Nature has endowed us with powerful and intriguing microscopic organisms that can harm us as much as they can benefit us, probably to maintain a delicate balance. But there is no doubt that observing them and their actions is a career worth pursuing !

Rohit Rathi, our next pathbreaker,  plays with microbes, doing research for the benefit of the environment, agriculture and health sector. These Biotechnological techniques and their applications will highly benefit the society, from solving issues of environmental pollution to opening new avenues in bioenergy and bio agriculture.

Rohit talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about  observing contaminated plastic under a microscope for the first time in his school days and being shocked to see motile organisms, an experience that led him to a career in microbiology and its applications.

For students, believe what you see but remain inquisitive about what you dont see because there are so many unbelievable and invisible processes under the radar that need exploration and Microbiology is one of them!

Rohit, tell us about your background?

I belong to a middle class family with strong traditional values. I was born and brought up in Wardha, near Nagpur, Maharashtra. Wardha also known as Sewagram is known as the place of stay of Mahatma Gandhi. I did my schooling from Wardha. In my initial days ,I was inclined towards most of the curriculum in my school. Also, I had immense interest in extracurricular activities especially sports (Chess, cricket, swimming, football, hockey etc.). My father is a businessman and my mother is a homemaker. My father’s business is in the agriculture sector (seeds, fertilizers and pesticides). One of the major occupations of Wardha and nearby areas is agriculture hence, I had an initial inclination towards the agriculture industry.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I pursued my graduation in Biotechnology from Fergusson College, Pune University. Further, I did my Master’s specialization in Microbiology from Fergusson itself.

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

My father was one of the key influencers in my life. His hard work, dedication in his agriculture business influenced me since childhood. However, I did not have enough marks to get admission in a very renowned agriculture university in Pune. Biotechnology was a new and emerging area during those times. Further, I did some research and found that Biotechnology and Microbiology had immense applications in varied fields such as agriculture, bioenergy, biofuel etc. Hence, not getting an admission in agriculture was like a blessing in disguise, which led me to pursue Biotechnology. During those days very few colleges had started undergraduate courses in Biotechnology and Fergusson college, Pune was one of them. So, I applied for the course and got selected.

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

For the layman, the word “Bacteria” means disease, but to me they are “Invisible creatures to human eyes” creating problems in life. During my 12th std biology class I observed contaminated plastic under a microscope for the first time in my life and was shocked to see motile organisms. It was also the first time that I decided I would enroll in Biotechnology for my graduation, where I learnt about the immense potential of microbes playing so many roles within our body and also in every sphere of life. The applications of technological advances in the biological field made me very curious when I finished my graduate studies from University of Pune.

With the desire to excel in this field I applied for admission for my Masters in Microbiology. I got tremendous insights into the subject and was very confident in continuing my higher studies in the same field. It’s wide applications in agriculture, energy, fuel, medicine, pharmacy, drug development and environment made me realize that I wanted to be a part of this field. My aptitude in mathematics as well as the quest to learn more helped me equip myself with the requisite knowledge, thus enhancing my confidence.

It was the first time during my master’s dissertation on the “Development of indigenous Bio filter technology” and testing its efficiency in the removal of toxic gases emitted from vehicular exhaust, that I learnt about the environmental applications of these microbes. I had to do a small survey on the waste products creating huge pollution in the biosphere and I was utterly surprised to see the potential of these non-visible bacteria in cleaning the same.Out of class pursuits are equally important as academic excellence for a holistic growth.

I did an internship in Ankur Seeds Research Lab, Nagpur, India where I got exposure on plant DNA isolation, plasmid DNA isolation, PCR amplification, Gel electrophoresis, UV spectro analysis, Gel elution, Restriction digestion, Cloning etc. Here, I got acquainted with the wide applications of biotechnology. In Ankur Seeds Research lab, I learned how to work with minimal guidance and also refined my observation capabilities and research approach towards biological phenomena.

Joining The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New-Delhi was a benchmark in my career when I saw the direct application of microbes for human benefit. From applications in oil contamination, to production of bioplastics and biofuels, these tiny invisible creatures dominated every sphere of life.

My first project in TERI was on Microbial Enhanced Oil Recovery (MEOR) where microbes helped in enhanced oil recovery from depleted crude oil wells. Right from visiting ONGC Ahmedabad oil well sites for the isolation of microbes to the application of the microbes in oil fields, I enjoyed every bit of my work in TERI. I never thought these invisible ghosts could actually survive without oxygen at 60-100-degree temperature. Later, I was also given a project based on CO2 sequestration and coal bed methane generation with the help of methanogenic anaerobic bacterial consortia. This application of microbes is a very hot area in today’s scenario, in providing solutions to the  petroleum industry. 

These experiences helped me develop a research “bent of mind” and made me more inclined towards a research career in microbial applications. TERI provided me with the right infrastructure, facilities and research environment to enhance my overall skills. I learnt new techniques and this boosted my zeal and quest to learn more. TERI nurtured me and prepared me fully to pursue further research in environmental microbiology and biofuels.

