For more than half of the world’s population, rice is a staple meal. However, rice growers encounter difficulties in meeting this demand for rice, particularly in developing nations, where rice is susceptible to spoiling during storage.

Kaushik Luthra (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Post-Doctoral Fellow at University of Arkansas, solves problems related to post-harvest grain management to ensure the microbial safety of grains while maintaining the quality of the grains for long storage.

Kaushik talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his agricultural research and collaboration with several clients including industry professionals, business owners, and farmers to solve their engineering-related problems focused on storage of rice, drying of crops and health of poultry animals ( broiler chicken) during transportation.

For students, we need efficient engineering solutions to ensure agricultural produce stays fresh till it reaches the consumer, and agricultural engineering does exactly that !

Kaushik, what can you tell us about yourself?

I grew up in Allahabad (now known as Prayagraj) in northern India in the state of Uttar Pradesh. My father was a pharmacist and owned a medical shop while my mother was a housewife. While growing up, I was very quiet, and though I liked sports I never opened up to enjoy them. I was good in school though, because I liked learning as a process. I realized that I did not have many extracurricular interests, but eventually found gardening exciting as a hobby- growing plants and taking care of them. I always liked living close to nature. I, however, could not find my exact path until after my schooling. 

Initially, I followed a similar path as other students. I took mathematics because I preferred math over biology, which meant I had to take the engineering entrance examinations. I also gave another hobby of mine i.e., cooking, a chance to be my profession and so I also applied for entrance examinations for hotel management colleges across the country. It turned out to be the only exam I qualified with flying colors. So, I got admitted to the institute of hotel management, Pusa (IHM Pusa) in New Delhi and started living my dream of being a chef. I quickly realized having a hobby is one thing and turning it into a profession is another. Also, it was a big cultural shift, moving to the capital of India from a small city. Two weeks later, I dropped out of college. 

However, while going back to my apartment in New Delhi, I had to enter the campus of the Indian council of agricultural research to get to the nearest metro station from my college. Walking inside the campus for five minutes was a blessing in disguise. I realized that Agriculture and Agricultural Engineering were being introduced to me. After dropping out of college, I decided to prepare for the entrance examinations again. In 2011, I took the entrance examinations of all the engineering colleges as well as the ICAR-UG entrance examination to pursue Agricultural Engineering in agricultural universities in India. I got admitted to my preferred agricultural university with a prestigious scholarship and the rest is history. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my BTech in Agricultural Engineering from G. B. Pant University of Agriculture & Technology followed by a M.S in Biological Engineering and a PhD (Biological Engineering) from the University of Arkansas.

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

My liking towards nature, plants, greenery was the biggest influence on my career. The internet also helped me in doing research.

My parents supported my unorthodox choices and trusted my capability, and so did my college seniors, school friends, and especially my wife who was in school with me in class 11th and 12th.

My dropping out of the hotel management college and walking through the campus of ICAR, New Delhi to get to the metro station (Rajendra Place), introduced me to ICAR and I started researching online about ICAR. Thus, I became aware for the first time that there are agricultural universities, and I could do agricultural engineering instead of regular engineering streams.

I was lost till I dropped out of hotel management. That was a tough time because I also lost my father after a month. It was almost the month of October when I gathered strength and looked online to prepare for the ICAR entrance examination (2011) to be held in April next year. I had only 6 months to prepare and I was motivated to do well for myself and prove to everyone that what I am doing is right. My wife who was my friend at that moment also supported me as we both were preparing for different entrance examinations. I believe that was the turning point in my life when all my chips were down, but my focus and motivation were at their peak. The other turning point was in 2015 when I decided to pursue my master’s in a US University. I always wanted to do research and the US universities are the best. 

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 have always believed in being flexible, but with a specific interest in taking up a certain kind of job. I always went with the flow, always kept the priorities straight. Though I had a plan in place, I always had backups. The goal was to work as an agriculturist but be flexible to work in the industry, academia, or research. 

I did an internship in the summer of 2014 at IFFCO-Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative Limited, Allahabad, India. My undergraduate research thesis was on the soil erosivity model on daily rainfall analysis for Dehradun. Eventually, I liked the research related to agricultural engineering and it led me to continue my education.

Few of my professors in my undergraduation had contacts with professors at the University of Arkansas, and one of my seniors was doing his master’s at the University of Arkansas. It is important to make contacts as it can be important. Though my application was accepted at other universities in the US as well, I did not get scholarship. Since it is expensive to study in the US, you either take a loan or get a scholarship. I preferred the latter and that left me with the only option, University of Arkansas. It turned out to be the best option.

