Plant Science plays a major role in our understanding of how plants develop resistance to herbicides, how fruits can be preserved for transport to far away places, and how novel control measures at the molecular level can be devised for invasive species and weeds.

Vijay Varanasi, our next pathbreaker, Research Scientist at Bayer Crop Science, conducts molecular research in the area of crop gene editing and vegetative propagation in laboratory conditions.

Vijay talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his research on weed control as well as his Post-Doctoral stint at Washington State University in the emerging field of Horticulture Genomics where he conducted research on the mechanism of apple fruit ripening at the genetic level (DNA, RNA level).

For students, the Agriculture/Plant Science is a field where passion comes first, above any other monetary considerations. Once you commit to this field, you will never look back !

Vijay, what were your initial years like?

I grew up and finished my schooling in New Delhi. I studied Science in high school (11th and 12 th standard), because biology was my strength. At that time, I thought doing medicine was the only option for biology students. I appeared in various medical entrance exams and was unsuccessful. I also took admission in BSc Zoology at Delhi University after my 12th standard exams and kept preparing for medicine. During that time, my father found out about other professional courses such as Agriculture which are also in great demand. My father was a Mechanical Engineer. He did a ME in the same subject and joined the Indian Navy.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my BSc in Agriculture and MSc in Horticulture from Gujarat Agricultural University and PhD in Plant Sciences (Weed Genomics) from North Dakota State University.

I left BSc Zoology and joined BSc Agriculture as ICAR (Indian Council of Agriculture Research) nominee at a state university. It is a 4-year course and covers all aspects of Agriculture Sciences such as Agronomy, Horticulture, Plant Pathology, Entomology, Soil Science, Meteorology, Animal Science, Plant Breeding, Plant Physiology, Biochemistry etc. It was very extensive. I topped the university at the end of my final year (4 years), and received a gold medal. 

I went on to pursue my Masters in Horticulture at Gujarat Agricultural University, where I researched vegetables and fertilizers for my thesis. In fact, one can specialize in vegetables or fruits or landscaping in Horticulture Science. After finishing my Master’s, I worked for a seed company (marketing) for a few months. During that time I got interested in Research & Development and knew that I needed a PhD. I wanted to pursue a new area in my doctorate research. 

Agriculture Science includes different subjects such as Agronomy, Horticulture, Plant Breeding, Agriculture Economics, Agriculture Engineering, Entomology, Plant pathology, Plant Physiology, Genetics, Animal Science etc. I chose Horticulture for my Masters. Again, Horticulture has four major branches, Olericulture, Pomology, Land Scaping, and gardening (ornamental horticulture). Olericulture deals with the study of vegetables and their production. Pomology deals with fruits, and ornamental horticulture studies cut flowers, landscaping etc.

I applied for several universities in the US and got accepted at North Dakota State University as a PhD student in Plant Sciences. During my PhD, I worked on the molecular biology aspects of an invasive plant which is commonly found in the US. This is where I learnt the latest techniques in Plant Biotechnology which laid a strong foundation for my career as a future plant scientist. There was no looking back after that. You have to remain motivated and keep moving forward because a PhD could be long and tough.

What were some of the influences that made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Well, I was always very good at biology. That was my strength. Also, Agriculture is a very applied field and is very important for any economy. So there are a lot of opportunities in that area, not only in India but in other countries as well. 

My PhD advisor was a mentor to me. Though there were a lot of ups and downs during my PhD degree, I never gave up. It took me about six years to finish my PhD. Though I was in an uncharted territory, it was a very interesting phase of my life.

I finished my PhD and published articles in leading scientific journals.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career?

Initially, I hadn’t planned for anything while doing my Masters in Horticulture. But everything changed during my first job as a marketing executive. I was exposed to the various R&D facilities of my company, the products that are created and the discoveries that are made in their labs which benefit the farmers, like Bt cotton, and the high yielding varieties and pest resistant varieties of various crops. That inspired me to pursue a PhD. But deciding where to do my PhD was entirely a different process. 

My Masters thesis was in Horticulture, focused on vegetable okra. Okra, as we all know is a very important vegetable in our diet, especially in the Asian countries. My thesis was focused on the effects of various micronutrient (Zinc & Iron) on the yield and quality of one of the popular okra varieties grown in India.

