What can farmers and agriculturists do when they are at the mercy of factors beyond their control, unpredictable climate, global warming, excessive drought or rain. Thankfully, technology has an answer !

Shivangi Arvind, our next pathbreaker, works on technologies such as AIoT (Artificial Intelligence of Things) to make autonomous and remote indoor farming possible, where the farmer can easily monitor and control his farm without having to actually be in one, thus removing climate uncertainity out of the equation.

Shivangi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about making the transition from outdoor farming to indoors, but bringing her cumulative research experience in driving technology for the benefit of the farming community.

For students, there will always be changes and transitions in your career, be prepared to adapt and cultivate transferable skills.

Shivangi, tell us about your background?

Though born in Bareilly (UP) as the second child in the family, I spent a considerable part of my childhood in a small town of Haldwani (Uttarakhand) when it was still a part of the undivided state of UP. My father started working for a multinational pharmaceutical company after quitting zoology lectureship at Birla College, Nainital. I still remember sneaking through his textbook labelled ‘Zoology of Chordates’ with a black hard cover and a crocodile sketch with golden color. My mother, an economics postgraduate, has been a dedicated homemaker, my first and the strictest teacher and genetic source of all my creative interests. I always fancied Science and was an avid fan of Discovery channel documentaries as a child. I was also a self-taught musician and singer and won accolades for the same. My composition and direction on Mahatma Gandhi won the best dance-drama when I was in 6th standard. I had also been a fair athlete and a painter for a brief period. I carried my interest as a musician and singer all throughout my college life and performed at various prestigious events. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I graduated in agriculture from the prestigious ‘G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology’, Pantnagar among the top 4 students in a batch of 100+ students. Thereafter, I joined KRCCH, Arabhavi campus of UHS Bagalkot in Karnataka to study Horticulture. I completed my post-graduation as the university topper in Horticulture (Fruit Science) and re-joined G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar, shortly after that, to pursue my doctorate in Horticulture (major) and Plant Physiology (minor).

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

I always wanted to pursue science but was uncomfortable being a doctor, so I turned towards plants and took up agriculture. While doing my graduation, I found myself particularly interested in horticulture and aced all the courses offered by the concerned department. It was then that I found a mentor in Dr. S.K. Maurya (AP, Dept. of Vegetable Science) who offered to guide me in cracking the ICAR-PGS examination. He introduced me to a senior, Ms. Neeharika Kanth, pursuing masters in his department and a recipient of ICAR-PGS fellowship. It was under their guidance, honest evaluations and my strict study regime that got me to crack the ICAR-PGS exam, with AIR-22, to study further. As I proceeded with my education in this field, I got more and more driven towards it as an interesting career option.

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

My very first job was that of a tutor when I was around 15 years old. Later, while in college, I earned as a Junior Research Fellow for ICAR for two years after cracking the ICAR-PGS exam following my graduation in agriculture. The research involved the standardization of spacing and pruning time and level of guava under high density plantation in the tropical conditions of South India. The recommendations of the trial were based on the physico-chemical analysis of fruit quality traits, leaf chlorophyll content and light intensity under each treatment. Pest management studies on fruit fly and spiraling white fly was also done and cost-effective methods were developed to control them. While pursuing my doctorate, I put up a proposal to further my knowledge and expertise in high density guava plantations, which was duly accepted by the Department of Science and Technology, Govt. of India for a period of three years. It was then that I worked, (as a DST-INSPIRE Junior Research Fellow) on the aspect of effect of leaf to fruit ratio under high density planting and worked out a first ever recommendation for optimum leaf to fruit ratio to be maintained under HDP for better yield and quality of guava, under the guidance of my advisory committee headed by Dr. Shant Lal (Prof. Dept. of Horticulture) and Dr. S.K. Guru (Prof. Dept. of Plant Physiology) at Pantnagar.

After I moved to Bengaluru, I applied for various research based positions in government institutes including the premier Indian Institute of Horticulture Research. Despite excellent interview feedback, I would get rejected because of not being well versed in the local state language which was an integral part of the job description, as it involved communicating with the local farmers. I was always appreciated and told by the interviewers that I deserved another field. It was then that I decided to head towards private research-based positions in corporates. I consulted my cousin, who works for a corporate giant in Bengaluru, who advised me to build a strong network profile on the professional networking platform ‘LinkedIn’. I began making connections and growing my network with people from my field. This helped me to find job openings which were rarely sighted on the other job-seeking sites. I would also share my resume to my connections which would go unnoticed 90% of the time. I did not lose hope and started being more active and open to networking and initiating conversations. I happened to land myself a couple of interviews before I got my big break in the corporate IT world.

How did you get your first break? 

