronomy from Harvard University in 2000.
Although Dr. Jayawardhana is very proud of last year's discovery, which he shared with Dr. David Lafreniere, a post-doc, and colleague Dr. Marten van Kerkwijk, he likes to point out that 340 extra-solar planets have been discovered since 1995.
"We're living in an extraordinary age of discovery," says Dr. Jayawardhana, who is single, travels extensively and is a passionate follower of politics in North America. "The diversity of worlds found so far is truly remarkable and that's only the tip of the iceberg."
Dr. Jayawardhana maintains that the next decade will be even more exciting, thanks to new telescopes in space and technological advances on the ground. "The next frontier is finding 'rocky' Earth-like planets. The quest for habitable worlds is one that intrigues us both as scientists and human beings."