Actually, my master’s topic was totally different from what I pursued in my PhD. My master’s research was entirely field based. That is, okra was grown and studied under the actual field conditions. My PhD was molecular, and lab based, focused on more basic research in Plant Sciences. Again, during my postdoctoral research, the research focus shifted to greenhouse aspects. So, it is possible to shift between field, laboratory, and greenhouse aspects in Agriculture based on your interests.

A friend of mine was already in the US pursuing his Masters. Through him, I received some basic information about the application process for US graduate schools. I prepared for the TOEFL and GRE exams and got accepted into a few schools. However, I did not get the subject of my choice, which was Horticulture/Plant Physiology. I took a risk and accepted some other subject, thinking I will be able to change it later, once I get there. And I did, after the first year of my PhD. I transferred to a different major advisor and to my favorite subject. I also received a Graduate Research Assistantship for the duration of my PhD. During the application process, networking is very important. It is also important that you contact various professors/students who can better guide you through the process.

Why did you choose North Dakota? Any specific reason? Can you also talk a little about your PhD experiences?

I applied to various universities both in India and the US. I chose North Dakota because it offered me graduate research assistantship (stipend) which is a very important funding source during your doctorate research. Also, I knew a friend who was pursuing his masters at the same place. But of course, it is a very cold place!

Sometimes, it happens, you need to change your major because of various reasons. The subject area that I was given did not interest me, and so I decided to choose a different topic suited to my interests. When these things happen, it also results in a delay in your PhD. Also, I had to take additional course work to train myself for the new area of research. But the important thing is, I found the right major advisor and an interesting topic to do my PhD research on. My PhD research was focused on conducting gene expression and regulation studies in the leafy spurge plant. This plant is an invasive weed that is problematic in the Northern Plains of United States and in Canada. I had an opportunity to work with the best scientists at USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and the state universities. I think selecting the right PhD advisor and a subject you are interested in are the most important aspects of graduate school. This can have major influence on your career later on.

Tell us about your career path after PhD

After finishing my PhD, things were not smooth sailing. Jobs are hard to come by, especially when you are an international student graduating out of university. So, I applied to a few postdoctoral positions at several universities. I got accepted at Washington State University to conduct research in the area of Horticulture Genomics, specifically in apple fruits. My background in horticulture helped in getting this job at WSU. I was in this position for about 3 years.

Horticulture genomics is an emerging area of science that deals with studying the functions of various genes and genetic pathways contributing to the taste and appearance of a fruit. Apple fruit as we all know is very popular across the world. The location where I conducted research in apple is known as the apple capital of the world. I conducted advance research in the area of fruit quality and understanding the mechanism of apple fruit ripening at the genetic level (DNA, RNA level). The idea was to come up with new approaches for increasing the shelf life of this fruit.

After my first post doctoral position, I was interested in coming back to India in order to take up academic positions. I returned to India with my family and started looking for a position in academia and in the industry. But I was disappointed to know that India did not have the advancements that other countries have in Agriculture. I was actually over qualified for several positions in India. Even in academia, most positions involved teaching but no research. I wanted to do both, teach as well as conduct advanced research. Even in the industry, the R & D sector was not well developed and there were not many opportunities for people with advanced degrees and postdoctoral experience. I had to return to the US as a result.

I took up two more postdoctoral positions, one at Kansas State and the other one at Arkansas. This time I conducted research in a different area (weed science). Sometimes you have to accept the few opportunities that are available to you and make the most of it.

Weed Science is a branch in agriculture dealing with controlling and managing weed plants. Weeds are basically plants which are undesirable. We don’t consume weeds in any form and also, they interfere with the growth and production of important crops such as rice, wheat, soybean, maize, cotton, etc. So, the main idea in weed science is to control or manage these weed plants and not allow them to interfere with crop that your are growing in the field. If we allow them to grow, weeds can compete with crops and utilize precious resources like light, space, nutrients, etc. meant for the main crop.

So, to control weeds, there are several approaches: chemical and non-chemical. Chemical approaches include the use of various herbicides and non-chemical approaches include the use of cover crops, natural herbicides, etc. Recently, there is an increasing focus on using more sustainable and environmental friendly approaches in agriculture to maintain soil structure and water quality.

At Kansas, I worked on the molecular biology of weeds. I did not directly work with herbicides. My work involved understanding the various herbicide resistance mechanisms in weed plants at the genetic level (DNA level). This will help in devising better control strategies for weed plants. The work involved studying the expression of genes involved in direct interaction with the herbicides, as well as detecting changes in DNA sequence (mutations!) of the genes etc.

