Science professionals and policy makers are putting in their best efforts to reverse the effects of global warming and minimise its impact to acceptable levels. But given the damage that we have caused to the environment, it is evident that a large part of the change is pretty much irreversible, which also means adapting ourselves to a new world.

Our next pathbreaker, Aditi Gupta, postdoctoral scientist, CRAG (Barcelona), conducts fundamental biological research on the development and adaptation of crops in drought conditions with a focus on designing strategies to promote drought resistance in plants without impairing their yield

Aditi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the potential impact of her work on agriculture, specifically under the present climate change crisis that is compromising sustainable food production on our planet.

For students, climate change is here to stay and so is our demand for food for our growing population. Agriculture needs researchers who can create a sustainable food chain under adverse conditions.

Aditi, tell us about your background? 

I grew up in Mauranipur, a small town near Jhansi (U.P.). My mother is a homemaker and my father is a lawyer.  Since childhood I was very fond of reading and was always curious towards elements of nature. Most of my free time was spent among my grandfather’s large collection of books which ranged from literature, folklore, politics and history. I changed many schools in my early years and briefly prepared for various medical entrance examinations after my 10+2. Unfortunately, I couldn’t secure a public funded seat in a MBBS degree. I decided to not choose dentistry or a private college and changed my focus. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I studied biology in my graduation and later on did a Life-Sciences Masters from DAVV, Indore. I did my PhD in plant science from National Institute of Plant Genome Research (NIPGR), JNU, New Delhi.

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

During graduation and post-graduation, plant biology was one of my most favourite subjects. The extensive course curriculum of my M.Sc., my teachers and peers helped develop my interest in plant signalling and molecular biology research. For my Master’s, I had secured an all India rank of 50 in the GATE Life Science exam that motivated me to take research as a career more seriously. I then underwent a six-month dissertation training in the lab of Prof. P.K. Verma at NIPGR, where working on plant-pathogen responses in chickpea helped me develop my skills in tissue culture and gene expression analysis. This short research-stint motivated me to pursue a career in biological sciences and increased my fascination for plant biology. 

My grandfather had the biggest influence in my career and life choices. He always motivated me to be self-reliant and focused. I lost him a couple of days before my CSIR-NET/JRF examination in December 2007. I believe it was his blessings and guidance that I could crack the difficult exam in that state of mind. My family always supported me in my academic and career pursuits. On a personal note, my career path also helped me to find my life partner Dr. Manjul Singh who is a constant pillar of strength in everything I wish to pursue.

I chose a relatively new lab for my PhD at NIPGR that gave me the opportunity to work with the most supportive supervisor. My PI (Principal Investigator), Dr. Ashverya Laxmi, provided an independent and conducive work environment and let me explore my scientific quest without restrictions. 

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

Honestly, I didn’t plan to reach this far, but things fell into place once I got interested in biological research. Having secured a research fellowship during my Master’s made it very smooth to transition into a full-time research candidate.  I had plenty of time to carefully evaluate my research interest and chose an optimal Institution to enroll for a PhD. NIPGR is India’s leading plant research Institution with world class research facilities. My research work explored the functional relevance of sugar signaling and its crosstalk with phytohormones in regulating growth and development of model plant Arabidopsis. My PhD turned out to be a highly productive experience that helped me not only hone my experimental skills but also trained me in scientific writing and research communication by means of writing manuscripts and presenting my work at many national and International conferences. I received travel grants from DST-SERB and CSIR to present my work at the International Root biology conference in Germany and also received the best poster award for my PhD work in International Plant Physiology Conference 2015 in New Delhi. These events gave me a sense of belonging to a broader science community. 

After finishing my PhD, I continued as a postdoctoral research associate in the same lab to finish some of my ongoing manuscripts and also started applying to different job opportunities in India. I got the prestigious DST-INSPIRE (Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research) faculty award from Ministry of Science and technology, Govt of India in 2015 and moved to the Interdisciplinary Centre for Plant Genomics (ICPG) at University of Delhi South Campus as an independent faculty fellow. Here, I worked on understanding the function of plant hormone Brassinosteroid in regulating abiotic stress tolerance in plants. During this period, I also got felicitated with NASI-Young Scientist Platinum Jubilee Award from the National Academy of Sciences, Allahabad and INSA-Medal for Young Scientist from the Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi. Meanwhile, my dream of having my own research group in India was still far from reach as in all the job interviews, one common objection was that I had all achievements while being in a comfort zone but had no experience in a foreign research Institution. I didn’t agree with this criticism as this was never an easy road for me, and I persisted for a couple of years to stay in India and kept trying. However, after repeated failures in securing a permanent PI (Principal Investigator) position, I decided to apply for postdoc positions abroad. Surprisingly, the offers came by quite easily from European Institutions as well as research labs in the USA. After much consideration regarding work environment, distance from family and quality of life, I decided to move to Barcelona in October 2017 to start postdoctoral training at Centre for Research in Agricultural Genomics (CRAG-IRTA-UAB-UB) in Barcelona, SPAIN. 

