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From India to the U.S., Murali Raghavendra Rao connects science and agriculture at Purina
Can you describe your background?
Where we grow up seems to always affect what we do and where we go in life. Take Murali Raghavendra Rao, for example. Murali grew up in Bengaluru, India, nicknamed the “Silicon Valley of India.”
It’s a bustling city with a population of more than 8 million. But long before it was known as a science and technology hub, it was known as the “Garden City of India” for its open greenery.
It’s a city with two sides: science and nature working together. Much like his city, Murali also has this duality to him, except in his case, it is with science and agriculture. As a manager of statistical services at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center in Gray Summit, Missouri, he has taken a passion for biology from his birthplace and brought it to his new home in his career at our premier animal nutrition research farm.
On our farm, 3,000 animals from a variety of species are cared for by 100 people. More than 24,000 animal nutrition research studies have been conducted onsite. What we learn through these trials helps us help animals reach their full potential. It’s important, often behind-the-scenes work, and it’s carried out each day by dedicated people like Murali.
“At Purina, I get to work on this beautiful farm every day, and I’m here to do what I love to do,” he says. “It feels like home to me.”
What did you study?
Growing up in Bengaluru, Murali’s childhood was all about learning at every opportunity. His mother looked after him and his sisters at home. His father was a headmaster at the local high school, who taught math and science, so these were the subjects that Murali naturally gravitated toward.
“My mom was very patient with me growing up,” he says. “She answered every question I had, and there were a lot of questions. I had grown up loving science, so when it came time to go to college, it was either engineering, life sciences or math.”
With life sciences in mind, Murali headed to the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, in Bengaluru to get his bachelor’s degree. Here, he got away from the skyscrapers of the city and experienced nature on the school’s acres of open land.
“When I went to college, I loved walking around the agriculture campus; it was beautiful,” says Murali. “I didn’t want to be anywhere else.”
While he was achieving both his bachelor’s and subsequently his Master’s of Science in Agriculture at the University in Bengaluru, Murali had the chance to do some experiential learning by spending a month living in a village with a farming community in rural India during his undergraduate career.
“It was a lot of fun getting to know the farmers and how they live—you become a part of their life for that month,” says Murali. “You get to learn what they do.”
The farmers became family, and the friends he met through the University became family in a way, too. But after he was finished with his formal education, he wanted to learn even more.
What did you do after graduation in India? how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
Murali knew he wanted to continue his education in biology with an agriculture focus, and he knew that the best place for him to do that would be in the United States. Although he had never lived anywhere outside of Bengaluru, Murali applied to the University of Tennessee and was accepted.
In 2003, Murali packed up and moved to obtain his doctorate in plant sciences in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“The first few months it was very difficult; it was really far from my family,” says Murali.
But six months in, Murali’s wife joined him. Slowly, things became easier, and he started to love the little things about U.S. culture.
“I remember thinking that people are friendly here. Even if you don’t know them, they acknowledge you and say nice things like ‘hi,’ or how are you doing?,” says Murali. “People value that here, which was a big change for me. Back home, it was different, strangers did not want to talk to you.”
Murali began to connect with others in his program and the industry. One of his professors encouraged him to explore statistics, so by the time Murali graduated with his doctorate in 2008, he also had a Master’s in Statistics.
“I stayed in school the longest out of anyone in my family,” he says. “That need to learn is always in the back of my mind.”
In 2010, Murali joined the team at Purina. But the learning did not stop there.
What do you do at Purina?
At Purina, Murali works in Research and Development. His job is to take analytical and statistical projects and make them digestible for other researchers at the farm. The work is incredibly technical, but one thing that helps him succeed is the ability to see his work’s potential. Take the PANDA project for example.
“PANDA stands for Purina Animal Nutrition Data Analytics, and we are working to move all the research data to the cloud environment and leverage the platform to do extensive analytics,” says Murali. “From a researcher’s point of view, bringing everything together in one place and making it easily accessible helps them work more efficiently. For me, it all ties together; knowing that I’m helping these researchers, helping the industry, that keeps me going.”
So far, the team has covered beef cattle through PANDA. The goal is to cover the entire farm and every animal on it. But really, it’s still about learning for Murali, in an industry he loves. “Every single person that I’ve worked with has had so much in them for me to learn, and it’s just fascinating to see how everyone’s work fits together,” says Murali.
He cites Dr. Cindie Luhman, group VP of R&D, as one of his forefront mentors when he first came to Purina, as well as Dr. Bill Miller, senior director R&D.
“Dr. Luhman made a big difference in helping me stay here and feel at home,” says Murali. “I’m fortunate to have mentors like Dr. Luhman and also Dr. Miller to guide me at Purina. This lets me aspire to do better.”
“At Purina, we value that idea of letting all mankind be happy. As a co-op, Land O’Lakes is a people company, a human company; it’s a place that treats everyone with respect and inclusion,” says Murali. “You know everyone’s families here—all the people on the farm are like one big family.