Careers are shaped not just by academic and professional experiences but also by exposure to diverse cultures, languages and the people we interact with in our daily life.

Smruti Smita Mohapatra, our next pathbreaker, is a PhD research scholar at West Bengal University of Animal and Fishery Sciences, Kolkata, studying the physiology of laboratory animals.

Smruti talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her various experiences of moving from her hometown Bhubaneswar to Chennai to pursue her Veterinary masters, taking up her first job as small animal clinician at Ahmedabad and pursuing a PhD (Animal Physiology ) at Calcutta, all choices influenced by a love for animals !

For students, get out of your comfort zone at the earliest, and get used to dealing with the unknown. The sooner you do it the more adept you will be at handling unexpected career outcomes.

Smruti, tell us about your background?

I was brought up in the city of Bhubaneswar in the state of Odisha.  I studied in Vivekananda Public School, Sailashree Vihar as a nursery kid along with my twin sister. We were the first batch of students of the Vivekananda Shikshya Kendra in 1994. This is the reason why the school remembers us in every occasion even today. From there we moved to the school of international repute then and now – D.A.V. Public School, Chandrasekharpur, Bhubaneswar for kindergarten and continued till standard XII. Both of us were in the same section till standard X. Our sections changed in standard XI as I opted for Biology and she chose Computer Science as the fourth optional in Science stream. We have loving memories of our school friends and teachers together since our childhood. 

I was adjudged the Master Mind award by Animal Care & Shelter Home for Animal Welfare, Preservation of Environment & Eco-System followed by the Best All Rounder for the same academic year in 2003-04. I was declared a meritorious candidate in D.A.V. Common VIII Board by D.A.V. College Managing Committee, New Delhi in 2004 along with my sister. I was selected as a Child Scientist in the 12th National Children Science Congress at Guwahati. I was recognized among top 301 national candidates in NSEB in 2008. I was awarded the Governor’s Award as a Guide as part of Bharat Scouts and Guides in our school. I was the winner of the National Level Universal Postal Union Letter Writing Competition in my school days. 

As a working woman, our mother was instrumental in keeping both her children engaged in academics, tuitions, literary activities, competitions, Odissi dance, Hindustani classical vocal and art classes in our school days. She brought us up singlehandedly while our father was posted away from home for the longest time. Our parents belong to a simple and progressive Odia household of their times. My great grandfather Sri Bhagabat Prasad Mohapatra belongs to the coastal village of Balasore in Odisha. My father Sri Ganesh Chandra Mohapatra is the son of a humble farmer. Apart from raising a large family, the life of my grandparents – Sri Bhikari Charan Mohapatra and Smt Sabitrimani Mohapatra revolved around farming, agricultural activities, tree plantation and animal husbandry in our ancestral village Amara as long as they lived. My mother Smt Sujata Mohanty, the daughter of a senior Class I officer under Odisha Administrative Services (OAS) – Sri Bhagaban Mohanty, was raised in different districts of Odisha along with her siblings by my grandmother Smt Tilottama Mohanty. Thus our huge maternal and paternal families from the different backgrounds have always helped us build and appreciate life in all forms since our childhood days. My parents are one of the earliest, hard working and loyal employees in The Orissa State Cooperative Milk Producers’ Federation Limited (OMFED), affiliated to NDDB. My father retired from his service in the year 2018 after working tirelessly for 36 years in milk unions of different districts in the state, while my mother continues to work as Assistant Manager in Bhubaneswar. My twin sister Swati Smita Mohapatra and brother-in-law Pratheek Siddamsetty are architects in Dubai. Married to a serving young officer in the armed forces over a year now, my father-in-law Sri Bijay Kumar Samal is a senior executive in MECON Limited and my mother-in-law Smt Bandana Samal is a government school teacher turned homemaker, who have been living in Ranchi for the past 32 years.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation? 

