The transition from conducting scientific research in a lab to supporting innovations in the real world by collaborating with techno-entrepreneurs is interesting and intriguing!
Ritasree Sarma, our next pathbreaker, Bioinnovation Consultant, works with startups focused on Agriculture, Food and Nutrition, helping them in their innovation journey by providing them financial, technical and operational support.
Ritasree talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always wanting to extend her research beyond the confines of a lab into the realm of research management to support the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
For students, a career is not always about the direct application of the theories that one learns, its more about spreading your wings and connecting your knowledge in diverse but related fields.
Ritasree, can you tell us about yourself?
I grew up in Assam, India and acquired most of my formal education till graduation in Agricultural Science from there. Later, I moved to the Northern and Southern part of India for my postgraduate degree and PhD studies. Since early classes, I have been more interested in science. I used to actively participate in National Children’s Science Congress, National Olympiads and various other programmes which inspired me to pursue my career in science, particularly in biosciences. My parent’s contribution is immense towards it. Although never pressured to select any particular career, they always emphasised on good education. My mother served as Principal of a Govt. School while father retired as Govt. Officer. Since childhood, I always wanted to be up to date with everything around me which helped me to explore and learn through various programmes and extracurricular activities, especially in college days, starting from being the editor of the college magazine to hostel monitor. Apart from studies, all those experiences helped me in understanding my potential and taught me to never settle for less than what I was capable of. I still follow this and try to learn something new every day.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
I graduated with a degree in Agricultural Science from Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat Assam. It is a rigorous 4 year course which covers everything under one umbrella, starting from deep life sciences like genetics, biotechnology to engineering of agricultural equipment to economics and management of industry or farm. I feel Agricultural Science is a very systematically designed course where the experience and exposure one can get in all the scientific, technical and business fields is unparalleled. Later, I cleared JNU-DBT fellowship exam and completed my masters in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology from G.B Pant University of Agricultural Science and Technology, Pant Nagar, Uttarakhand. Further, I cleared ICAR-SRF fellowship exam and obtained my PhD in Plant Biotechnology from University of Agricultural Science, Bangalore.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
In my earlier days of mid school, like many other students, I also had a question about what to do next? Although I was sure of taking the science stream, I was still not very sure about the subject or career I would choose. As a student, I had a raw idea that I wanted to develop some products and take them to market through good product design. This meant I was interested in applied science. However, for my parents, it was very difficult to understand☺! I used to read the “career advice” newspaper column almost every day and was fascinated to read about agricultural sciences where one could gain exposure to both contextual and work based learning. As soon as I joined college, my goals were becoming clearer with the blessings and support of my mentors and teachers. It was their encouragement which helped me to qualify many of the national level entrance examinations with a good rank. I achieved further learning and growth through broad exposure to institutes, people and places.
How did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
From my school days, I was very much clear that I wanted to go for higher studies irrespective of the career I chose. My graduation courses, college faculty and exposure in the form of collaborating with various renowned professionals and institutes inspired me to not settle down for any job very early. The govt. support in the form of various fellowships was helpful in driving me in this direction. My post-graduation experiences were instrumental to my career as the emphasis was on acquiring deep knowledge on the subject which further strengthened my decision of taking up a PhD. Before i started my PhD, I worked at CSIR-NEIST for more than two years where, as a part of the scientific team, i was involved in a sustainability project related to reduction of chemical load of paper industry. There, we were able to identify a novel microbial consortium which degrade the lignin and reduce the chemical pre-treatment of raw materials. Although I was involved only upto a pilot scale study, the product was already developed for use in paper and pulp industry. It was a very successful project which taught me the importance of technology transfer and commercialization. Later, i did my PhD through a ICAR-SRF fellowship, where my work was aimed at bio-fortification of aerobic rice using innovative water saving technology to reduce the problem of malnutrition. The research work was quite exciting and yielded a phenomenal result for some of the aerobic rice varieties both at genotypic and phenotypic level, which were already tested in farmer’s fields and released. Apart from strengthening my knowledge in research, my PhD also expanded my ideas to take up a career not only in research but also in research management. My guide had an important role in this. He always trusted me and gave me the responsibility of managing not only my research, but also writing proposals to get yearly grants, teaching assistance to project students, management of lab, field and instruments which helped me in understanding that one’s knowledge or skills as a PhD should not be limited only to the lab space. Further, many international articles and conferences on the different career options for PhDs (PhD being touted as the new MBA) helped me transition to a career which is different from the typical career path of a PhD in India.
Your experience in getting hired, especially your first break?
Although it is true that getting hired for some subjects is easy compared to others, it is not universal. I believe if anyone has a good academic record and is persistent in upgrading his/her skills and knowledge, there is potential to get hired for a high quality job. I feel networking and professional sites like Linkedin also play a major role in this. I still remember the number of emails I used to send every day to all my target organizations as well as preparing myself with a cover letter, standard resume and receiving quality interview guidance to get job offers.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Our social conditioning of seeing only medicine and engineering as dignified careers is one of the major challenges I faced (am still facing), while selecting agricultural science as my subject after class XII. Although my parents were very supportive, as a student with high career aspirations, I was doubtful, nervous and under-confident. But luckily, once I entered my university, all my doubts and nervousness disappeared. I was blessed to get exposure to varied subjects, mentors, practical training, industry collaborations, extra-curricular activities which changed my perspective of seeing a career in agriculture in a limited way.
Transitioning from a career in academics or research to a career in a different direction was also another challenge for me. Although I was irresolute in my decision in the early days of transition, I quickly found that connecting and utilizing my learnings through a different approach towards the same goal is interesting and intriguing!
Where do you work now? What is your role?
Currently I work in the Bangalore Bioinnovation Centre as a consultant for Agriculture, Food and Nutrition. My responsibilities include helping agri based startups in their innovation journey, proof of concept validation, strategic business plan setup, prototype development and commercialization; coordinating with various projects in financial and other support areas such as writing proposals for financial grants, facility support and preparing DPRs (Detailed Project Report). I am also involved in setting up infrastructure and instrumentation facilities for agri based start-ups, networking them with giant agriculture industrialists, academic researchers, investors viz. angel and venture capitalists; conducting training, workshops to upgrade their entrepreneurial skills etc.
How does your work benefit the society?
Although my research contribution towards developing or further commercializing nutrient rich rice products and a lignin based product is benefitting a group of farmers and an industry directly, my recent work is something where I work behind the scenes and contribute significantly towards self-sustainability through techno entrepreneurship. I, as a part of innovation think-tanks, whether as consultant, facility provider, organiser or analyser, am contributing, on a small scale, towards a self-reliant India.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Be flexible and open! There are vast possibilities out there, don’t settle down for something you are not satisfied with. Keep upgrading yourself with the latest skills required in the market. Job is not only about money but also about a continuous process of internal growth. Always explore something that has a fine balance of both!
In the real field, if you are not selected through a campus interview, getting a good job takes a substantial period of time. Keep updating and applying for a job before the end of your degree programme, so that you have a desired job in your hand before the end of your degree or thesis submission. Further, a job is not always about the direct application of the theories that one learns during the course curriculum. Therefore, do your research early and prepare yourself to connect your theoretical knowledge in diverse but related fields so that it will be easy to accept job offers of different designation for similar roles.
I am quite flexible and open about my career, thereby my future plans. The only point is, I like to learn, grow and contribute to the betterment of my organization in particular, and society in general.