How did you get your first break?

During my internship at Ankur Seeds, Nagpur, I was looking for opportunities and was actively networking, in search of pioneer institutes working in the areas of environmental microbiology and biofuels. I also took help from my mentors and friends. All my education and training was in Maharashtra, so I was keen on moving out and exploring new and emerging fields of research in microbiology. This phase of applying for jobs was tough, patience and perseverance was the key. After 6 months of efforts, I was shortlisted for a telephonic interview from The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi. During the interview I was asked about my interests and background. My education, training and  patience helped me bag the position at TERI. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

My first challenge was when I did not get admission in agriculture science at MPKV, Pune. My childhood was all around agriculture and I was very keen to pursue it for higher studies. Initially I was very disappointed, as I wanted to follow my father’s footsteps and work in this field. However, not getting admission in agriculture literally introduced me to the world of microbes and biotechnology. I learnt about the untapped potential in the field of microbiology, especially in areas of agriculture, environment and energy. 

My second challenge in life, which I found really tough, was to work on my networking skills. My schooling was in Hindi medium. Getting admission in Fergusson College, Pune was a whole new world for me. However, not being able to speak fluent English made me an introvert and shy. I really had to work on myself on a daily basis and improve my communication skills. I was lucky to have some good friends (from diverse educational backgrounds) who helped me cope up with my negative attitude and boosted my confidence. My graduation in Biotechnology at Fergusson college, Pune developed my personality and inculcated the art of reading, exploring and networking.

Working at TERI for 7 long years shaped my career. I learnt new skills and techniques, which boosted immense confidence. However, working for such a long time made me stagnant and the ability to explore and work on new things has somehow taken a back step. It was a big challenge for me to leave my comfort zone at TERI and start something on my own. My family, friends and above all my own research work gave me the confidence to leave TERI and work on my dreams independently.

Where do you work now? 

Presently, I am an entrepreneur and working to start my own firm in the field of Environmental Microbiology. My work is basically focused towards developing biotechnological tools and techniques to solve environmental issues specifically related to agricultural waste. My focus is on developing new methods and techniques to solve issues of energy and fuel. Also, my work is to develop new and environment friendly products. My analytical skills and research bent of mind, which I learnt during my training, and job helped me tremendously in starting my venture. Further, the skills of reading and exploring new things, identifying environmental issues and reading research articles helps me to work towards my dream. My typical day involves loads of reading and summarizing. Further, networking also holds the key as people from diverse fields in my network help me to get through the roadblocks. I always wanted to work independently and do my own work. Also, I love to work with microorganisms and the techniques involved in this field. My work is more fun than actual work, which I enjoy. 

Currently I am working on a project based on agricultural waste mitigation. Further, the agricultural waste can be  used for biofuel and bioenergy as lots of waste is generated in agriculture in this area. Farmers end up burning these agricultural waste. Hence, providing alternative solutions through my biotechnological skills is my current research.

Iam also working on setting up bio-digesters after which generation of bioenergy from such wastes will be my target.

How does your work benefit society? 

My work involves playing with microbes and doing research for the benefit of the environment, agriculture and health sector. These Biotechnological techniques and their applications will highly benefit the society. From solving issues of environmental pollution to opening new avenues in bioenergy and bio agriculture, this is the call of the new era. My current research is in my hometown at Wardha where I look forward to helping the agricultural and research needs of the people around me and open up new possibilities in terms of generating job opportunities in the field of environmental microbiology and biofuel generation.

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

I have worked on various government and industry sponsored projects in Bioenergy in TERI, including my work with ONGC where I played an instrumental role in the project of coal Bed Methane (CBM) generation through methane producing bacteria. The work included experimental design and execution such as development of methane generating bacterial consortia in lab and finally application of the developed consortia in actual field condition (underground coal seams of Jharia, Jharkhand). The field experiments have demonstrated that there is a many fold increase in methane gas (Biofuel) production and the enhanced activity of methanogens lead to additional/enhanced methane generation in coal seams.

Due to this pioneering work on biogenic methane generation from underground coal seams, recently, we have been conferred with the prestigious Award in the category “Biotech Product, Process Development and Commercialization Award 2018” for innovative R&D by the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science & Technology, India by Dr Harsh Vardhan, Union Minister of Science and Technology, Environment, Forest and Climate Change, and Earth Sciences, on the occasion of Technology Day on Friday, May 11.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to students is to always be open towards opportunities. Always keep your mind open and explore and read about new and emerging things going all around. Also, never get discouraged if something does not work. There is always a better opportunity waiting ahead. So keep working hard and keep your mind busy in reading and exploring.

Future Plans?

My future plan is to expand my innovations by starting my own company. I further look forward to helping people around me with research in agriculture and open up new possibilities in terms of generating job opportunities in the field of environmental microbiology and biofuel.