I joined Veterinary Sciences at the first opportunity, after my intermediate in 2009. I graduated with Bachelors in Veterinary Science & Animal Husbandry (Hons) from Orissa University of Agriculture & Technology, Bhubaneswar in 2014. After completing my internship training immediately in 2014, I went on to join Masters in Veterinary Science with specialisation in Veterinary Physiology at the country’s top most Veterinary University, Asia’s first Veterinary and Animal Sciences University and one of the oldest veterinary schools in India established in Madras in 1903 – Tamil Nadu University of Veterinary & Animal Sciences (TANUVAS) through ICAR all India post graduate counselling. Chennai offered me a great professional exposure and volunteering opportunities. I completed my Masters research on avian nutritional physiology there in 2016 which is duly recognised in Krishikosh (E-granth), an institutional repository of NARES, India by ICAR-IARI, New Delhi. 

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

My keen interest to pursue a career in Biology dates back to our school days. The motivation came from the three scientists of the Institute of Life Sciences, Bhubaneswar who used to be our immediate neighbours for a long time. My inclination to pursue the subject after standard XII was largely supported by my parents. With few successful veterinarians already in our family and my parents’ friend circle then, I was willing to pursue Veterinary Science in my first attempt without a second thought. 

I have been encouraged and mentored by many people in this journey. It includes the teachers and professors who influenced me in school and different phases of my student life. I have been mentored by many people on personal and professional fronts including the professional colleagues at my three different workplaces.   

I was also deeply motivated by the words of learned personalities such as Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma AC, Prof. Yash Pal, Mrs Kiran Bedi and Sri Subroto Bagchi who visited our school for the Foundation day lectures.

I have been a vegetarian since the last seven years on compassionate and animal welfare grounds. I am a veterinarian who does not believe in eating my own patients. I am a contented minimalist. 

Tell us about your career path.

I have fond memories of these five years of undergraduate studies with our wonderful teachers and lively batchmates through ambulatory clinics, clinical cases, veterinary camps, cultural fests, conferences and study tours. I personally represented our university at various national literary forums. 

My keen interest in research began taking shape while working on the ECG of Ganjam sheep of Odisha during my internship under the guidance of the department of Veterinary Physiology. I volunteered for a health care camp for pets by Utsarg Veterinary Hospital, Sahid Bhagat Singh Club & Lions Club, Bhubaneswar during college days. I was an active part of animal vaccination and health camps at Sarkana, Salipur, Konark and different districts of Odisha in their ambulatory clinics. An active member of NSS, I was a part of different animal vaccination camps conducted by NSS units in my college days. Our six months compulsory rotatory internship programme during Bachelors included training in Odisha Biological Product Institute, Veterinary Officers’ Training Institute, Central Avian Research Institute – Regional Centre, university livestock and poultry farms, Nandankanan Zoological Park and university Teaching Veterinary Clinical Complex in Bhubaneswar. I had my first proper hands-on laboratory training in the sophisticated laboratory of Institute of Life Sciences, Bhubaneswar on a personal request during my internship days. 

Without any further break after my Masters in 2016, I began my career the same year as a small animal clinician in a multispeciality hospital in the city of Ahmedabad under the guidance of a senior lady veterinarian. She was my guide, first colleague and the mentor of my first job with whom I connected well. My duty as a novice veterinary practitioner included clinical, diagnostic, routine and supportive services for dogs, cats, exotic animals and birds. My stay in Ahmedabad was comfortable as a paying guest with a cat parent turned vegan now. My weekends revolved around tripping to Gandhinagar and exploring the old, safe and former state capital independently. All these taught me a lot. 

I received OUAT merit scholarship during my undergraduate studies. I receive WBUAFS university merit scholarship for my PhD studies. To understand more about the implications of animal welfare laws in India as a veterinarian, I was amongst the first batch of students of India’s first course on Animal Protection Laws by Animal Law Centre, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad with merit scholarship.  

After working for four months in a hectic private set up in Ahmedabad, I moved to Madhya Karnataka in 2017 bagging my first government job opportunity as an academician at Karnataka Veterinary, Animal & Fishery Sciences University, Bidar. I joined as Assistant Professor in Animal Husbandry Polytechnic in the small municipal town of Shiggaon, also known as Shiggavi, in Haveri district of Karnataka.

 I remember my first day in the polytechnic after joining. My father who had accompanied me to my new posting, peeped through the door of the lecture hall from my chamber, as I stood up for my first lecture. It was a happy moment for him. Animal husbandry polytechnic, Shiggaon, came into existence on September 3, 2012 under KVAFSU, Bidar. The two year Diploma in Animal Husbandry was offered for the students who had passed S.S.L.C (Class – X) and studied from 1st standard to 10th standard in rural areas of the state. Admission was at state level on the basis of merit of the candidates in their S.S.L.C. examination and subject to reservation policy of the state or university. The diploma course was offered in two years.

