The Amazon Rainforests are the most diverse ecosystems on our entire planet, playing a vital role in maintaining the delicate environmental balance. But these rainforests could also hold the key to one of the most fascinating life processes on earth, Photosynthesis !

Rakesh Tiwari, our next pathbreaker, conducts research on how trees in the hottest Amazonian forest patches are responding to extreme air temperatures due to climate change and how high-temperature could affect photosynthesis in these trees.

Rakesh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about the turning point in his career after working for an NGO consortium in South India, measuring greenhouse gas emission reduction potential of different sustainable agriculture practices that led him to his PhD in Photosynthesis.

For students, sometimes we accept what is taught to us through books. But it is also important to question the concepts we learn and uncover the unknown through empirical research.

Rakesh, tell us about your background

I come from a simple town in Karnataka, Shivamogga. My exposure to science was from some of my teachers in my school days who turned my thinking about science as not just a semantic question and answer but more about how nature works – this was my primary school teacher Yevan P Rodrigues. Hence, I chose science for my pre-university. I was certain I wanted to get into basic sciences and I knew i could not afford engineering or medical education. My two years of pre-university reinforced my idea of getting into science. I studied BSc in Botany, Biochemistry and Microbiology at the Sahyadri Science College, Shivamogga. Although this is a Government college, it had a reputation of having some of the best teachers and I was fortunate to have been taught by a wonderful team of teachers. This experience channeled me towards pursuing science more than anything else – My masters period was not as exciting as my undergrad, but my training from my BSc was strong enough to keep me motivated towards doing science.    

What is your education background?

I did my undergraduate at Shivamogga in Karnataka from Sahyadri Science College in Botany, Biochemistry and Microbiology. My masters was in Applied Botany from Kuvempu University, Shivamogga. After about a decade of working in Climate Change and Climate-Smart Agriculture, I started my PhD in 2016 at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom which I finished in about 3.5 years.

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

I could not afford to do engineering or a specialized masters and hence chose an inexpensive masters program in Applied Botany. My career break came from an opportunity to work with Professor N.H. Ravindranath, (NHR) Indian Institute of Science (IISc), as a research assistant. While working with him and his colleagues, I got the opportunity to learn and imbibe the concepts of climate change, and the impact of climate change on functioning of forests and on village ecosystems 

After about five years at IISc, my second turning point was when I took up a job for an NGO consortium, Fair Climate Network (Fairclimate.com) to measure greenhouse gas emissions from croplands. The project involved implementation of climate-smart sustainable practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While the partner NGOs implemented sustainable practices on farmers’ land, I was given the responsibility of measuring the extent to which  greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by the adoption of sustainable practices. After about five years of working on sustainable agriculture, I started my PhD at the University of Leeds on the impact of climate change induced warming on tropical forests. I focused on heat impact on the sensitivity of Amazonian rainforest trees, particularly on heat sensitivity of photosynthesis. Despite shifts in my career, climate change, its impact and mitigation remained the overarching theme throughout. 

Tell us about your career path and transition into PhD?

While I was working on agriculture and greenhouse gas emission reduction from croplands, I kept applying for PhD positions to several Universities that were working on the topic of forests ecophysiology. I wanted to do a PhD that would challenge my capabilities and push me to do research that had applications on the ground. I wanted the PhD to grow me as a scientist. 

Hence, my PhD topic was quite different from the work that i had done before. Although I was, of course, working on climate change; particularly in cropland systems, for my PhD, I got an opportunity to study the Amazon forest. I studied ‘how those trees in the hottest Amazonian forest patches are responding to excessive air temperatures’; Would they continue to survive and function under excessively hot environmental conditions due to climate change? What could be the high-temperature limits of photosynthesis in these trees? 

Fortunately, my PhD allowed me to pursue and study photosynthesis – the most vital and fascinating process on our planet. Photosynthesis is central to all life processes on the earth. The process converts the energy from the sun into chemical energy and biomass, that serves as the energy source for all the heterotopic organisms on our planet. Yet, there is so little focus on this fascinating process! I remember there was a whole semester module during my masters course on the genetics of photosynthesis. I vividly remember compiling notes and presenting seminars on various topics in that module. That was when I recognized my fascination with this process. 

During my almost a decade long career at IISc or with the consortium of NGOs, there was never really an opportunity to study photosynthesis. It was my PhD that provided me with this crucial turning point. 

Looking for PhD positions, I wrote to several faculty (professors) from various European Universities. Likewise, I wrote to Prof David Galbraith at the University of Leeds, who later became my primary supervisor. David promptly replied to my enquiry, but said there were no funding opportunities then – he said he would get back to me when there were any. A few months later, David replied back to that email informing me about the Leeds International Research scholarship that covers the full tuition fee and three years of living expenses. This was a competitive scholarship and the university awards a handful of these scholarships every year to support outstanding researchers. David helped me through the application process and I was really lucky to be awarded this scholarship. I could not afford this PhD without this scholarship. This scholarship gave me the opportunity to work with some of the best scientists in our field.