I conducted research in the area of weed physiology for about 6 more years and published a lot of papers as the first author. That helped in getting recognition and established me as an authority.

My next Post-Doctoral stint at Arkansas was the same as in Kansas. It was more greenhouse-based research instead of lab. I was focused on a different set of herbicides at Arkansas. Weeds were the same. 

While working at Arkansas as a postdoctoral research associate I was also looking for a position in the agrochemical industry. A Senior Biologist position (contract), opened up at Bayer Crop Science and I thought accepting that position would open up new full-time opportunities in Plant Biotechnology. I am still looking for a full-time position even after 3 years at Bayer. Recently, I transitioned into a new job as a Research Scientist at Bayer where I will work on different aspects of gene silencing, genome editing for creating new plant breeding approaches. So, now I have shifted from Weed Science to Plant Breeding. Sometimes you have to take chances and grab the opportunities and do the best you can. Sometimes, a little bit of luck also helps in the career. I believe you have to be at the right time and right place for the things to happen.

How did you get your first break?

I got my first break through networking. A friend of mine suggested my name for a job which was advertised in the industry (Bayer company). I also had several good recommendations from my academic mentors where I worked for 15 years.

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

My first challenge was learning to adjust to the new work environment. I was transitioning from academia to industry.

Another challenge was learning to work in a team environment.

I established interdisciplinary collaborations within the company. That’s how I ended up in my present job of Research Scientist. People in the company already knew about my work and my strong academic credentials. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve as Plant Biologist?

Previously as a Senior Biologist, I worked in the area of weed control and conducted herbicide efficacy and weed control studies in the controlled environment (Greenhouse). 

At my previous stint in universities, I was conducting research and generating data at a more fundamental or basic level. This is very important for creating the knowledge base for more applied research. In the industry, I am testing actual products which were cutting edge and innovative. They will be released in the market in the next 10 years or in that time frame. So, it is exciting to see basic concepts turn into actual products which work in the farmer’s fields.

Recently, after my transition into a Research Scientist role in Plant Breeding, I conduct molecular research in the area of crop gene editing and vegetative propagation in laboratory conditions.

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

A PhD in the designated area with experience, is needed in order to conduct plant science/agriculture research in a controlled environment. Molecular experience and strong publication record is a plus.

What’s a typical day like?

On a typical day, I attend some team meetings where we discuss the progress in projects and the various issues. In between the meetings, I plan on my projects (trials) in the greenhouse. There is a lot of planning involved in growing the plants, getting the plants sprayed with herbicides, and evaluating the plant response after a few days of treatments. Sometimes I am involved in testing new methods for process improvement. 

What is it you love about this job? 

Chance to interact with my colleagues who are experts in their own fields. Chance to improve my own skills by working with others makes me happy. At the end of the day, the products that we create make a positive impact on the farmers’ fields and contribute to solving world food production problems. 

How does your work benefit society? 

My work, whether in academia or in the industry, plays a major role in generating new understanding on how plants develop resistance to herbicides, how fruits can be preserved for transport to far away places, and how novel control measures at the molecular level can be devised for invasive species. Currently, I am working on novel methods of plant breeding such as gene editing which would cut down the time required to release new crop varieties in half. So, the challenges are abundant. You need to trust your instincts and jump into this field if you have a strong background and interest in biology and chemistry. 

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

I personally love my doctoral work in plant gene expression and regulation which laid a solid foundation for my career as a scientist.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I think Agriculture/Plant Science is a field where passion comes first, above any other monetary considerations. If you think you want a job with a fat paycheck after your under graduation, then this is not the field for you. Agriculture/plant sciences/plant biology is an area where you need to go for advanced degrees and training. And that needs a lot of patience and commitment in the long term. But, it will pay off in the end. Once you commit to this field, never look back, and don’t jump into other fields like IT for monetary reasons. It’s certainly not a 20-20 format. It is a test match!

I want to lead a team of researchers working on scientific projects to improve crop yields, make crops resistant to pests and diseases, and control weeds which reduce crop yields. This will result in creating new products which will help farmers grow crops sustainably with lesser inputs. Also I want to train and mentor the next generation of scientists who want to make agriculture/plant sciences a career.