Finding your calling is not as easy as finding a career, because it requires you to connect the dots by aligning your interests with a mission to address a bigger challenge.

Sonali Chauhan, our next pathbreaker, Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Tokyo, works on a project to revitalize Fukushima by forming a network alliance of research organizations and universities working there, facilitating exchange of information and research amongst scientists and locals to promote science through outreach.

Sonali talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being drawn to the field of ethnobotany and how medicinal plants are used by human societies, leading her onto a MEXT Scholarship (Japan) to pursue a PhD at University of Tokyo.

For students, Japan leads the world in technology an innovation. Take the opportunity to study in Japan and apply your skills to solve our agricultural challenges.

Sonali, tell us about your background?

I grew up in Ahmedabad (in Gujarat) which was relatively small when I was growing up, but very urban. My immediate family is very STEM- oriented, my dad being a professor of Pediatrics, my mom a chemistry post-grad and my elder sister pursuing a career in cancer research, and then diversifying into the coding and tech industry. I spent my childhood surrounded by medical books, asking questions about diseases and visiting the hospital with my dad.  Alongside, I also grew up having exciting conversations with my mom about her childhood experience of growing up in a village, as well as about her funny experiment bloopers in the chemistry lab. At school, I enjoyed science the most followed by English and social sciences. My school until 10th was unique and we had over 10 different extra and co-curricular subjects. So I tried roller skating, karate, bharatnatyam and even studied ayurveda, cooking, music amongst other subjects. Everyone around me thought I was going to follow my dad’s footsteps and become a doctor! I did, but not the kind they imagined. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation? 

Early on, during my std 12th, contrary to what everyone expected, I decided that I did not want to study medicine. Although I still was fascinated with diseases, the time, effort, and the monetary investment required for a professional degree was not appealing enough for me to pursue the field. After 12th, I knew I needed more time to explore what I liked, other than medicine. I decided to pursue B.Sc at St. Xavier’s College- Ahmedabad. This allowed me the flexibility to choose in my second year, which science field I wanted to major in. I chose Botany with a Zoology minor, after our Botany professor sparked a keen interest in plants. I followed this up with a M.Sc in Botany at Gujarat University. I then worked for about 2 years in a field based research project for economic evaluation of non-wood forest products. I then got the Japanese government (MEXT) scholarship and I enrolled as a research student. I studied and cleared the entrance exam for a doctoral program in agriculture development at the University of Tokyo in Japan, and got my Ph.D. degree in 2019. 

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

I’m a botanist by training and I have found my calling in pursuing a career in International development specializing in agriculture. It was not something I decided after I graduated from a Master’s degree, but I was led to it by tracing and aligning my interests at that time. When I connect the dots, my career track  has allowed me to pursue what I love the most about medicine actually! I now realize that my initial fascination with medicine had been with human diseases and how they are cured. So during B.Sc, when I encountered the field of ethnobotany and how medicinal plants are used by human societies I was immediately drawn to it and wanted to explore  plant-human relationships. 

My interest in field based research  and rural communities started during my work as a Junior research fellow, which was my first real exposure to rural communities around the forests and the livelihood challenges they face. It was a humbling experience that made me more aware of the disconnect and privileges I’ve had in my life. I am the kind of person who likes to tackle problems that disturb me through action. I decided I wanted to study agriculture, since most of the communities were engaged in agriculture (I didn’t even know the field- International development then). During my search for universities and reading about the courses that I could apply to with my educational background, I got interested in a program called “IPADS- International program in agriculture development studies”, since the description of “solving local agricultural problems” was exactly what I wanted to  learn about but I did not know there was a field dedicated to it. After enrolling in that department, and finishing my Ph.D., I feel I found my calling in International development!   

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

I will share some key decisions I took and the following steps that I think led me to my current career choice: 

  1. Not pursuing a professional degree: I rationally knew and calculated that I did not want to spend lakhs of Rupees for getting a professional educational degree (like MBBS or MBA). So, a basic science degree (B.Sc in botany) allowed me to lay a good educational foundation and allowed me to explore which science field I liked the best without incurring humongous university expenses. 
  2. Pursuing higher education in Japan conditional on receiving a scholarship: I got selected to do a student exchange program in Japan during my undergrad, and I knew I wanted to experience more of Japan after my graduation. Since Japan was not a popular study destination in India  (atleast in 2009), I had to build a case on why it was better than pursuing higher education in the US or other popular choices. I thought a good logical argument to “why Japan?” would be: “it is a great program, and I can study there with a scholarship”. I found out I needed one more year to be eligible to apply for master’s programs, so I did a post grad in India. And I knew I needed a good academic record to apply for a competitive scholarship, so I just made sure my university scores were good. The next step was to look for programs that suited my subject interests. For scholarships, I learnt the hard way that it is very important to start the process atleast 1 to 1.5 years before graduation, since deadlines for scholarships differ from admission timeline. I had to be incredibly patient with the process, and not give up hope. I received a MEXT scholarship in 2013 in my first attempt!
  3. Joining the University of Tokyo for PhD:  Joining a high ranking university was a total game changer! It was a different experience compared to my previous education. The practical exposure and training that i received from the professors was an incredibly positive learning experience. Once I made the switch from basic sciences (Botany), I basically focused on gathering knowledge about my new field—International development and agriculture. 
  4. Getting into International development:  During the one year as a research student, I got the opportunity to explore and learn about agriculture and development and prepare for the entrance exam for the doctoral program. I attended as many courses as I could, even though I would get no credits or transcript record for it. I joined one course (Economics) that focused on impact evaluation that sparked my interest in development economics. I decided to do my doctoral research using methods I learnt about in that class. Since I had to start from scratch, I basically dived right in and got engrossed in finding good books on the topic- both technical and non-fiction for general audiences. Once I started reading, and came across a book or researcher I liked (for me it is Scarcity and Poor economics), one book led to the other because the authors often mention other researcher’s  works.  I researched a lot about the researchers I liked and read their papers, interviews, TED talks and checked out where they worked. This helped me understand their journey and the career track they had. For the first few years I simply read a lot about the field of development- the theories, contrasting opinions so I could form my own opinion about the field. I also watched a lot of documentaries during this time (even some “controversial propaganda types” to understand what is going on). Career and research wise, I expanded my knowledge by talking to professors and professionals in the field and international organizations that I wanted to work for. I think once you like a field, aligning your career is easier, since it is not a chore. 

