Nutrition and food safety go hand in hand, as the quality of the food we consume is dependent on both the nutritional aspects of the food and how safe it is to consume.
Harish Pattath, our next pathbreaker, Senior Microbiologist at International Flavours & Fragrances, focuses on the health and nutrition of the animals that are sources of milk, meat, & eggs, by improving quality of animal feed through development of probiotics, feed enzymes and other supplements for animal feed.
Harish talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the role of microbiology in animal nutrition because the source of many nutrients today come from industrialised farms dealing in animal based food.
For students, a career in animal nutrition is all about improving the quality of animal proteins that (egg, meat, milk etc) by improving the health of animals delivering these proteins, and benefiting farmers cultivating these proteins.
Harish, Your background?
My name is Harish Pattath, and I am a Microbiologist in the field of animal nutrition. I was born in & spent the early part of my life in Bengaluru. I grew up in a joint family with my parents, brother, uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents. A lot of my childhood memories revolve around extended family and friends.
My father was a civil engineer who used to travel quite a bit for work, and my mother is a housewife.
Growing up, we had ICSE, CBSE and SSLC patterns of syllabus in schools, and I studied under the ICSE board till my 10th standard, followed by the 2 years under the Pre University College Board taking up the science stream with the electives – Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics & Biology.
I was interested in literary events at an early age, and actively took part in essay writing, poetry, debate, dumb charades, and elocution contests. This helped me a lot by cultivating a habit of writing, and also helped me overcome stage fear at an early age.
Growing up in the 90’s, I was a big fan of comics, cartoons, science fiction and the discovery channel. Shows like the X-files, Medical detectives among others helped me tune my mind towards science.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
Growing up, I had no definite idea on the kind of education I must pursue as a professional course, though I felt that Engineering was not something I wanted to look into as the crowd was heading in that direction and I wanted to do something different. Medicine was not my cup of tea either, as I used to get dizzy at the sight of blood and knew that I can’t really make it here.
I opted for Biotechnology as my undergraduate degree. Biotech was the buzzword when I finished my Pre-University College education, and it seemed like it would follow the information technology boom.
At that time, Bangalore University had a system where we had 3 major subjects. So, apart from Biotechnology, we got to study Biochemistry and Genetics as well. The theory aspect of the subjects, especially the vast amount of data that had to be memorised and understood was daunting, but I enjoyed the work we did in the laboratories, especially the hands-on experience which was related to microbiology and tissue culture.
This laid the foundation for my next steps, as I chose Microbiology as my post graduate degree, and decided to pursue it at Coimbatore. As Microbiology seemed very logical to me, I gravitated towards it.
Biotechnology gives a bird’s eye view on the different branches of life sciences, so we get to learn a little bit of everything. I feel that biotechnology can help us to understand what each stream has to offer, and then, based on our interests, we can pursue that specific branch.
What made you such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
I chanced upon Biotechnology / Microbiology due to my habit of reading novels. An interesting book by Robin Cook called “Vector” talked about bio terrorism and how microbes played an important role here. Till then we only learned or knew about bacteria that caused disease naturally, but the concept of cultivating bacteria, use of fermenters and the potential they had fascinated me and I wanted to work with microbes.
I had no specific mentors as I chose a field that not many in my immediate circle were aware of. Most of my friends were thinking of being engineers, some chose to be doctors and a few others took other routes. Biotechnology / Microbiology or other life science streams were too unconventional, and I had to learn about the positives and negatives of taking a path less travelled by walking through it myself.
This pitfall is something that can be overcome easily with the advent of information technology. Before we decide on what we plan to do with our professional lives, it would always be better to reach out to someone in that field and understand what that field has to offer, and especially understand the short term and long term gains in terms of knowledge, experiences and sustainability.
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 started my professional journey by working in a food microbiology laboratory. The master’s program required us to work on a project related to our course and I had an opportunity to work in an R&D lab for a few months. This gave me an understanding of how academic labs differ from laboratories in the industry. The kind of work, the projects and the work culture was something I immediately liked.
The project involved the use of probiotics to increase the shelf life of dairy based products. The basic concept behind probiotics is that the body is host to microorganisms or bacteria known as gut flora that are essential to health. Probiotics have become an important part of nutrition because our gut flora can provide numerous benefits including reducing the onset of gut related infections. The work I did looked at isolation of possible beneficial bacteria from milk and utilizing them to prevent spoilage of milk based sweets naturally by avoiding use of preservatives.
I started my career working in a lab at Kemin, focusing on product testing, application and trials.
After this, I explored roles outside my core domain of microbiology, but within the field of animal nutrition.
Later, I worked with the Catalysts Group to start and develop the animal nutrition vertical. This was not a lab related role, but more on formulation development, testing and also was focused on customer interactions.
