The lockdown has taught us a few lessons. Focus on your needs and not your wants! And the most important need of the hour is agricultural produce and food for survival. Today we have realized that nothing is more important than these !

Dr Lavanya Gunamalai, our next pathbreaker, Post-Doctoral scientist at ARO, Israel, conducts research & development on preservation of shelf-life of various types of fresh and dry agricultural produce while retaining the quality, safety and nutritional value of the products intended for export as well as for local markets.

Lavanya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about opting to do her Post-Doc at Israel, known for its reputation for innovation and technology, in the area of Desert Agriculture, without the need for groundwater.

For students, we face challenging times ahead. Build your career based on addressing some of the big challenges the world faces today

Lavanya, tell us about your background?

I was born and bought up in Vallioor, a village in Tirunelveli district, TamilNadu. My father worked as a Professor in the Commerce department and my mother completed her PhD and worked in the Botany department. As both of my parents were professors, they gave much more importance to education to me and my younger brother. This makes us shine in our career, myself as a visiting scientist in Israel and my brother as a Software consultant, TCS, Australia. Our parents were our role models. 

Apart from the curriculum, I also loved to play outdoor games and dance during my school and college days.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I am currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in the department of Postharvest and Freshproduce, Agricultural Research Organisation, Volcani Center, Ministry of agricultural and rural development, The State of Israel. I studied Master of Technology in Bioinformatics, SASTRA University and Bachelor of Technology in Industrial biotechnology at Kamaraj College of Engineering and Technology, Virudhunagar, Tamilnadu affiliated to Anna University. I was  awarded “DEAN’S LIST CERTIFICATE” for being in the top 2% of the P.G batch in terms of academics performance during I year of M .Tech Degree programme and  awarded “GOLD MEDAL” for First Rank in IV year B.Tech Industrial biotechnology. 

I have completed my PhD in Bioengineering on “Molecular Dynamics Simulation Studies on Collagen like peptides and their interactions with Cyclodextrin – An Insilico Analysis” Sathyabama University. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

My parents were my first key influencers in my life. They motivated me in all aspects mentally and financially to get where I am today. They wanted me to become a doctor but unfortunately, it didn’t happen. God had another plan for me, so I chose my studies in biotechnology which was booming at that time (2002).

During my undergraduate final year project, Dr.V.Murugan, a professor in the Department of Biotechnology, Anna University allowed us to do a project in his Lab which kindled my passion towards biotechnology. He is no more (died due to massive cardiac arrest) but his words were ringing inside my ears and heart. He used to say “Enjoy your life and research”.

My first undergraduate project was quiet interesting. The project on  cloning and expression of Erythropoietin gene in E.coli gave me lots of exposure on various techniques like recombinant DNA technology, PCR, SDS-PAGE and downstream processing. That was an industrial, application and product oriented project on how to clone and overproduce human erythropoietin gene in E.coli. (i.e insertion and expression of eukaryotic (erythropoietin) gene in prokaryotic expression system(E.coli)). 

After my undergraduation, I was a little confused about what to do next?, job or higher studies? As my parents were well-educated they wanted me to do my post-graduation. Then I had one more confusion in choosing the specialization. I wasnt sure if i wanted to do M.Tech in Biotechnology or Bioinformatics or Nanotechnology? 

My interest in Molecular modeling and drug discovery during my undergraduation made me take up bioinformatics in SASTRA university. Since my parents were in the teaching profession, i choose my career as Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioinformatics,  Sathyabama university. I didn’t know whether it was in my gene(teacher in making). My biggest dream however, was to do my PhD abroad.

The big turning point in my life was the sudden demise of my Father. He was my well-wisher, philosopher and mentor. I felt broken and missed my way, my confidence and everything. I had to take care of my mom and a younger brother who was studying first year in engineering college. I had to support them mentally and financially until the situation was stable, because my mom was in depression, and she was emotionally dependent on my father. It was my biggest task to bring her back to normal.

I decided not to go abroad. So I registered for my doctoral studies at Sathyabama University. During the 3rd year of my doctoral studies, I got married to Periasamy who was working as Assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Electronics Department, SRM University. He motivated me in all my research activities. I am doing my postdoctoral research because of him. I was always happy and proud of my better-half of my life.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I was working for Sathyabama University for 7 years and 2 years for Prathyusha Engineering College. Throughout my academic career (9 yrs) I have been involved in lecturing and mentoring students (undergraduate to graduate level), and in various working environments. I have an immense passion for biology and enjoy sharing my factual and conceptual knowledge with others. As an Assistant Professor in the Bioinformatics Department at Sathyabama University and the Biotechnology department at Prathyusha Engineering College, I have gained experiences in handling and moulding both undergraduates and graduate students. I look forward to the opportunity to teach courses such as Plant Biotechnology, Molecular Biology, Molecular Modelling, Drug Design, Cheminformatics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Genetic engineering and Enzyme Technology.

I highly appreciate personal face to face time with students (inside the campus like in lab hours, leisure hours, during working hours, or just outside the campus) and encourage them to work with me on dealing with missed classes (due to illness), sports games, or child-care issues. Moreover, I take a proactive role in mentoring students who are dealing with personal issues that are affecting their learning.

After my PhD, although I got a lot of experience in teaching, my passion to do research was still burning in my heart, which made me apply for various fellowships around the world. I got a Prestigious Agricultural Research Organization fellowship only for Indian and Chinese citizens in the Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Development, Israel. I achieved my dream through my perseverance.

I was selected for this fellowship based on my academics, paper publications, good recommendation from supervisors and skype interview performance.

