BS in Agriculture from Kerala Agricultural University, India; MS and PhD in Soil Science from Ohio State University
Briefly describe your career path from college until today.
I attended Kerala Agricultural University in India for my BSc in agricultural sciences and MSc in soil science and agricultural chemistry. I then worked in India as an extension and soil survey officer for six years. In 2003, I received the prestigious Ford Foundation’s International Fellowship, which allowed me to further pursue my studies anywhere in the world. I chose Ohio State University (OSU) to study under the mentorship of Dr. Rattan Lal for both my MS and PhD. My research was focused on soil carbon sequestration and its global significance for agroecosystem sustainability. After my PhD, I worked as a postdoctoral researcher at OSU for less than a year under Dr. Warren Dick on greenhouse emissions from agroecosystems. Then I moved to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to conduct research on fundamental biotic and abiotic processes that are underpinning soil carbon stabilization and destabilization. In 2016, I started a tenure-track assistant professor position in the Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science at the University of Tennessee. My research focuses on understanding ways to improve soil health to build and maintain sustainable crop production systems.
What was the best advice you received regarding your career?
Actually, I was still unsure about my career path when I was in graduate school. My spouse and I did our PhDs at the same time, and we were solely focused on our dissertation research and taking care of our young son. We did not have any extra time to think about our future career. However, my first postdoctoral mentor, Dr. Warren Dick, advised me to aim big and motivated me to take up the offer from ORNL. My mentor at ORNL, Dr. Melanie Mayes supported me to balance both career and family needs and provided the opportunities to improve my scientific skills. Knowingly or unknowingly, I learned how to work hard from Dr. Lal, how to be a compassionate person from Dr. Dick, and how to challenge myself as a scientist from Dr. Mayes. In addition, my friend Donna Kridelbaugh taught me the power of networking. Finally, life taught me the best lesson: do your best at your current job and your future will take care of itself.
Describe the best choices that you’ve made along your career path.
One of the best choices I made was to quit my job and continue my graduate studies. Born and brought up in a rural village in India, I was doubtful if I would succeed, but my husband strongly believed that I was able to take up that challenge. Another important choice I made was accepting the postdoc offer at ORNL, which exposed me to the state-of-the-art research capabilities and world-renowned scientists. This institution was also sensitive to our "two-body problem" and provided support, when needed, so my family could be together. I am also proud of my chosen research focus area, which is soil health. This area of research has emerged as a "hot topic" in recent years, and it has given me the opportunity to work at the intersection of fundamental and applied research, generating useful information for diverse groups such as academic professionals, government and non-government agencies, and producers.
How has SWCS impacted your career, or contributed to your continued education and/or professional development?
I have been utilizing the resources available on SWCS’s website for educational and professional development. I avidly read the articles published in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation and integrate the information in my research. I have already published one article in this journal and I am currently working on another manuscript for submission.
What is the job outlook in your current position?
I am currently a tenure-track assistant professor in soil science. Improving soil health by adopting soil conservation management practices has been a major focus area in the field of soil science. The future of this field is looking bright as our need for improving crop production without compromising water and environmental quality has been recognized by governmental agencies and political groups. Research in soil health is very interdisciplinary, involving soil scientists, ecologists, microbiologists, data scientists, social scientists, and policy makers. Future researchers in this field need to appreciate the interdisciplinary aspect and gain the skills to interact with scientists of diverse backgrounds. Also, no matter how exciting our results are, if producers do not buy into the results and ensuing ideas, sadly these results will remain in research articles or reports. So, extension and outreach activities are needed to achieve ‘lab to land’ information transfer. I encourage scientists and academicians to get out of their office, at least occasionally, and visit farms and farmers to understand the real-world issues involved in improving soil health.
What advice do you have for college students or early career professionals who might want to work in a job similar to the one you have right now?
Students: I suggest that you ask yourselves the timeless question before you jump into graduate school, “What do I want to be when I grow up [as a soil scientist]?” There are numerous job opportunities available for soil scientists in government, industries, universities, national laboratories, and other research organizations. Identify your strengths and passion, and take your time to choose a career path. Your graduate research has to be tailored to include the skills necessary to succeed in each of these career paths. If you do your homework, you will be very self-motivated to complete your graduate research and land your dream job.
Early career professionals: One piece of advice I have is to focus on publications. It doesn’t matter if your major activity is research, extension, or teaching, there are plenty of avenues to publish your work. I also suggest stepping out of your lab and comfort zone to build a network. These days, social media and professional conferences provide ample opportunities to do this. Also, take advantage of the opportunities offered by professional societies for career development and volunteer activities. It will directly or indirectly benefit you down the road.
What do you like most about your job?
The thing I like the most about my faculty position is mentoring. Oftentimes, students are unaware of different career paths in their field of study and how to tune their education and training to pursue those options. I was in a similar situation as well. Over the years, I learned that it is very important to set a career goal in advance and work toward achieving it. So, I ask about students' career goals during the interview process. For example, if their goal is to join academia, I provide them the opportunity to publish, attend professional societies, and compete for awards and scholarships. If their goal is to become an extension professional, I help them pick an appropriate project, include extension faculty members on their graduate committees, provide them the opportunity to interact with producers, and guide them to develop extension publications. I am thankful for the opportunities my current job provides to mentor students and postdoctoral researchers.