Besides undertaking teaching to the diploma students, the faculty of the institute had to provide diagnostic facilities to the field veterinarians for diagnosis of various diseases in the animals of that area. Two laboratories, one each in Animal Science and Veterinary Science were established to conduct mastitis test, antibiotic sensitivity test, blood test, urine examination and faecal sample examination. The faculty of the polytechnic had to conduct and attend many extension activities. Training programmes, demonstrations, brainstorming group discussions and field visits were conducted for farmers. Many farmers come to the polytechnic for consultancy as well as on problems related to their animals or seeking more information on animal husbandry. So far 135 students have passed out from this polytechnic. About 33% are continuing their education in PUC, B.Sc and B.A. About 33 % are self employed as AI and first aid workers in their native places. Rest are employed in various government institutions and projects like farms, Sujala Project and veterinary hospitals and in cities like Bengaluru.

I am very happy to note that my students graduated as Diploma holders in Animal Husbandry in 2017 and ventured professionally. I am still in touch with my students. A new campus in an area of 25 acres of land has come up at Kunnur village of Shiggaon Taluk now. The Polytechnic has been sanctioned the status of Centre of Excellence in Transfer of Animal Production Technologies under RKVY, under which model farms and training facilities for students and farmers are done. I also ensured I spent my Sundays visiting tourist places in and around Hubli and Dharwad all alone. With the polytechnic situated in the peaceful Moula Ali Nagar, life in this semi-rural area as an educator was simple. 

Subsequently with the suggestions of my seniors and well wishers, I decided to join as a teaching faculty in my specialisation in the Department of Veterinary Physiology in NTR College of Veterinary Science at Gannavaram in 2017. Closer to home, Gannavaram is a neighbourhood of Vijayawada in Krishna district of coastal Andhra Pradesh and a part of Vijayawada metropolitan area. Working under the supervision of father figure professors there was a great learning experience for me in the newly flourishing campus. They provided basic guidance to newcomers all the way from conducting practical classes smoothly to objectively evaluating examination papers in large bundles, not as a mere lenient student sympathiser but for the greater good of the students. Visiting Mangalagiri, the major suburb between the twin cities of Vijayawada and Guntur with my sister’s friend to hand pick the famous hand woven cotton Mangalagiri sarees from local weavers for my mother and fabrics for my twin sister from my first salary will always be special in this journey. It gave immense satisfaction in building the career of the budding professionals in their formative years.

With constant encouragement from my family, friends and senior professors of my last workplace, I decided to pursue higher studies, and qualified ICAR’s AIEEA-SRF (PGS)-2017 with AIR 3 in Animal Physiology and subsequently chose the second oldest veterinary college of the country since 1893 to do my PhD. Calcutta is where I always wanted to be and it happened. It has been three years now as a PhD research scholar in Bengal Veterinary College under West Bengal University of Animal & Fishery Sciences, Kolkata.

How did you get your first break?

I had written my PhD entrance exams during the last semester of my Masters in 2016. I could not join PhD the same year in ICAR-NDRI, Karnal despite clearing the entrance, due to my ongoing Masters thesis against the early commencement of the PhD academic session of the national institute. Understanding the situation I had started applying for various jobs then. With a PhD somewhere still in mind, after submitting my Masters thesis, I moved to Bombay all alone for my personal interview for the post of Veterinary Policy Advisor in PETA India which in turn demanded a long term commitment. Subsequently the same year though I had been shortlisted and called for the interview of Netaji Subhas ICAR International Fellowship 2016-17 to Delhi for Doctoral studies abroad , the most suitable applicant of our veterinary field made it to the list for the year. Similarly I had even applied for Teach for India and Young India fellowships for a change due to my inclination for volunteering for social causes. All these experiences gave me a lot of insights on a personal level to channelize my opportunities. Thus on the suggestion of a dear friend and approval of my parents, I landed up getting my first break in Ahmedabad after a series of such events. 

What were the challenges in your career? How did you address them? 

