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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
Meetpal Kukal chose to go into agricultural engineering with a specialization in soil and water resources engineering when he realized that his home country, India, is facing sharp declines in groundwater due to excessive pumping for irrigation but has scant research to solve the problem. He looked to developed countries to find scientists working on this problem and he discovered Nebraska.
“I think this is the best place you can be if you want to work in this particular area, especially irrigation, because Nebraska has the largest irrigation acreage in the nation,” Kukal says.
Why agricultural engineering?
Of all the countries in the world, India irrigates the most acres, especially in the northwest part Kukal comes from. “I decided Nebraska would be an ideal place for me to investigate things so they could be replicated back home,” he says.
Unlike Nebraska, India has mild winters so crops are grown year-round—mostly rice in the summer and wheat in the winter.
“Both of these are very demanding crops in terms of water and other inputs,” Kukal says. “This results in irrigation water being pumped all year. Hence, there is a dire need and potential to investigate and adopt effective irrigation and agricultural water management strategies in the region to make the cropping systems sustainable and profitable.”
What do you do?
For his master’s degree at UNL under the supervision of Dr. Suat Irmak, he used long-term weather datasets, census datasets and satellite imagery to determine how much water is used by corn and soybeans and how effectively in every county in the Great Plains area—900 counties in nine states. Some of their findings have been published in peer-reviewed journals and others are under review.
For his PhD degree, he is performing a multi-year field investigation to research how water, radiation (sunlight) and nutrients are used simultaneously by corn, soybeans, winter wheat and sorghum at UNL research fields established by Dr. Irmak near Clay Center. One of the ultimate goals is to develop a new coupled water-nutrient-light use efficiency index to better evaluate various production systems.
Both projects have broadened his expertise and skills.
“I believe that working on two different fronts–field scale and regional scale–has provided me with a more dynamic and vital range of tools that I can use to address the same problem,” he says.
Kukal has also broadened the possibilities of where he might work after graduating. He is now thinking he could work in other developing nations besides India.
“The motivation is not just for my own country,” he says, “because the challenges we’re facing are the story of the whole world.”