Please tell us about yourself

“Many people who have never been to Kansas stereotype it as dry and uninteresting, but it is beautiful,” says Venkata Mattegunta, a scientist at MGP Ingredients (MGPI), about the place he lives. This is one of the reasons he enjoys photography, writes a blog, and volunteers for relief work during natural disasters. Seeking new and different perspectives in life is important to him.

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Perspective was also what Mattegunta was looking for in a graduate program when he applied to the Professional Program in Biotechnology (PPiB) at Texas A&M four years ago. An undergraduate biotechnology student from Acharya Nagarjuna University in  the town of Bhadrachalam, Andhra Pradesh, in south India, he was looking for a program where he could expand his horizons and learn about several different subjects — marketing, management, finance, accounting, even journalism.

“One of the main things that attracted me to the PPiB website was a journalism course in the curriculum. Later, I found out that it was an elective,” Mattegunta says. So far, his favorite course was on science & technology policy from the Bush School which included topics on policy making, lobbying for federal research grants and special interest groups. “It was a very informal class where the professor interacts with you rather than giving a monologue.”

What did you do after graduation?

These varied skills are what Mattegunta uses in his job at MGPI, a company which was started in 1941. “Kansas, a state known for corn production, provides a steady supply of corn to MGP, which manufactures food grade alcohol along with specialty starches and proteins for the food industry,” Mattegunta says. He works as the principal investigator in the research and development department on Zein protein found in corn. “The protein forms a thin transparent film when extended. It provides an excellent and completely biodegradable alternative to plastics.”

The long-term goal of Mattegunta’s three-year project funded by the government is to develop a plastic substitute from this protein. He works with a team of six other people on this goal. “The big difference between industry and academia is the emphasis placed by industry on economic viability of the project,” he says. “In three years, we have to scale up the process to an industrial scale. The conical flasks will be replaced by huge reactors; grams of a chemical replaced by tons — everything is magnified. The costs are therefore very important, and I enjoy thinking about these factors.”

Advice to students?

After becoming an experienced professional, what perspective can Mattegunta offer new graduate students now? “Be more focused on what you want to do and spend your energy in one area. If you know that you are good at writing or business or something else, develop a skill set based on these talents by taking the necessary coursework,” he says.

The opportunity to learn these diverse skills is what he likes about the program. “After finishing your master’s degree, you are at the crossroads between policymaking, research and development, business, regulatory affairs, and manufacturing.  That is a good range of opportunities to choose from.”