The criteria for the selection were the combination of my academic performance (i was the topper of the university during my masters) and my research experience. I was in research and learnt to analyse data, write research articles during my per-PhD period. The publications that I did on the climate sensitivity of Indian forests,  sustainable agriculture and optimising instruments for greenhouse gas analysis helped demonstrate my diverse strengths. Hence, I would always recommend students to try and start reading academic publications, get involved in research, learn statistics and try and come up with research questions that could have wider implications. 

How did you choose your PhD topic?

My PhD topic changed at the beginning of my PhD. The initial topic for my application for the admission and the scholarship was to work on Amazon – Savannah transition forest dynamics. But my supervisors told me about an opportunity to probe the question of heat response of photosynthesis in trees, especially in a site where my supervisors along with Brazilian University had set up a canopy observatory to measure tree-crown (leaf) temperatures. This was ideal for me and this was the first opportunity to study photosynthesis. 

I took up the opportunity and started learning photosynthesis from scratch. I had to unlearn a lot that I learnt from textbooks and learn from primary literature i.e., research articles and by actually measuring photosynthesis. I learnt various measurement techniques, started experimenting with plants in greenhouses and this not only enabled a first-hand understanding of photosynthesis, but led me to start questioning several aspects of how photosynthesis responds to changes in the environment – especially heat. 

I was given a free hand not only to play with instruments but also to try different approaches and that was very crucial in my learning process. Towards the end, the compilation of different pieces of work, both from the Amazonian forest as well as a new approach that I presented in my thesis, led to my PhD thesis which was titled ‘High temperature responses of photosynthesis’. Half of my thesis was on the Amazonian forest and the other half was on the new measurement technique that developed (and tested on soybean grown in the greenhouses) to understand how leaves absorb light while they are responding to heat stress.

What were some of the challenges you faced?

I don’t think I faced any challenges – mainly because I worked on the topic that interested me and I was learning what I always wanted to. Secondly, I always had a vision of where my work is going and where I want to take it in the future. Without the Leeds International Research scholarship, I could not think of doing a PhD and to have studied and learnt what I did. 

Another aspect to it is that the team of people I worked with were some of the most supportive, positive and critical people. I had four supervisors: Prof David Galbraith, Prof Emanuel Gloor, Prof Christine Foyer and Dr Sophie Fauset; their varied expertise and approaches to a research question allowed me to learn and innovate naturally. In a strange way, I don’t think I share anything in common with people who struggle with their PhD. Often, people describe their PhD to be arduous and challenging.I do not disregard their ordeal, but PhD is a big decisions in our lives. We set aside a major part of our life in terms of time and an even bigger part of our energies to focus on a PhD. It is an opportunity to grow as a researcher and naturally, it comes with its work. This is a privilege that only a small section of the society are fortunate to get. One gets to learn research in its essence and elements and this is a lot of work and focus. So if one gets into it, it’s a decision to step up our selves in many several aspects. If this is a conscious decision, one should not be bothered by the journey! PhD is a fantastic opportunity to grow!

I would also like to add that my PhD was not a one-person output – there were many people who contributed towards it, not only my supervisors. Whatever challenges we faced were dealt with as a team – my supervisors, our lab technicians and all of the friends and colleagues who worked towards resolving the issues and get the work done. That is the beauty of the team in the school of Geography at the University of Leeds. I think I was very fortunate to have ended up with this team. Also, when I say I did not face challenges, it also stems from the fact that this is the work I wanted to pursue. I think if we do not choose consciously, we will always see issues. So, I would say pursue anything you wouldn’t regret, not just over the next couple of years, think a few decades ahead. If it makes sense, you will find ways to overcome hurdles and you will focus on solutions rather than self-care!

How was your day like during your PhD?

My PhD period was quite intense and exciting. Of the three and a half years that it took, the initial 1–1.5 years involved a lot of learning. During this period, I would start my day at about 9 or 10 AM in the morning at my office and work until 9 or 10 in the evening. The second phase, the fieldwork period in the Southern Amazonian forest, although was relatively brief, the four months that I spent were some of the most productive and intensive periods I enjoyed. I had set up a temporary lab in a field base while living in a farm which was about 15 minutes’ drive from my forest site. I used to wake up at around 3 AM, set up my makeshift lab, calibrate the instruments and keep the system ready to measure the plant samples by about 6:30–7:00 AM. The suite of measurements that would start typically would go on until 3 or 4 PM. Rest of the day would be dismantling the makeshift lab, having dinner and go to sleep. This was how it was for several weeks. I thoroughly enjoyed this period. The last phase of my PhD was the thesis writing period. This was a bit of a weird and interesting period. This is when I developed my intense love for coffee! Often, thesis writing is stressful. However, I was again lucky that I was allowed to bundle two eclectic pieces of work into my thesis. I worked with different supervisors on individual chapters and this enabled me to imbibe different approaches as well as learn from them all. I was fortunate to have this variety in both my thesis chapters and my supervisors and I think this kept me quite upbeat and positive throughout the thesis writing phase.