I got an assistantship which is a scholarship where I had to work in my research lab 20 hrs/week aside from my research and classes. It fully covered my college expenses and provided me with a monthly stipend of $1000 that allowed me to pay for my food and housing. I got the same assistantship during my PhD with a monthly stipend of $1800 and an additional monthly fellowship of $1000. All these scholarships and admissions had fixed criteria of GRE (Graduate Record Examination) scores as well as the quality of application documents i.e. including reference letters, statement of purpose and UG transcripts, and extra-curricular activities. Additionally, there has to be an opening in a professor’s research group for a student to be admitted. There are no fixed seats that we have in Indian Universities for admission.

My masters thesis was focused on the problem, “Evaluating the thermal comfort of broiler chickens during transportation using heat index and simulated electronic chickens”.

Broiler chickens experience high physiological stress during pre-slaughter transport, especially under extremes of the thermal environment. Characterization of the thermal environment on the trailer is crucial to identify stress-prone regions during transportation. At the same time, quantification of heat loss of the broilers loaded on trailers is important in understanding the well-being of the broilers.

We developed four electronic chickens (E-chickens) to simulate the sensible heat loss of live broiler during transit and holding period in commercial live-haul trips. It is an average broiler-sized enclosure with a thermostatically controlled circuit to keep the internal temperature at 41°C. Power consumption as a result of four different combinations of covering the enclosure, as well as their sensitivity with the exposed wind was compared.  A double layer of fleece fabric was selected as the insulation cover for the E-chickens to match the sensible heat production reported in the literature.  Heat loss exhibited a positive correlation with the wind and a negative correlation with the temperature gradient between the internal and external environment. Thirty-two commercial live-haul trips were monitored to determine humidity ratio increase-above-ambient air humidity, E-chickens were installed in eight of the trips. Moderate levels of measured power consumption of the E-chickens suggested that ambient temperatures in the range of 11°C-25.1°C (during transit) and 5.3°C-21.7°C (during holding) were in the zone of thermal comfort (allowing the live chickens to regulate heat by their metabolism to stay comfortable). 

After my master’s, my priority was to find an industrial job which I could not. So, I felt that doing a PhD was the best option since a career in research cannot go wrong for me. I was open to any area of research within agricultural engineering. I was able to find an opening in the grain processing engineering research lab of my PhD advisor.

For more than half of the world’s population, rice is a staple meal. However, rice growers encounter difficulties in meeting this demand for rice, particularly in developing nations, where rice is susceptible to spoiling if the moisture content is not lowered to a safe level soon after harvest. As a result, traditional drying methods, such as sun drying and natural air drying, are commonly used by rice growers, particularly in underdeveloped nations. However, these procedures are time-consuming and harmful to the environment. On the other hand, fluidized bed drying is a well-established technology that might give rice growers a rapid, practical, economical, and portable drying procedure. According to particular research, the primary benefit of fluidized bed drying is the increased drying rate and reduced rice deterioration after harvest. However, concerns about inferior rice quality were considered a significant weakness in fluidized bed drying. My PhD research improved fluidized bed drying of rice. A lab-scale mobile batch fluidized bed dryer was constructed.  The effects of ambient air dehumidification, air temperature, and drying duration on rough rice quality and pasting qualities were investigated. Energy and exergy analyses were done to determine the thermal efficiency of the drying system. Mathematical modeling was done to optimize the drying of rough rice.

Overall, it was found that fluidized bed drying technology can be utilized for drying rough rice without compromising the quality. The air temperature used was between 40 to 50°C, and rice was dried for no more than 60 min. In addition, the ambient air dehumidification did not affect rice quality but helped reduce the moisture of the ambient air, ultimately increasing the drying rate. The study recommends using air temperatures below 50°C and a drying duration of less than 60 min to achieve effective rough rice drying with fluidized bed drying technique. In addition, ambient air dehumidification can be employed for reducing ambient air relative humidity by a few points.

During my PhD, I also worked for 3 months as an intern for a company called Drymax solutions in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  I worked there with a research and development team to build novel agricultural dryers (based on radiofrequency) for different food crops. My work also included design and dryer construction, experiment design, empirical modeling, troubleshooting, quality testing. I also worked on developing radiofrequency dryer prototypes to dry woodchip, raisins, distiller’s grain, hemp, and alfalfa.

