Maintaining and tracking emission inventory is one of the key scientific approaches to fulfill our global commitment towards tackling global warming!

Neha Jha, our next pathbreaker, Researcher & Lecturer in Soil Science at Massey University (New Zealand), explores ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from New Zealand pastural soils.

Neha talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her doctoral research on exploring the presence of bacterial genes in agricultural soils (mainly pastural soils) that can convert harmful nitrous oxide gas (which is more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) to harmless dinitrogen gas.

For students, combating climate change starts with the agricultural sector because we need sustainable innovations to balance environmental wellbeing with food for society !

Neha, Your background?

I grew up in small towns in India. My father was working in the Indian Airforce and I have travelled a lot of places while growing up.

I always had a fascination for science and enjoyed learning science right from the early ages. I also had an interest in dance and music although I didn’t get a chance to follow this interest much.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did BSc Agriculture Hons (Khalsa College Amritsar) and Msc Soil Science (Punjab Agricultural University Ludhiana) from India and then PhD in Soil Science from New Zealand

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

My cousins and my seniors in school and university

While I was growing up, we had lots of financial difficulties, and I was determined to come out of this by doing well in my life and the only way out of this was to excel academically.

One of the major turning points was not getting selected for medical school. I was not interested in doing conventional BSc. Agriculture sounded very interesting as plant science was something very easy for me to understand. Luckily, at that time my father was posted in Amritsar and Khalsa College offered BSc. Agriculture and I got admission on the basis of my medical entrance test score.

Ever since I was in school, I liked studying about plants, and so when I completed my high school, I wanted to explore more about plants. Then I came to know about agriculture as a subject and instead of studying simple botany, I thought of doing something different and started my undergrad course in agriculture and never regretted that.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted?

After completing my masters, I wanted to start my PhD abroad just like my seniors and classmates. However, my parents didn’t have enough funds to support me. They had plans to get me married, and so that is what happened. I got married, and my husband supported me in applying for PhD positions in New Zealand. As compared to other countries, doing PhD in New Zealand is cheaper as they charge domestic fees for a doctoral degree , not international fees like every other country. Later, I could get a scholarship for my doctorate, so I didn’t have to pay.  After getting married, I started living with my husband in Hyderabad which was a new city for me. To earn some money while I was preparing for my PhD admissions, I started working in a call center as a customer care representative and that really helped me improve my English and also prepared me to deal with different kinds of people.

I was granted the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse gas Research Centre scholarship to conduct PhD research.

Since New Zealand has a commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emission through Paris agreement, they have a dedicated institution that helps government organisations to calculate and compile country wide annual data of greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector. Unlike other developed countries, in New Zealand, agriculture contributes to nearly 50% of its annual greenhouse gas emission. Every year this institute funds many research projects to monitor and reduce agricultural emissions. This organisation also helps other pacific or developing countries to setup and maintain their emissions inventory. New Zealand is way ahead of other countries and maintains world class emissions inventory which is one of the best in the world.

In my PhD, I explored the presence of bacterial genes in agricultural soils (mainly pasture soils) from various geographical locations in New Zealand. These bacterial genes were mapped to investigate the denitrification capacity of soil that can convert harmful nitrous oxide gas (which is more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) to harmless dinitrogen gas. I studied the nitrogen cycle in detail. How grazing cows excrete nitrogen loaded urine, which undergoes various transformations in pasture soils and gets converted to nitrous oxide and contributes to NZ’s total greenhouse gas emission. Under some favourable conditions this harmful gas is converted to dinitrogen. We need to explore and promote those natural conditions that might reduce this harmful gas to dinitrogen, and my current work revolves around that.

I finished my PhD in 2015.

Tell us about your career path after your PhD

After completing PhD, I applied for funding and then received one year funding to work as a Postdoc scientist for landcare Research New Zealand limited.

My Postdoctoral work was something like an extension of my PhD work. Whatever answers that I got from my PhD, I tested some during my first post doc. In my PhD, I had concluded that various soil and environmental factors influence the presence and or activity of a particular type of bacterial community in soil that are capable of converting harmful nitrous oxide to dinitrogen. In my first post doc I tested some of the soil properties by incubating these soils under different pH and soil moisture conditions and measured the presence of bacterial genes under those conditions.