1. Moving to Chennai for my Masters from east India gave me cultural shocks initially. But with a penchant to pick up new things, I tried learning the basic words in Tamil to interact with some people around. Be it asking my local friends, watching regional movies or listening to Tamil songs, they all helped me in every possible way. Volunteering on weekends helped me in grasping the language even more, understanding people and their way of life. This also helped me in dealing people in the academics to some extent.

2. Taking diploma classes for young adults (whose mother tongue was Kannada) in Animal husbandry polytechnic, Shiggaon under KVAFSU, Bidar was a bit challenging. Thus I prepared my classes mostly in Hindi and few in English for obvious reasons. The cooperation of the students, staff and the Principal was encouraging.

Where do you work now? 

I am a final semester PhD research scholar in the department of Veterinary Physiology in the Faculty of Veterinary and Animal Sciences under West Bengal University of Animal and Fishery Sciences in Kolkata. Recently I have been included in the honourable Editorial Board of two reputed monthly magazines on agriculture and animal husbandry – Food & Scientific Reports and Pashudhan Praharee respectively. Simultaneously I write blogs for Readers’ Blog of the Times of India and Women’s Web. As a passionate science writer, I write essays and technical articles on animal welfare and global climate change for various animal husbandry websites. I write and invite guest posts for my own blog – ‘Smruti Way! – Can we talk?’ on various social issues. Currently I am a mentee of a virtual internship under Young Science Leadership programme.

What problems do you solve?

My current PhD research is to study the physiology of laboratory animals. The investigation on neuroendocrinology includes examination of the reproductive status of the lab animals followed by the study of their gene expression profiles. With the extended deadline approved by UGC to the universities due to the ongoing pandemic, I am about to submit my PhD thesis in the next few months.     

What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills? 

Since my masters research was on avian and poultry studies, specifically Japanese quails, my current exposure to laboratory animals is interesting. Flexibility, keeping abreast with the recent updates and multitasking through interdisciplinary approach are the skills to become relevant in current times. Timely advice, suggestions and guidance from mentors and professionals are necessary for good decision making and life skills. A veterinarian must be an epitome of compassion, kindness and affection. With patience, time and experience, you learn everything in life. There is nothing like attending conferences, training programmes, workshops and seminars to acquire new skills. Volunteering helps.

What is a typical day like? 

A typical day in my life as a lady veterinarian is all about keeping a balance between work, studies and home with the support of family and friends. I must say it is imperative. As I look back at my short professional veterinary stint between my Masters and Doctoral studies in various roles and capacities, it is a deep realization that being on the other side of the table is never easy. It is always a responsibility for a skilled veterinarian to excel in education, extension and research on a broader scale. 

What is it you love about this job? 

I love the people I work with, especially my PhD mentors and friends in the department and university. They make us. They guide me through and through. I thank each one who I have come across, for their tremendous support in this journey. Indeed, these are the fantastic highlights of my career now. I try imbibing the rich culture of each state, wherever I live. The welcoming environment for a budding veterinarian at all the places will be unforgettable for me. 

How does your work benefit society? 

My contribution to society has been in the role of a veterinarian and an active social volunteer. I have been a votary of Lotus Sutra since the last eleven years. Apart from my professional pursuits, I have donated hair locks as a part of a hair donation drive for the benefit of cancer patients in Adyar Cancer Centre in 2015 during Masters days following which I was recognized as the youngest Udyam Social Icon of the Week 2015 by NMIMS, Bengaluru. As a compassionate and ethical vegetarian vet, I was the PETA India’s 2015 Cutest Vegetarian Next Door finalist from Chennai. I volunteered for Blue Cross of India, Bhumi, PETA Chennai, Save the Turtles campaign, Angel of Marina and Chennai Beach Clean Up during my Madras tenure. I was proactive in early morning Turtle Walks in winters during the breeding season of ridley turtles along the shores of Chennai. I participated in Run for Cause – Ridley Run marathon in 2015 meant for conservation of ridley turtles. I was invited as a Special Jury for the Ridley Run Sand Sculpting Competition organized by Tamil Nadu Forest department and Ezone India at Marina Beach consecutively for the years 2015 and 2016. I was an Ed Support volunteer in Make A Difference Chennai for the small kids and young adults of shelter homes in Kilpauk, Tambaram and Injambakkam for the year 2015-16 where I taught Maths and English. I was the core member of the organizing team, TEDxYouth Napier Bridge, Chennai in 2015. I was the student ambassador of MASH Project who was instrumental in setting the Chennai Hub between 2015 and 2016. I was the campus ambassador for Young India Fellowship for the year 2015-16. As I moved to Kolkata for my PhD studies, I volunteered as Hunger Hero for Zomato-Feeding India on weekends in Kolkata. Kolkata got its first ‘Door to Happiness’ – ‘Happy Fridge’ by Feeding India last year in Sector V, Salt Lake as a one stop innovative community fridge to save extra or fresh food and donate it to people in need. I was awarded second prize in Innovative Idea Competition 2019 from DSIR–TOCIC, IIT-Kharagpur, CSIR-CGCRI and CSIR-CMERI for our proposal of a blood bank in WBUAFS, Belgachia campus university clinic in Kolkata. I am an active volunteer for DESH which is a group of committed individuals that give moral, psychological, emotional and social support to the martyrs’ families in India irrespective of the ranks. Currently I am mentoring the underprivileged girl children under Call & Connect India initiative during the pandemic.