How did you get your first break?

I was in a conference in New Delhi presenting my work when I got the first email from Dr. Ana I. Caño-Delgado to schedule a skype interview. From the very first moment, I found her very encouraging, and the research theme of her lab aligned perfectly with my research interests. Luckily for us, my husband also secured a post-doc position in another highly reputed research group at CRAG. This made it really easy to move to Barcelona for the next phase of our life and career.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: 

I was not aware of the extent of language and culinary barriers I will be facing in Spain. Being vegetarian with a strictly Indian diet in a Mediterranean cuisine heaven was odd in the beginning. Communicating in Catalan and Spanish with locals outside work became a challenging experience. However, Barcelona is a global city and people here are very warm & helpful, so with little effort it became very easy to adjust.

Challenge 2: 

In the beginning I did not get very exciting results in my research project and went through  a brief period of self-doubt. But my family and friends kept me motivated. I read a lot of literature, discussed with my supervisor, peers and colleagues to improve my methodology and approach. I kept working patiently and persistently until things turned for the better.

Challenge 3: 

One common challenge that most people in my situation face is lack of research funding and suitable job opportunities, especially for early career researchers in India. Combining this with a tedious application process, endless delays in short-listing candidates, the prevalent nepotism and corruption in hiring processes and you face an extremely difficult situation. But there are a lot of success stories as well out there, and I try to keep my focus on them. With each passing day I keep improving my skills and stay motivated and passionate regarding the work I do.

Where do you work now? 

I am currently working as a postdoctoral scientist in the laboratory of Dr. Ana I. Caño-Delgado at CRAG, Barcelona, SPAIN. My postdoc work is funded by an International Severo Ochoa post-doctoral fellowship from the Spanish government and a European Research Council (ERC-CoG) grant to implement the results of our fundamental biology studies into the development of crops resistant to drought. I am investigating the role of plant brassinosteroid receptors in drought adaptation at a spatio-temporal scale. I am studying root and shoot responses in plants during drought. We have generated extensive multi -omics datasets (both cell specific and whole organ scale) and a high-resolution cell-specific Promoter-Gene-Reporter toolbox to study stress responses at tissue and cell specific level. 

In the course of my pre- and post-doctoral research training, I have gained extensive experience encompassing the areas of plant developmental biology, imaging and phenotyping, stress physiology, cell biology, molecular biology, genetics, protein biochemistry, multi-omics data analysis among others. I also got a broad experience in project, data and people management, writing grant applications and funds management. All my previous institutions like SLS-DAVV, NIPGR, JNU, DU and presently CRAG provided a challenging and enriching environment to discover my potential. I was mentored by some of the best scientists in my research field. Besides, I got to interact with experts and colleagues from different fields that allowed me to learn and to transmit knowledge to people outside my field. The interdisciplinary environment at CRAG and the strong collaborative network that we have here will greatly benefit the implementation and success of my research line.

A typical work-day ranges somewhere between 9:30 am-7:30 pm on most days. In my free time, I do some meditation, reading, listen to music or dancing. Since I am living away from the rest of my family, I make it a point to keep in contact with my loved ones on a regular basis. Barcelona is a beautiful city, so we try to explore the place during the weekends. 

Academic research comes with no expiry date. Each day brings with it something new to learn. I love the independence and the sense of responsibility for a greater cause that my work brings in me.

How does your work benefit society? 

My postdoctoral research focuses on designing strategies to promote drought resistance in plants without impairing their yield. Some of our hypotheses have been recently published in the prestigious scientific journals as SCIENCE and DEVELOPMENT. Our work will undoubtedly have an impact on agriculture, specifically under the present climate change crisis that is compromising sustainable food production on our planet.

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

I don’t have any specific incidence to point out, as each milestone in my journey as a researcher feels like a great adventure. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Never lose hope and don’t be afraid to take risks. Heard work and perseverance is the only way to go forward. Stay curious, keep asking questions and enjoy your work.

Future Plans?

I currently have 12 years of research experience working on different aspects of plant biology. At the end of my senior postdoc training at CRAG, I aim to be an independent group leader in Academia, preferably in India as I want to be able to provide solutions for crop improvement and serve my country.