How did you get your first break? 

My first break was in academia in 2011. It was through the head of our department, just before we were set to appear for the final exam for M.Sc. My best friend  and I were informed about a project and encouraged to apply and have a chance to interview for the position of junior research fellow. It was a state government funded research project, to do economic evaluation of non-wood forest products of a forest range. We both cleared the interview process along with 2 other members and I was elated since I got my first break with my closest friend! It also came at a great time, since my admission process to Japan was thwarted due to my parent’s apprehension following the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011.

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

Since I got conditionally hired before I graduated, I still felt like a “student” and not a professional.  I remember, while interviewing for this post I was slightly scared about “not knowing enough to work as a field researcher” since I did not have prior experience with a field based research position. But I overcame it by reminding myself that I did know how to work hard and gather knowledge, so it was okay not to know everything about the job before I started. It was only a few years later I learnt about the word “imposter syndrome” and how common it is for people in academia and research! 

Where do you work now?  Tell us about your research

In agriculture development studies we aim for socioeconomic development of communities through agriculture. A common area of interest is poverty alleviation, where researchers work on solving local problems to ensure farmers can have a better livelihood through agriculture- either through technological solutions (like machines or better seed varieties) or providing farm management techniques. As of April 2020, in a twist of fate, I am working as a researcher on a project related to revitalization of Fukushima by forming a network alliance of research organizations and universities working there, facilitating exchange of information and research amongst scientists and locals. I work on science communication and outreach. Since my position started post COVID-19-lockdowns in Japan, I currently work remotely on information building and exchange amongst researchers.  

How does your work benefit society? 

My current project helps organize and align the research done in Fukushima across various disciplines—nuclear science, agronomy, ecology and social science. It forms a bridge between local community, local governing bodies and researchers through outreach and science communication. Oftentimes, despite great scientific research being done in one discipline, the results are not translated to possible applications for the local community because they lack the knowledge transfer. Through outreach, the non-scientific audiences can understand. Aligning research outcomes across disciplines enables the local community to understand the application of scientific research and empower them to understand and address the local issues. 

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

I think for now, my most important work legacy that has a definitive outcome is my Ph.D. research project.  I worked with a self-help group of tribal medicine plant healers that cultivated medicinal plants. I evaluated the socio-economic impact of the small-scale cultivation of medicinal plants in that tribal community. It connected my interests of ethnobotany and economic development. My research laid out the first framework to evaluate the cultivation of medicinal plants under the lens of technology adoption. This is a new concept in the field of development which I hope gets more attention!  

Your advice to students based on your experience?

1) Work on self-awareness and know what you want: Others can help you only if you are clear about what you want. Spend time to explore your own likes or interests and form your opinions about things. 

2) Pursue what you really like and do not be apprehensive to choose something that is not mainstream or popular:  Gone are the days where choosing a “reliable” and popular field or professional degree would ensure a stable income or job. Being good in your field and being unique will likely have higher returns.

3) Strive to build genuine relationships with your peers during your school and university: I think the rapport and sense of belonging you build within your peers is often underrated and I do believe genuineness and sincerity pays off a lot.  My strongest professional collaborations to this date are with the universities that I studied at and with my colleagues and professors I met there.

4) Volunteer and show up to events of your interest, without any expectations: Don’t expect favours or do calculative nice things for people in anticipation for returning a favour. I think in hindsight things that I did without any expectations were unexpectedly the most rewarding! 

5) Pursuing your extracurricular hobbies is as important as studying!: Pursue and develop hobbies outside of books while you are young, they will be your anchoring activity as you learn how to adult. 

Your Future Plans?

I wish to continue working in the field of International development. In the long term, I would like to manage intervention programs and portfolios for international organizations or companies. But during my early career, I want to work as a specialist in the field of agriculture development and work on projects that deal with healthcare and nutrition outcomes through agricultural interventions.