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

There are few memorable events that are close to me. I can never forget the day when I was invited for an on-air live interview by RJ Sulabha Santosh on 94.3 Radio One FM as PETA India’s 2015 Cutest Vegetarian Next Door finalist five years ago. The felicitation of InSc Young achiever award, Smt. Rajvanshi Devi Memorial Award and Ram Singh Memorial Animal Welfare National Excellence Award for the year 2020 has boosted my self confidence. I am happy to be shortlisted and interviewed under ‘Women in Science and the Pandemic’ – an initiative by UNESCO considering my active engagement in STEM. These series of interviews will cover female researchers and scientists from South Asian countries. 

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

a) I would like to let students know that any simple subject they choose today has wonderful career opportunities than we ever had or we knew previously.  To be more specific, opportunities in Veterinary and Animal Sciences are limitless. People who tell you that there is nothing about this subject are probably lying to you or do not know the vast scope of this field. There is nothing like choosing to experience different roles as a veterinarian. It is important for every student to get out of the comfort zone of their hometowns, including girls, to experience various opportunities out there. Settling down in the hometown for youngsters should be the last option. Till then it is important to live and experience life as a veterinarian in different capacities in the initial years, be it anywhere – in the state, country or abroad.  

b) I am an ardent believer of the words of Helen Keller – “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” You must learn to help and encourage your juniors, friends and professional colleagues in whatever capacity you can. Sharing is caring. God gifts you more and even pours from unexpected corners, if you help and appreciate others selflessly. Never resort to extracting mentality. It is unethical and unprofessional on a longer run. 

c) You must not underestimate people and their abilities under any circumstance. NEVER!! Remember! There is always more than what meets our eyes.  Everyone you meet is a teacher and still learning.  

d) Never succumb to anybody’s opinions no matter what. Keep working. Opinions change every fortnight. Therefore it is necessary to understand oneself and one’s own abilities no matter whatever you choose to do in life. Stop proving yourself all the time. Not everyone is supposed to understand the priorities and journey of your life. Avoid being a people pleaser. Above all choose to be optimist, flexible and kind to oneself and others. 

e) Never compare your life with others. Instead take inspiration. Understand that each life is different, raised under different circumstances. Apart from academic and professional pursuits, one must devote some time of the day in spiritualism. I read the Bhagavad Gita, Hanuman Chalisa, books of Nicherin Daishonin Buddhism and the writings of Dr. Daisaku Ikeda. They are the answer keys to the problems of our lives. 

Last but not the least, my best wishes to all of you!! 

Future Plans?

As I am busy winding up my PhD work, I am looking for suitable research and teaching positions. Having written to few foreign universities abroad for such positions personally in recent times, I have realised that the ongoing pandemic has led to cut in postdoctoral fellowships in STEM across the globe. Nevertheless as a strong advocate of animal welfare issues, agriculture policies, UN Sustainable Goals and global climate change, my responsibility is to reach out to the masses on such ethical and global issues through publication of books, research papers and articles. I sincerely pray that this pandemic subsides and our world becomes a better place to live in.