After completing my first Postdoc, I applied for another funding (for 2 years) and started working as a postdoctoral researcher for Massey University. 

In my second postdoc, I studied the same bacterial genes, but this time I explored them in groundwater. The nitrogen from farm soil leaches down the soil profile and ends up in groundwater and other freshwater bodies. I explored nitrogen transformation in various farms and their groundwater to find out the most efficient farm soils in terms of groundwater quality and greenhouse gas emissions.

After completing my second postdoc, I applied for yet another funding (3 years) and continued working for Massey University.

In this third project, we are collaborating with farmers, government, and other research organisations, to investigate the benefits of planting trees as shelterbelts on farms, benefits such as improving soil health, reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, animal welfare, and farm productivity. This is an ongoing project and initial results have shown build up of more soil carbon in the soils adjacent to trees than away from trees. Buildup of soil carbon means improving overall soil health and reduction in greenhouse gas emission.

During my postdoc research at Massey, I was involved as a volunteer, teaching 1st year courses and supervising masters students, interns, and PhD students.

I was offered a job of lecturer in the last year of my postdoc and am currently working as a lecturer in soil carbon at the School of Agriculture and Environment at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

The key point here is never to lose hope and keep showing your strengths to others, even if you are not getting paid for something, at least you might gain some experience out of it.

How did you get your first break?

It was my hard work and dedication during my doctoral research that my mentors saw in me and helped me get funding for my first job and hired me to work for them.

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

Challenge 1: When I was doing my PhD research, the topic was completely new to me and the techniques I was using for my research were completely unknown to me. I had to train myself without much help from my supervisors. I made a lot of mistakes, but I didn’t give up. Perseverance is vital to keep going.

Challenge 2: Staying away from family in another country was another challenge. These days it is so easy to be connected all the time. I kept myself busy with work and socialized with people in New Zealand. It is always good to make friends with people from other ethnicities so that you get to know about other cultures too. 

Challenge 3: My spoken English was not very good, that is why I started working in a call center so that I can practice speaking English and I also started watching English TV series and movies to increase my vocabulary.

Where do you work now? 

I work at Massey University, New Zealand

What problems do you solve? 

I am exploring ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from New Zealand pasture soils.

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

For this job, I need to have analytical thinking, attention to detail, ability to deal with people, team spirit, respect for others, basic computer skills, scientific writing skills, keenness to learn, lots of positivity, confident public speaking, teaching skills, mentoring skills, patience. 

What’s a typical day like?

My days are mostly busy. I am a mum of two school going kids, so my day starts early, preparing for the day, dropping kids to school, spending time in the lab doing my research, or writing results, or a report, or preparing powerpoint presentations to prepare for my lectures, attending to number of email queries from colleagues and students. Again, at the end of the day, picking up kids from school and then getting busy at home or after school activities. I am following my childhood passion here in New Zealand. After work,  2 days in a week I learn Indian classical dance kathak and other folk dances of India. Our team performs dances during cultural events in our town and nearby cities. 

What is it you love about this job? 

I love the flexibility of my job, no two days are the same, and the other thing is I like to follow is my passion or my interests. The people I work with are awesome which makes my job enjoyable. I get respect here and people value my opinion. I don’t get Monday blues.

How does your work benefit society? 

My work revolves around helping communities. I work in close contact with farming communities here in New Zealand. The agriculture sector in NZ contributes a big chunk to greenhouse gas emissions. I work with farmers to help them to adapt to new management techniques to combat climate change. Through my dance I am showcasing our Indian culture to people here in New Zealand.

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

I am not into that phase yet, I am still learning and emerging as a young researcher, I haven’t achieved anything big yet to talk about.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I have very simple advice to students: keep cool, make progress through baby steps, and do not make big 10-year plans. Enjoy each success no matter how small it is. Aim for big things, but do not underestimate small achievements too. Accept failure and learn from your mistakes. Hard work is very important, good things take time, no one achieves fame overnight, there are always years and years of struggle and hard work behind those struggles. Apart from your studies or work ,take some time out for your hobbies, learn something new and socialize with others.

Future Plans?

I want to continue my research in the field of climate change and make my contributions to the field of science. And keep dancing.