Nothing motivates us as much as solving a puzzle. Unraveling a puzzle brings out the best in us by making us think out of the box. So why cant we build a career solving puzzles!

Our next pathbreaker, Prabha Kalathingal, Plant Pathologist, unravels the puzzles behind the destruction caused by viruses and bacteria that attack horticultural crops, vegetables and flower plants.

Prabha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from the interview portal about how her fascination for viruses during her graduate days and love for biology inspired her to become a plant pathologist.

Prabha, tell us about your background?

I hail from a small village in Kerala and I am a proud Navodayan, an alumnus of Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya. My schooling has molded me into what I am today. I am lucky to have studied in a great school where I got exposure to multiple talents and confidence to pursue a good future. 

What did you study?

I did my graduation at Kerala Agricultural University in Agriculture (BSc), a professional degree where you study every subject under the sun from botany and statistics to psychology, sociology and economics. B.Sc in Agriculture makes you a jack of all trades. I chose to do my masters in “Plant Pathology” for the love of art and the beauty of fungal spores seen through the microscope. In the quest to know more about the microbial world and plant diseases, I applied for Junior research fellowship from Indian Council of Agricultural Research and joined Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, the premier and prestigious institute for agriculture education in India. I did both my Masters and Ph.D. in Plant Pathology from IARI.

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

Indian Council of Agriculture Research has been at the service of farmers ever since its inception. ICAR serves the country through research, education and service personnel with expertise in various subjects in Agriculture at its various research institutes across the country. It is a great platform to address pathological issues in different crops, where I can contribute my expertise very well.So I decided to choose Agriculture Research and Service as my career. 

Key influencers for choosing this career are my teachers and seniors at IARI. And my mentor Dr.V.K.Baranwal has contributed a lot in mending my research career during my Ph.D. He is always there are as a great teacher with answers for any career or life related problems.

Tell us about your career path

My career path was almost smooth. I ended up in Agriculture not by choice but by chance. But once I got into BSc Agriculture, I excelled in my degree with first rank in the university. As I loved many subjects in Agriculture, I opted for Plant sciences in Masters and I chose Plant Pathology based on my All India rank in ICAR-JRF test. In Plant Pathology, i chose Plant virology as my specialisation in Ph.D as viruses have always fascinated me from my graduate days for being the simplest organisms that can make the strongest man on earth dance to its tunes. As soon as I completed my Ph.D, I joined Agriculture research service through Agriculture Scientist Recruitment Board exam and interview.

As a plant pathologist, I work on various diseases of plants. I began my career analysing horticultural crops, then onion and garlic specifically and am currently analysing flower crops and ornamental plants. My involvement is right from identification of etiology (cause) to management of the disease. We diagnose the disease using various technologies such as symptomatology, pathogen morphology through microscopy, serological techniques like ELISA and molecular techniques like PCR, Next generation sequencing etc. Once the pathogen is identified, characterised and the epidemiology (mode of spread) is determined, research is undertaken to identify the right intervention for the management of the disease. Currently I am working on identification, characterisation, epidemiology and management of diseases of flower crops caused by viruses and bacteria like phytoplasma. Phytoplasma infections convert the flowers of plants back to leafy structure ie, this bacteria turns the reproductive phase of plant back to vegetative phase. I am doing various experiments to revert it back to the reproductive phase of the plant for quality flower production by managing phytoplasma.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

  • Challenge 1: Soon after 12th std, there will always be a confusion to choose a path for higher studies. I always loved biology, so I chose the subject i loved even though I had a very good rank in the engineering entrance exam. Going ahead with the subject you love will let you persist in studies if you have to go for higher studies like Ph.D. in the subject.
  • Challenge 2: Persisting in a research career when peers get into paid jobs soon after completion of their graduation. Determination and the will to do the best in what you pursue will let you keep going. 
  • Challenge 3: Ph.D is a stressful and tedious task and it is the best training to handle the hurdles we face in life. Each stage of the thesis, whether writing or wet bench or field work are all challenging and you must have the determination to move on.

Where do you work now? 

I am working as Scientist (Plant Pathology) at ICAR-Directorate of Floriculture Research, Pune. I deal with plant diseases affecting floriculture crops, their identification, characterisation, epidemiology and development of strategies to manage them. 

How does your work benefit the society? 

We directly address the problems faced by various stake holders in Floriculture and also share knowledge to the academia. 

Tell us an example of a specific work you did that is very close to you!

Deciphering the full genome of Indian citrus ring spot virus which causes the  ring spot disease in citrus fruits was very interesting.

Viruses are submicroscopic molecular pathogens. Their diagnostics depend on the genome information of the virus. Based on the genome, primers have been designed for PCR diagnostics of the viruses in citrus certification programme for production of virus free planting materials.

Organizing an awareness workshop about “Phytoplasma: as a major threat to Horticulture” at Kadiyam, Andhra Pradesh and spreading awareness about Phytoplasma among nurserymen was a learning and cherishing experience.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Choose that subject/career you love instead of choosing what others love. Be persistent and excel in that. You will reach in great heights. 

Future Plans?

Disseminate the knowledge I acquired through the years to others in simple language, “Science communication”