As a master’s and PhD student, I was employed by the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas, the USA part-time. I not only worked on my degrees but also did research work for my advisor/professor. I also helped him/her with other lab-related activities like mentoring undergraduate students, lab management, and organizing lab tours.

I have collaborated with several clients including industry professionals, business owners, and farmers to solve their engineering-related problems such as storage-related problems of rice, and chicken deaths during transportation. This led to the generation of more than 20,000 USD lab funding, and eventually developed innovative techniques for providing feasible solutions within deadlines. 

In August 2021, I graduated with my PhD and had the opportunity to pursue full-time research with the same university in the department of food science. I am employed as a postdoctoral fellow and I will complete my one year in August 2022. 

I also have an “Arkansas Engineer” license to work as a licensed engineer.

My approach in life is very simple, which is to do what I feel like but plan well in advance before taking the first step. 

How did you get your first break?

I got my current postdoc role through my connection with a professor in my doctorate advisory committee. He was impressed with the research and efforts that I put in to finish my doctorate in 3 and a half years with 9 research papers published. He offered me my current job.

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

Challenge 1: 

Lack of role models or examples in the unorthodox career that I wanted to pursue. It was tough to not have guidance in the career that I wanted to pursue, like hotel management and agricultural engineering. I was glad to utilize the power of the internet well and found my way using the world wide web.

Challenge 2: 

Basic life challenges still exist, like finding a quiet space to study whether at home or the college hostel during my undergraduation, not to mention lack of water and electricity. The solution was to accept the lack of resources and be grateful for what we have and work with it. I realized a fact that we always have enough even though we think we do not.

Challenge 3

Another challenge was moving to the USA for my master’s in 2015.  Even though I knew what to expect in the USA, I was going to an unknown land with a different culture, language, and lifestyle. I was extremely nervous. But within myself, I was confident that I was doing the right thing. Even though it was tough at first, I knew that if I could sustain the hardships initially, I could access the huge wealth of knowledge. My friend, now my wife, was one of my biggest strengths, she believed in me and motivated me to follow my heart. 

Where do you work now? 

I work as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Food Science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA. 

What problems do you solve?

I research to solve problems related to post-harvest grain management to ensure the microbial safety of grains while maintaining the quality of the grains for long storage. This provides proper nutrition to the living beings.

My role is wide, and it includes doing novel research related to grain process engineering that includes drying and storage-related research. I also mentor 3 undergraduate and 4 graduate students in their research, take care of 2 laboratories and help my supervisor with any outreach activities like helping farmers with their questions or helping the food processing industry to cut the cost of a process they use to develop a product.

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?

The skills needed are problem-solving, research skills, critical thinking, leadership, team management, scientific writing, and presentation. I learned all these skills while working on my post-graduation degrees.

What’s a typical day like?

I start my day at 9 am and go to my office/lab. I check my emails and the to-do list and start a task related to experiments for the day based on the priority. I also check the progress of students in my research group. I also meet my supervisor to check if he needs any help and I always like to keep communicating with him about my progress. I typically take a light lunch that includes salads, fruits, nuts, dark chocolate, and a cup of coffee. In the evening, after a walk and spending time with my wife, I come back to the office to work on my research papers and research data analysis. I end my day at 9-10 pm when I have dinner and read some spiritual books. I always set aside some time to contemplate before I sleep, to feel fulfilled and rejuvenated.

What is it you love about this job? 

I can bring a direct impact on humanity whether through research or mentoring students.

How does your work benefits society? 

Food will always be the priority for mankind, to survive and with the increasing population, the crops we grow have to be better utilized to feed our community.

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

I was able to motivate my friend, now my wife, to come to the US and live a life she always wanted to live. Another moment when I felt I did something great was when I published my first research paper in 2016 that is used by other researchers.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Nothing is impossible if you have planned well and understand the potential roadblocks. To learn something, you have to try. So, keep trying, and you will get it. Break your boundaries, sometimes you don’t know you have set up boundaries for yourself, it’s a good idea to keep meeting different people or trying different activities.

Future Plans?

I plan to just go with the flow, keep helping humanity and the world through my research work and my volunteering activities. I might end up becoming a president of a country or even living in the middle of nowhere doing farming. One thing is for sure, I will not give up living my passion i.e. to help humanity and spread peace and love.