Interview with Dr Ramesh V Sonti Winner 2004 Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award for Biological Sciences
On behalf of Adbhut.com, Dinker Charak interviewed Dr Ramesh via email. We thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule and talking to us.
Dr Ramesh V Sonti was born in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. He has done his BSc at Andhra University, Visakhapatnam, MSc at University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, doctoral work at University of Utah, Salt Lake City, USA and post-doctoral work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA. Winner of prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar in 2004 for Biological Sciences (one of seven streams the award covers), he is currently working in Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology, Hyderabad.
He enjoys reading books on wildlife and is interested in cricket, soccer, bird watching and trekking.
What is your current topic of research? Can you briefly describe the subject for us?
I am interested in understanding the mechanisms by which plant pathogens cause disease and plants defend themselves against pathogen attack. As a model system, I study the interaction between a bacterial pathogen called Xanthomonas oryzae pv. oryzae (Xoo) and it’s host the rice plant. Basically, we study how Xoo causes disease on rice and the mechanism by which rice defends itself against Xoo.
What is the importance of the knowledge derived from this research?
Every year, thousands of crores of agricultural produce is lost due to plant diseases. Understanding the basic mechanisms of plant-pathogen interactions can result in novel ways of reducing yield losses due to plant pathogens.
Often, there are many indirect discoveries and invention when researching a problem. Has research in your field led to an accidental/indirect discovery or invention or advancements?
As I have indicated, we have been studying virulence factors that are used by the Xoo pathogen to cause disease on rice. Quite unexpectedly, we discovered that some of these virulence functions are inducing very potent rice defense responses. This is now leading us into important studies on the nature of rice plant defense responses and how these are modulated by the pathogen.
For what exact research/find were you granted the SSB award?
The SSB award has been for my contributions in the area of pathogen-plant interactions. Particularly for my work on identifying novel virulence genes of Xoo and understanding their role in pathogenesis.
What drove you to this field of research?
From my childhood, I have been a wildlife enthusiast with a keen interest in nature. In high school this developed into an interest in botany, which I chose for my studies in college. During my post-graduate studies at the University of Hyderabad, I developed an interest in genetics, particularly in microbial and plant genetics. I continued these interests by doing my PhD in the field of bacterial genetics and my post-doctoral research in the area of plant genetics. Upon returning to India, I wanted to do research in the areas of bacterial and plant genetics with the proviso that I must work on a system that is important from an Indian perspective. The Xoo pathogen causes an economically important disease of rice in India. Therefore, I chose to work on the interaction between Xoo and rice.
Which philosopher(s), scientist(s) and author(s) have inspired you and how?
In my school days I was inspired by the teachings and writings of Swami Vivekananda. It may have been naïve, but I was inspired by his idealism. My PhD supervisor, Prof. John Roth, has played a very important role in shaping my capabilities as a scientist. He taught me the importance of constantly questioning my own ideas and the necessity to be my own worst critic. He also paid a lot of attention to teaching me the ground rules for being a good communicator, both oral and written. His efforts in training students were truly inspirational and I try to pass on what I have learnt from him to my own students.
Any story (funny or inspirational) from your life that you would like to share with us?
My interest in modern biology was really stoked by two teachers in my high school. They were fresh out of university and were bubbling with enthusiasm for the subject. Their passion for the subject was infectious and inspiring.
About India and Science
Are you happy with the R&D done in India? If yes, what are the scopes of improvement? If not, what needs to be done? How can an ordinary citizen be of more help?
I will limit my comments to my experience of following developments in the field of modern biology. Over the last eleven years, I have seen a big improvement in the quality of research being done in our country. However, more needs to be done in terms of investments in science and technology if we are to continue and expand on these advances. Modern biological research is technology intensive and needs constant upgradation of equipment and supply of expensive chemicals. We have the talent, and if we have the support, there will be world leaders in biotechnology research emerging all over the country. The spinoffs will be a tremendously increased confidence in our national abilities, a flourishing biotechnology industry, and contributions to improvements in the quality of life of our people.
It is primarily the tax payers money that will be funding these investments. Ordinary citizens can help this national endeavour tremendously by impressing on our elected representatives, through the press and electronic medium as well as direct interactions, that they view these investments favorably.
“Why spend money in R&D? Let others do the research and we can follow. Why not use the money in R&D and spend it on poor!” People often say this. What is your reaction to this?
Biotechnology is a knowledge intensive industry and high levels of knowledge and skills are necessary for us to successfully compete in a big way in this area. This will not be possible without indigenous R&D. Also, there are many problems that are specific to our country. We cannot expect solutions to these problems from people working outside our country.
There is a huge disconnect between India’s scientific past and scientific present. Is that an issue? If yes, how do you think it can be confronted?
The great scientific achievements of our past are inspiring and an indicator of our true potential. However, while I do draw inspiration from these achievements, I do not dwell too much on the past. I believe in looking for opportunities in the present that will make the future better. It is the collective responsibility of all stakeholders in Indian science to work today towards creating a glorious tomorrow for our country.
Are you happy with state of awareness about India’s current scientific achievements? If not, how do you think it can be made better?
In general, I have found that the media is keen on highlighting India’s current scientific achievements. This increases public awareness about these achievements and, in turn, creates a favorable disposition amongst the public for increased spending on R&D.
Cover pic of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar from thefamouspeople.com.