Apart from these, I want to advise students who are applying for any fellowships in India or abroad for MS/PhD/Posdoc

  • Identify the areas – or research topics – that you are interested in, as well as the academics in that field. Go to conferences and see if you can visit the lab or group. (undergraduate and postgraduate students can use the opportunity of  industrial visit) 
  • Please showcase  your genuine intentions and strong feelings towards research, 
  •  You need also a strong recommendation from your supervisor/scientist/Professor. you need to talk to your supervisor– otherwise, they won’t know what you want to do, and they won’t be able to help.
  • Don’t get frustrated or depressed when getting regret email where you applied. Finally Perseverance wins

How did you get your first break?

When I was switching my career from academics to research, I got 3 postdoctoral offers from China, South Korea and Israel. Based on advancements, mentors and survivability I chose the offer from Israel.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Being a woman I have to balance both my family and career. It was quite challenging. After the birth of my child, I was in a situation where I had to take care of my boy as he was very weak. As a mother, there was an oscillation.  My family? Or My career?. My inner spirit made me move forward and shine in my career. Then I got my new position as Assistant professor in Prathyusha engineering college.

Where do you work now? Tell us about what you do

I work as a postdoctoral researcher at Agricultural Research Organization, Ministry of agricultural and rural development, in Israel. Israel is famous for its innovation and technology. They are well known for Desert agriculture. They don’t depend on groundwater for agriculture. I am working in the Department of Postharvest and freshproduce. The main aim of this department is research and development for preservation of shelf-life while keeping the quality, safety and nutritional value of various types of fresh or dry agricultural produce intended for export as well as for local markets. In my lab, we are focusing on Postharvest disease control, Fruit-pathogen interactions and Fungal physiology. The ongoing projects were 

  1. Uncovering the molecular basis for chilling tolerance of the phytopathogenic fungi Botrytis cinerea and Alternaria alternata.
  2. The effect of postharvest handling on nutritional values of acorn squash fruits.
  3. Evaluating the effect of pre- and post-harvest treatments on long term storage of pumpkins.
  4. Evaluating the effect of calcium spraying on fruit quality, susceptibility to grey mold disease and shelf life of pepper fruit.

I am working on uncovering the molecular basis for chilling tolerance of the phytopathogenic fungi Botrytis cinerea. Here we are using the following methods and skills –

Transcriptomics(qPCR, RNAseq), Proteomics(westernblot, Mass spectroscopy), Metabolomics(MALDI-TOF) and Bioinformatics.

I love to work in this field because storing agricultural produce for a longtime without nutritional loss is challenging. Basic research performed in the lab results in new knowledge which is essential for understanding of the main biological processes (plant physiology (senescence, ripening, abscission), plant pathology, microbiology and entomology, advanced packaging, food technology) in different agricultural products and investigating health properties of phytochemicals for developing functional foods. This research enables and promotes the development of practical approaches and new strategies. 

I made a transition from dry lab (bioinformatics) to wet lab. As a Bioinformatician, I was more interested in drug design. In my drug designing projects, I used to study so many biochemical pathways and metabolic pathways involved in pathogens and host. During studies, I did deep analysis over the genes and proteins involved in the disease progression and virulence. In dry lab we can to do prediction. That motivated me to identify up/downregulated genes under certain conditions (diseased type or another type) and compare them with controlled (wild-type) ones.

Here in my postdoc, I learnt wet lab techniques like RNA extraction, RNAseq. I was analysing the results obtained from RNAseq, qPCR (transcriptomic data) and MALDI-TOF(metabolomics and Proteomics ). These are the ‘Omics’ – transcriptomic, metabolomics and Proteomics data obtained from various experiments pertaining to the effects of cold, drought, heat, and combined stress on grain yield in field crops. Bioinformatics can be used to efficiently gain access to these “omics” data available in the publicly available repositories and to make available the data to research scientists involved in animal or crop breeding. This kind of work is important in the development of abiotic stress-resistant and/or tolerant cultivars, thereby improving food security. For example, local scientists can employ genomics analysis to aid in the assessment of genetic diversity and identification of important genetic traits for the production of crops and livestock with desirable traits including high yield and disease resistance 

How does your work benefit the society? 

This may help farmers, export companies, packing houses, dry grain storage facilities and the food industry minimize produce-waste between harvest and consumption and help in reducing food losses. The research is performed to formulate optimal storage conditions for fresh and dry grain- preservation and for developing practical solutions to prevent the development of physiological injuries and damages, rot and pests. This type of research may help the developing countries like India in a present panic situation like COVID-19 (lockdown may result in scarcity of agricultural product and produce) and in the Future.

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

There is no specific memorable work. For a researcher, starting and carrying out every new experiment was a memorable work.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My ultimate advice to students is “Learn Deep – Think Deep – Do Deep”. I ask students to work as a team on both home and lab work and include creative collaborations in the classroom such as group oral presentations of review literature. These activities facilitate students to work in a team-oriented environment and aid in the understanding of concepts covered in the classroom and lab. 

My ultimate advice to all teachers is, due to advancement in Technology, this generation of students likes to learn differently. So a teacher has to teach in a variety of ways. As one who often uses physical and spatial concepts to understand science, I incorporate many visual aids in the classroom and laboratory to aid in explaining concepts such as enzyme/substrate interactions, molecular biology mechanism, or membrane dynamics. I also introduce and use current technologies in the classroom. Course assignments often require the students to use scientific databases and software found on the World Wide Web. I encourage the use of programs such as PowerPoint for oral presentations. This varied method approach allows individual students to experience effective learning. 

Future Plans?

I want to help farmers as Agricultural consultant to uplift agriculture importance by addressing the problems faced by them and giving solutions to them and share knowledge with all.