After trying for about four months, I happened to find a position almost perfectly suitable for my experience and qualification. However, there was a tiny area of technical experience that I lacked and therefore restrained myself from applying for the job in a conventional way. Instead, I started digging for more information about the company and contacted one of the key persons and initiated a conversation about my wish to join the company. After a few conversational exchanges, I was called to appear for a personal interview the same afternoon, which I gladly accepted as I did not want to lose the opportunity. Though unprepared, I decided to use my knowledge, experience, and instincts and went ahead with the interview. As I reached the venue before time, I was asked to wait for a while, then called in by the same person I have been speaking to. As we began talking, he described what the company has been working on and what they expected from a person in the prospective role. He even introduced me to the team. I thought this was going really well. After about half an hour, I suddenly heard him saying, “Now our CEO will interview you”, as we entered the conference room with a big screen TV and a foreign national (perhaps American) sitting on the other side. As we greeted each other, my heart started racing because of this unexpected encounter. Nevertheless, I held myself very calmly and answered his questions using my knowledge, experience, and instincts as I had planned. I was honest with him about my lack of technical experience but assured him that I was a quick learner and could acquire the skill in no time. I believe it was my honesty, spontaneity, confidence and faith in my knowledge, experience, and instincts that I landed the job of my dreams.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

  • Challenge 1:  As mentioned, the very first challenge was with the transition from outdoor farming experience to indoors. I had to take up a small course with a workshop to get familiar with the concept apart from a load of research literature review for about 2 months since I started working.
  • Challenge 2: The other challenge involved managing a multidisciplinary team. I had an entirely different background of research and academia but here I was dealing with the people from the IT world, which was a little hard for me to adjust at the beginning.
  • Challenge 3: My role in the company gradually evolved with time and involved a lot of strategic planning and business development. Shouldering those responsibilities were a little challenging initially as I did not have a business administration or management degree, but I ‘managed’ to develop and hone the skill through hard work, good communication and confidence.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your work

It has been almost two years since I joined AgEye Technologies. In this short span of time I have been entrusted a lot of major responsibilities as the Chief Science Officer. I currently direct and lead all global R&D initiatives and aid in the overall strategic direction of the company’s intelligent indoor farming technology.  I provide direction for new method/algorithm development, validation, implementation, and training. As part of the executive committee, I provide operational leadership and management of the research, engineering, design, and hardware teams, as well as assist with strategic business development and marketing activities.

Farming is the major profession of more than half of our country’s population and almost 40% of the global population. It is constantly affected by variable factors of the environment, both living and non-living. Living factors include the animals, microbes, and other plant species while the non-living factors include the air, water, soil, nutrients etc. Our past experiences are our best teachers. It not only tells us what we did wrong, but also prepares us for the future. Farmers also rely on their past experiences to make critical decisions for e.g., the right time to sow the crop, the best stage to water the crop, the amount of fertilizer to be applied based on the age of the plants, best time to harvest and many more. But there are times when these experiences are insufficient to make any important decision, especially situations which they have not seen or experienced before, and puts them in doubt.

Fortunately, technology like precision farming, IoT and data analytics have removed this doubt factor and it has become easier for the farmers to receive accurate information, as basic as prediction of weather for the next 10 days or very recently the prediction for locust swarm or cyclones, on their mobile phones. Technology has also enabled them to share any farm related issues or information directly to the expert and gets appropriate advice. Several e-agriculture platforms like e-mandis, provide services throughout the entire food value chain, right from input supply to marketing of their produce.

Despite this, the increasing weather extremities, due to climate change, have forced farming to go indoors. Particularly, in the western and middle eastern countries, where climate and geographic conditions are not favourable for farming, an increasing demand of high-quality food produced locally with less carbon footprint is slowly becoming the new normal. In an age where pandemic like the novel coronavirus has made people realise the importance of agriculture and the benefits of remote working, technology like AIoT holds a great potential to make autonomous and remote indoor farming possible, where the farmer can easily monitor and control his farm without having to actually be in one.

Fortunately, there is plenty of information available on the concept of indoor farming online including research articles, books, webinars, presentations, and videos, which I also benefitted from. Additionally, I took a professional course on ‘lighting in greenhouses and vertical farms’, at the Wageningen University, Netherlands.

Apart from a strong domain knowledge, good leadership and communication skills are essential in growing the company’s technology through strategy, innovation, and accountability. Being in this role has also tapped my inner management potential and consistently provided me the opportunity to polish those skills.

Normally, I hate doing mundane things as a part of a routine and that is why I love my job which brings a new challenge every day. It pushes me to learn about new things, meet new people, gain new experiences, and develop new skills which keeps me going. 

How does your work benefit society? 

What immediately connected me to my work is the vision behind it. As the world around is continuously changing in terms of population dynamics and climate, it will get more and more difficult to ensure food security. My work gives me a chance to contribute to make that possible with our technology. In the next 30 years, about 80% of the population would be living in cities. Our technology will enable the cities of the future to be self-sufficient in their food supply while also ensuring the safety of the stakeholders of urban farming.

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

I guess, the most memorable deeds are usually the most selfless deeds. Recently, I got a chance to deliver my first guest lecture for graduate students at my own university. It was a moment of sheer joy, pride, and absolute honor for me and will always remain close to my heart.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Honesty, hard work and self-confidence will take you far ahead in your professional and personal life. Always try to inculcate the qualities of a good leader and the rest will follow. The most important thing is to realize your own strengths and weaknesses and work on that because no one understands you better than you. No matter which field you choose to pursue, always try your best to excel in that. 

Future Plans?

Immediate work plans include resuming business development activities in the Netherlands, Spain, and Israel which were held back due to the current pandemic. It is still the beginning of my career and I have a long way to go. I wish to learn more each day and keep giving back to society in whatever possible way I can.