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Ankush Prashar was born in Punjab in north India. Growing up there, he loved working on his uncle’s farm, driving tractors and developing practical agricultural skills. A degree in agriculture and honours in soil science seemed like a natural step (after changing his mind from Air Force pilot and then medicine), but he had no thoughts of leaving his home country at that stage. Then a conversation with his father changed everything.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
“We were having a chat one day (when I was near to finishing my Bachelors) and he
was asking what I wanted to do in the future. I was keen to do a Masters but that takes two and a half years in India, so he suggested I look abroad. I considered the US but ended up applying to both Newcastle and Birmingham in the UK.” Family connections in Birmingham tipped the balance for Ankush, and he went to do his Masters there in applied genetics – a move more towards crop improvement, something he wanted to pursue, but which was a slight move away from his honours degree in soil science. But Newcastle was now on his radar and he always wanted to explore its possibilities.
“It was when the green revolution was still talked about a lot in India,” he explained, “and my understanding of that was the need to improve yields. I wanted to look at how we can use breeding and other technology to increase yields sustainably, so genetics seemed like the right area, and Birmingham was one of the best universities for studying this. Professor Mike Kearsey and his colleagues were well respected and he became like a godfather to me while I was there, encouraging me to go on and do a PhD in quantitative genetics and functional genomics.”
What did you do in the area of genetics?
Following his PhD Ankush went to Cardiff, researching the genetics of myopia, using chickens as a model. But he was interested in moving back to the world of agriculture/crop genetics and when a suitable post came up at the James Hutton Institute (formerly the Scottish Crop Research Institute) he went north, to Dundee. “I enjoyed Scotland very much, it was so much less crowded than Birmingham or Cardiff,” he said, “and Dundee is the sunniest place in Scotland! But I had always been attracted by Newcastle, from my original application to do a Masters, and it is very similar to Scotland in many respects. But it had taken me 15 years since I came to the UK to visit the North East.”
Ankush had already begun to develop an interest in combining high throughput tools to understand the adaptive mechanisms behind plant stress response and tolerance. His conversations with Head of School Professor Rob Edwards convinced him that Newcastle would be a good place for him to pursue this kind of research and his career.
He explained: “When the stress in plant becomes more apparent to human eye, it is often hard to control it. In my view, we need to be able to detect it earlier, before the damage is done, and also understand the genetic mechanisms underlying this stress and its link with physiology of the plant. In other parts of my research I’m trying to understand how abiotic stresses (for example water, environment, nutrients) and biotic stresses (for example disease) interact. If we can distinguish between these stresses, it should help us to understand effects with and without interaction and breed plants for different climatic zones and sustainable production.
“I’m using integrated high throughput imaging sensors/tools to investigate these areas. For example, these can help us to look more closely at the foliage of the single plants, variability within the canopy, and also at field scale. I’m looking at potatoes at the moment, but the findings can be applied more widely to other crops.” In this way, Ankush is working across genetics, engineering and physiology to address very practical problems in agricultural production.
“I’m aiming to fill a gap in research and use these tools to link phenotypes and genotypes for understanding stress adaptation, and to learn more from crop adaptive responses,” he said.
And when he goes home, as well as his passion for driving different cars, he’s still interested in growing plants. “I love my garden and growing vegetables,” he admitted. I can’t wait to move into our own house here and do that. The couple of degrees temperature difference should be an advantage too. I don’t mind the cold myself but my wife prefers a slightly warmer climate.