In the end, I think it is important to find a team which is positively supportive as well as critical to produce a good piece of work. Find a good community that you think can work with and it is always important – it is never just a one-person job. I want to stress that from my experience. 
Also, since English is not my mother tongue, and writing is not my strengths. This is when learning from a supportive team of supervisors and friends came handy. There were times when I used to ideate in Kannada, and the put things together in English. This was not always the best idea but it helped me. I will also put this in that language prowess is not the only thing that students  should squeeze their efforts into. Focus on content. Remember, there is no point in learning vocabulary that you would never use in an academic paper or in a conversation. Language learning is overrated. I would say, build enough and put in your energies in developing ideas and skills. 

How does your work benefit society?

I don’t think the work I have been involved in as of yet has benefited the society. I do however recognize that they are going in that direction and I would try to advance these in the future. My vision as I see it now is mostly focused on trying to understand how tropical forests work under extreme heat conditions and apply those ideas and mechanisms in crop plants so that we can try to grow better crops, save resources involved, improve food production and ultimately try to make this a better-fed world. If we consider the long-term global change and challenges, one of the biggest challenges that we will face by 2050 is to produce enough food for the rapidly growing human population while retaining the natural systems (resources as we call it) on this planet. We have exhausted the approaches of the green revolution that humanity achieved (intensification, fertilization, pesticides etc.) in increasing food production. One of the most obvious ways we can try and improve yields in any drastic way is to try and tweak photosynthesis. I haven’t reached this stage yet to be able to work on this challenge, but this is where I want to focus my energies in the future. 

What is the most memorable part of your career?

I am quite lucky that I can actually quote two. Firstly, my PhD period. This was one of the most rigorous learning opportunities for me in life and I got an opportunity to work in the Amazon rainforest. The second one, and actually the one that is close to my heart is the work I did with the NGO consortium in South India, measuring greenhouse gas emission reduction potential of different sustainable agriculture practices. Along with a team of five NGOs; I was lucky to have set up four labs, several experimental plots and trained teams from various backgrounds in sampling and analyzing greenhouse gas emissions from cropland soil. NGOs in parallel worked with thousands of farmers in implementing sustainable agriculture practices so that farmers can reduce carbon emissions from their farms. This was quite meaningful among all the work that I have done until now with implications for farmers.

What advice would you give to students?

I think having a clear vision is important. I would advise not to go by the ‘buzz’ of the day. You can easily recognise that each new stream have its popularity period and then it would go down. Keep that in mind and focus on building your skills rather than getting into a constraining profession. This might not apply for a lot of people out there but if you were to pursue research and science, more than learning various analytical techniques, it is important to ask the relevant research questions. Students and parents keep asking about the ‘scope’ of a subject. I don’t believe in this. Simply because, if you visualize and analyze the career destinations of the courses people took earlier, you will get a sense of the employability and the industry. Keep the numbers in mind. How many such people are needed? How many companies are there who would need such skills? Until when? With an internet search, LinkedIn and Twitter, you can easily assess what a career path looks like over 5, 10, and 20 years. If you are cognizant of this path and if you want to go that direction please do. Ensure you keep in sight the changes a field will undergo and the new skills you will need to learn. Alternatively, if you want to do something new, there is always a way and it can happen anywhere in the world. Cautiously, do not limit your analysis to India alone (or any other country you are in). It’s important to look globally. Also, try and find solutions that matter; if your thoughts are grounded in these realities, irrespective of what field you are excited about, you will find a future, you will mostly create that future yourself. So, whatever you choose, pursue it with your full conscious effort. By the way, the heart is overrated! Use your critical mind!

What are your future plans?

I want to advance my PhD work on photosynthesis in two streams. First, I will continue to work in Amazon and other forests across the world, particularly understanding how plant processes respond to impacts of climate change. The second stream I would like to pursue is to continue working on crop systems, with a focus on improving their yield and trying to understand how plants respond to and cope with stresses. There are several avenues in this stream such as crop improvement, precision agriculture and breeding varieties resilient to future climate scenarios. My approach and efforts would be to try and understand how energy interaction in leaves change and how plastic (flexible) they are, particularly the photosynthetic processes.

What are the career prospects in agriculture in plant sciences?

In India, as one would imagine, the possibilities are limited, apart from teaching and academic research. However, there are growing opportunities. Startups and NGO communities in various parts of India are bringing in innovative solutions – all the way from how the crops are grown, managed, harvested, transported and how they are linked to the supply chain – this is changing rapidly. I would think precision agriculture, organic and sustainable farming and their products will become more popular in the near future. People from varied skills, not only agriculture will get into these. Prepare yourself for such scenarios and I am sure there are plenty of opportunities that would evolve in India. 

Here is the link to the Rakesh’s interview video:  https://youtu.be/t6s5ODXuP3c

Please watch Rakesh’s Youtube Video Channel :

https://www.youtube.com/user/shimogarakesh1