Rice, the staple food of India, is the biggest casualty of environmental issues such as climate change, global warming and water scarcity. Hence we need resilient technologies that can adapt to the new era and improve productivity and profitability for farmers and crop growers.

Sushree Satapathy, our next pathbreaker, Scientist at International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), applies satellite/climatic data and crop modeling technologies for crop area estimation, crop growth monitoring, and yield loss assessment during abiotic stress (environmental conditions that reduce growth and yield below optimum levels) to assess the damages caused to standing crops.

Sushree talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her experiences in field research as well as interacting with farmers, to understand farming systems/problems, and the market scenario of rice.

For students, the role of technology in agriculture is growing by leaps and bounds, and with that, you have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable population

Sushree,  Your background?

I was born and brought up in Cuttack (popularly known as the Silver City of India), Odisha. With limited industrialization, the people of my district depend upon agriculture as their main source of livelihood, with about 76 percent of the population being dependent on it. The city is famous for the Barabati fort, the international cricket stadium, Mahanadi Barrage, Dhabaleswar Island and so on. The National Rice Research Institute (NRRI) is also located in Cuttack. My parents are government employees. My family has always been supportive of my education and career path.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my BTech (Agricultural Engineering) from OUAT, Odisha and MTech (Agricultural Systems &  Management) and PhD (crop modeling ) from IIT Kharagpur, West bengal.

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

Since my childhood, I have loved to surround myself with nature.  After my higher secondary, my parents suggested that I take up an agriculture engineering course in OUAT (Odisha University of Agriculture & Technology). Being exposed to a mix of traditional agriculture and modern technology, I got interested in agricultural engineering during my graduation. After my BTech, I joined MTech in IIT Kharagpur.  There I got more interested in research. I got inspired by my supervisor to pursue my career in rice research. To be honest, I enjoyed my field research in IIT Kharagpur, be it taking care of crops from seed bed preparation  to transplanting, to harvesting, and analysing the factors that affect  crop growth. During my MTech project work, I got most interested in agronomy and crop modelling and it excited me to continue my research further.

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 PhD thesis was on the topic, “Field Experiments and Simulations for Climate Change Impact Assessment and Evaluation of adaptations for Rice-Rice Production System in Sub-Tropical India”. During my PhD, I worked on the effect of elevated CO2 levels on rice growth and yield  estimation using crop modeling, as well as assessment of adaptations (changing planting date, nutrients) for optimum yield. 

My first job was as a Senior Associate in a private company in Hyderabad. I was working on analysing the effect of agrochemicals on soil, surface water and groundwater. I learned  a lot  about environmental fate modeling. Environmental fate describes where a chemical or PPP will end up after it is used and released into the environment.

Currently I am working at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Here, I work in collaboration with the State Government, University and a Swiss high tech company Sarmap.ch, which is a global leader in radar technology.

My main work responsibilities  include crop area estimation, crop growth monitoring, and yield loss assessment during abiotic stress (environmental conditions that reduce growth and yield below optimum levels), using satellite and climatic data and crop modeling technologies.

  1. Rice area planted and start-of-season (planting date)
  2. Mid-season and end-of-season rice yield estimates
  3. Damage assessment in case of abiotic stresses including flood and drought.

How did you get your first break? 

I got my first job in 2014 in a private company in Hyderabad through campus placement. 

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

During my job in Andhra Pradesh, I initially faced a lot of problems related to language, interacting & communicating with people. Gradually I learnt the language, developed my communication skills. Though I have expertise in crop modeling, remote sensing technology was new to me and I was not very much experienced with GIS and remote sensing.  I started to learn operating Remote Sensing & GIS software with help of my colleagues, youtube & my seniors. I also got an opportunity to get trained from Sarmap, which is one of the leading companies in radar technology. 

Where do you work now? What is your role as Rice Scientist?

I am now working at International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based out of the South Asia Regional Center of IRRI (ISARC), in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. Here I mainly work on coordinating with field teams, for remote sensing (RS) and nonRS data collection, spatial yield estimation, and yield loss assessment. It mainly requires in-depth knowledge of agronomy, crop modeling and remote sensing. I really like to work with a multidisciplinary team and like to learn from them.

How does your work benefit society?

My work really benefits farmers in getting crop insurance, as crops often wither due to some natural calamities i.e. Flood or Drought. In such cases, we use satellite images & remote sensing technology to assess the damages caused to standing crops and yield loss assessment.

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

I visited Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh for a focus group discussion after the Titli cyclone. I really love to interact with farmers through which I came to know about many details about farming systems, problems, and the market scenario of rice.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

During your academic days, explore things where you have more interest and choose the career path where you have more interest.

Don’t compare yourself with others, everyone is unique. 

Upgrade yourself with new technology in your field and always have a learning attitude.

Future Plans?

I plan to do a postdoc in crop modeling.