I then worked at AVT Natural Products, where I looked after the techno commercial operations to start and promote sales of their products in India
In Stringbio Pvt Ltd, I moved away from feed additives and worked on bacterial proteins, more from a point of development of data needed to launch the product into the market, which involved animal trials, product testing and so on.
All these roles were outside the realm of microbiology, and after that gap, I joined IFF (International Flavours and Fragrances) in a role that took me back to the laboratory.
To start a career in animal nutrition or in microbiology, understanding of the subject and the laboratory skills that can translate into successful projects is very critical. A bachelor’s / master’s / PhD degree can open doors at different levels within an organization; before joining the industry it would be critical to understand this.
I wanted a career related to microbiology. In my professional journey, everything I have done has revolved around microbiology. From testing of products, to development, to application studies, there have been lateral shifts in the kind of work that I have done, but within the realm of animal nutrition.
How did you get your first break?
I completed my masters in 2008, at the peak of recession and jobs were not that easy to come by then. Campus recruitment was something that we did not get to experience as the college where I studied had such drives only for the commerce students and not for the science / life science students.
My lucky break came in the form of a good friend & batch mate from Coimbatore who was working in a food division of an MNC at Chennai, who mentioned that their animal nutrition division was looking for a microbiologist and I applied for the post, and after a few rounds of telephonic interviews, was called down to Chennai for the final rounds of the interview and ended up getting the job.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Understanding Priorities – Experience v/s salary
For someone who starts their career in a laboratory environment, at least in the current Indian scenario, salary is not something that one would call “well paying”. There would be a constant comparison of salaries as we start out with our peers in other fields. We have to get out of that mindset eventually, and understand that a job can be a platform that offers knowledge and sustainability. But in the initial phase, one of these aspects may be lacking and we must learn to look at the big picture and see what we can gain. We should then decide on taking critical steps that positively affect our financial and professional future.
Challenge 2: Relocation to a new city for the first job
This was a challenge not directly related to my work, but the circumstances that revolved around it. The challenge of managing my own finances, adapting to the new city, being away from home, were some challenges I initially faced. Through this experience, I got to learn a new language, connect with a lot of new people, and push myself to do things that I thought cannot be done, learned to cook among others. Getting out of the comfort zone is necessary for us to really find out what we are made of.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I am currently a Senior Microbiologist for IFF (International Flavours & Fragrances), based in Hyderabad. The field of animal nutrition strives to improve the nutrition & health of the animals that are sources of milk, meat, & eggs. While working on the microbiological aspects of animal nutrition, we tend to focus on improving quality of the animal feed and animal health by focusing on safety. In the field of Animal nutrition, IFF which recently merged with Dupont (link below), focuses on animal health and nutrition, and produces probiotics, feed enzymes and other supplements for animal feed.
What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?
Knowledge, rather than skills, that would be of use in the animal nutrition sector include knowing about feed formulation for animals, nutritional challenges in the field, animal diseases and pathology. A foundation in life sciences or veterinary sciences along with on the job training is the way to go.
The animal nutrition sector requires people from a life sciences background for a variety of roles.
A lot of companies that manufacture animal feed require chemists / analysts / microbiologists in quality departments to check the quality of raw materials and finished feed.
Companies involved in the production of feed additives and other fermentation based products employ researchers, application scientists, lab analysts, and production engineers from a life science background.
Many new companies are entering the space and with the right skills and knowledge, one can find a role that suits their area of expertise and area of focus
What’s a typical day like?
A typical day involves a lot of time spent in the laboratory, reading up and some meetings throughout the day.
I enjoy working in a lab, as we get to keep learning something new constantly and problem solving becomes a part of our routine work.
How does your work benefit society?
Nutrition is an aspect of life that will have its value. The source of nutrients today come from industrialized farms primarily, and we are dependent on them for animal and plant based foods. Food safety along with nutrition go hand in hand as the quality of the food we consume is dependent on both the nutritional aspects of the food and how safe it is to consume.
Animal nutrition is about improving the quality of animal proteins that include egg, meat and milk by improving the health of animals delivering these proteins, and benefiting farmers cultivating these proteins.
Growing up as a vegetarian, I was not even aware of such an industry and could not comprehend the scale of animal proteins we as a society consume, but the industry has shown that much like agriculture, this is something that would always be essential and will have to evolve constantly.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
One of the first formulations I worked on that is classified as an antimicrobial / acidifier which led to increasing the safety of feed by reducing the pathogens. The experience of going through the process of its formulation development, testing, launch and finally seeing it being sold is something special.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
- Focus on your basics, set your technical foundation right.
- Make and maintain professional relationships, you never know when you would need to reach out to someone, a former colleague, an old boss, an old school / college mate, a former teacher.
- Stay humble and don’t discuss religion, politics, or any other polarizing topics in a professional environment.
Someday I hope to do a PhD in the field of Animal nutrition or Microbiology.