Tanuja Joshi|Sep 11, 2023
‘Without money, it is impossible to do research’: University of Hyderabad Professor
Hyderabad University professor, Agepati S Raghavendra, recently became a fellow of the Royal Society of Biology, United Kingdom.
NEW DELHI: Two University of Hyderabad professors were inducted as Fellows of Royal Society of Biology, United Kingdom, in February. The society is a professional association that aims to advance the interests of biology in academia, industry and research.
Agepati S Raghavendra, one of the new inductees, who is Institute of Eminence-Chair Professor at School of Life Sciences, UoH, spoke to Careers360 about his academic journey, funding, and research culture abroad. Raghavendra is known for his research in plant physiology and plant biochemistry. Edited excerpts below.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood and your schooling?
A. My father was an officer in the railways. I was a good student in school and was always number one.
From Class 3, I studied in Municipal Multipurpose School in Anantapur district, Andhra Pradesh, which had classes till 11. Later, I did my bachelor’s and master’s in Sri Venkateswara University. I got my BSc degree in 1969.
My master’s was in botany. My department had a professor who was famous for plant biology and plant biochemistry. Since he was doing very well, it was almost predestined that I do my PhD under his supervision. It was good training and I kept on moving since then.
Q. Did this professor have a strong influence on your career?
A. Yes. Professor Ramdas is very well known in the field. He mentored many students and I was one among them. He mentioned that I was his best student at the end of his career and I was in touch with him until he died.
Q. Did you pick plant biology because of your professor or were you always interested in it?
A. I was interested in plant biology. I studied in Sri Venkateswara University and in those days, students were admitted based on their marks. I applied for botany and zoology. I got admission in zoology first since I was on the wait-list for botany. I studied zoology for two weeks and then eventually got admission into botany.
Q. Did you face pressure to choose any other subject for undergraduate studies?
A. Not really. When I completed Class 11, I was two years short of the minimum age [to be eligible]. It happened for multiple reasons. When I joined Class 2, the teacher said I was too good and put me in Class 4. At that time, there was an entrance test for Class 6; perhaps we should have waited a year. But they asked me to try and get admission into Class 6.
After finishing Class 12, I didn’t know I was underage as I didn’t know the rules. My marks were good enough for medicine or engineering. I would have probably joined medicine. I started my bachelor’s degree when I was one year younger than others. The university said I would be eligible for the professional degree only after one year but my marks were probably not enough. I told my father that I was not interested in engineering.
Q. Can you speak a bit about your college years?
A. In those days, the universities were very good. They had a very vibrant atmosphere. Since admissions were based on marks, most of the students were actually good, unlike these days of competitive exams when there is a mix of students based on who does well on exam day. That’s why students were interested in research.
We had limited research facilities and yet spent a lot of time in the labs. That’s very important. Physically you should be there, otherwise there is no point.
Q. How did you develop your interest in research?
A. Even before PhD, I had a strong record because of my publications. I got an appointment in the Central Plantation Crops Research Institute in Kerala. After joining I submitted my thesis and got my PhD in 1975. I was not very satisfied there because the system of Indian Council of Agricultural Research is a bit slow. It was like a regular job and people were content with it. My professor was also unhappy that I had left the university. I joined Sri Venkateswara University as an assistant professor.
After that, I did quite well. I was in Tirupati until about 1985 and then I got an offer from University of Hyderabad. University of Hyderabad was even better for research. The faculty and students were good.
I’m still in the Hyderabad University, people like me here and they try to keep me busy. Since UoH is an Institute of Eminence, I’m a chair professor. This will go on until 2024.
Q. Did joining University of Hyderabad help accelerate your career?
A. Yes, a lot. In the earlier university, I used to run but the others were not running so fast. So, you don’t show your full potential. But here, the faculty and students are so good that everybody is running and you have to run at a faster pace. The academic competition was excellent.
Q. What did you learn from your academic positions in various universities?
A. If you get recognition, you become more active. The academies don’t give fellowships easily and they also look at the performance in the last few years. I did well in the early stages of my career. If you do well later, you have less scope. Because of my early growth, I could become a fellow of many major science academies in India.
I have also had the opportunity to travel to many countries and meet many professors. You learn a lot – how to maintain a lab, how to keep students on their toes, and that you have to provide students with money. Money is everything. Without money, it is impossible to do research. I was lucky to get funding from most of the organisations in India.
Q. Did you learn anything from tenures abroad?
A. Discipline, actually. Here in India, we try to come to the campus by about 8-8.30 am but while I was in Germany, for instance, I would reach by 7.30 am and would see my professor leave work at that time. He was working through the night. So, it’s not just students who are working. This is very typical in Germany, Japan, etc.
Q. What achievement do you consider as a high point in your career?
A. Fortunately, I have more than one. The first one was recognition as the Young Scientist by the Indian National Science Academy in 1977. As a young scientist, that was one of the best recognitions in India. I was one of the younger ones in that group.
Another achievement is getting into academies. I am a fellow Indian Academy of Sciences, there is also the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences. I was also the recipient of the JC Bose National Fellow which was provided by DST. Not only recognition, they also give you money, honorarium and research grants. So, I was liberally supported for 10 years. All these factors contributed.
Q. How did you feel when you were inducted into the Royal Society?
A. Well, I was expecting it. The person who nominated me said that she was sure that I’ll get nominated. When I checked their background, I was also sure that it was a matter of formality.
Q. Do you retain the same enthusiasm for research that you had when you finished your PhD?
A. Yes. I take pride in that I’m a plant biologist and the research in plant biochemistry is very interesting. The science academies expect us to go around and spread the message, attract young minds to science. Whenever I have a chance, I try to tell them that plant biology is interesting in many ways. They’re beautiful, provide us all our food, and all the oils are from plants which died long ago.
Plants also have this unique capability of meeting challenges. There is not enough water, too much rain, too much cold, but they make internal adjustments and continue their life.
I take pride in that I’m a plant biologist and the research in plant biochemistry is very interesting. The science academies expect us to go around and spread the message, attract young minds to science. Whenever I have a chance, I try to tell them that plant biology is interesting in many ways. They’re beautiful, provide us all our food, and all the oils are from plants which died long ago
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