It was our pleasure to interview Dr. Renu Agrawal. Her enthusiasm to help the common man using scientific tools is an inspiration for budding scientists. It’s easier to create high-end biotech solutions and sell them to the rich, but Dr. Renu chose to break this economical divide and benefited thousands of people with her exemplary technology.
You have worn multiple hats in your career span. Can you tell us about your roles and responsibilities at CSIR-CFTRI, Mysuru?
I worked at CSIR-CFTRI for almost 32 years, starting as a Research Associate to becoming a Chief Scientist. I was also a rural program coordinator and after my retirement, I was given the post of project advisor. My research work involved lactic acid bacteria, yeasts, and Bacillus as probiotic properties inhibiting harmful diseases and reducing the use of antibiotics to improve health in society. As CSIR-800 Rural development Chair, I led CSIR- CFTRI to launch the CSIR 800 program of the Government of India to give a better quality of life to 800 million people of India through scientific and technological intervention. I mostly worked as Principal Investigator of my projects and got funding both National and International for my innovative proposals.
As PI, our team developed two green microbial technologies which are the most downloaded ones from CSIR-CFTRI and have been purchased by more than 150 companies. This gives me immense satisfaction.
Your list of awards is incredible and very inspiring. Can you share with us an achievement or project that is memorable?
All my research work and project work have been people-oriented which can be useful to mankind. However, our work on the role of Probiotics in improving human health, and rural program coordination using various CFTRI technologies for the use of the common man has been very motivating. I and my team went out to rural areas and demonstrated our technologies. This made many of them stand on their own feet and keep up the badge of Atma Nirbhar Bharat. We also taught the farmers alternate cropping of millets which are complete vegetarian foods (like quinoa and chia) in place of tobacco and connected them with industries by making a Farmers Producer’s company. This made them confident and self-reliable. As a woman, we need to be very passionate towards whatever we do and push ourselves to make our place in all good or odd situations.
Your group has developed greener probiotic technologies for mankind. Can you talk about this?
We developed ready-to-make idli and dosa batter using selected microorganisms which we isolated in our laboratory. Many companies are using our technologies. The batter is available in all big malls. We were able to make idlis in a shorter time (four hours) with controlled fermentation and on the other hand, were successful in enhancing the shelf life of the batter for 10 days. Under Biotransformation work, we were able to produce terpeneless citrus oil using limonene which is a cheap ingredient. This is very beneficial to the industries using citrus oil. However, this was a bench-scale work.
As an advisor for outreach activities of CFTRI, what change-making opportunities did you get and how did you use them?
This was very rewarding for reaching out to rural India. We were able to work for village empowerment, empowering the farmers for alternate farming with quinoa and chia seeds in place of tobacco. We participated at Lucknow in a workshop of farmers by the Uttar Pradesh government where we showed them many CFTRI technologies and the outreach was tremendous. We were able to bring women farmers to the forefront with the value addition of products and not only doing the harvesting job as usually assigned to them. I organized many national-level conferences for farmers, specially abled, women, baker’s, and fruit juice companies. The awareness camps and demonstrations at the rural level gave me a tremendous amount of success and satisfaction. We were able to take CSIR-CFTRI teams to villages to add value to their products, bring more awareness to local people, and how they could make use of simple technologies for their benefit.
You are currently a science communicator, reviewer, author, and editor. Can you share with us the journey of scientific writing, the scope in this field, and how to pursue it?
To date, I have written four scientific books apart from regular scientific columns in “City Today” newspaper and many book chapters by Marcell Dekker and Francis and Taylor, UK. The idea of my writings is to bring forward recent advances in particular important topics of relevance to the common man. The books authored by me are “Role of Probiotics in improving human health”, “Utilization of agricultural wastes to high valued products”, “Making food safe and Free from pathogens” and “Traditional Foods and Nutritional Security”. I was also interviewed on DD science to let the public know about these important topics and how the common man can make use of them. I want to convey science to the common man which would be of use to them. Today nutritional security is very important and our traditional ways have a great impact on it. It is one of the sustainable development goals by WHO. I am in the team for drafting the nutrition policy for the Government of Karnataka. I have also translated science chapters from Hindi to English for Pratham schools which are being converted into short videos and sent on Whatsapp during these difficult times of covid-19. Therefore, if you see, all my books are people and society-oriented.
As a female scientist in India, have you faced any challenges during your career? Where do you think our country stands in terms of encouraging and promoting research and innovation in Life Sciences?
Yes, in the beginning when I joined people called me a Dosa maker! I joined as a scientist after marriage with two children. So people thought that it was a pastime for me. However, with time it was clear to them that I was a professional. I separated my professional and personal life. I devoted time to both and worked for almost 18 hours a day. In those days women had just started to come out of the house for work and they were made responsible to do all domestic duties. To get permission to work outside the home was a great opportunity. I would get up at 3 am and finish all cooking, getting tiffins ready for the family. etc. During lunchtime, I would come back home picking my children from babysitting and cook hot chapatis for my family and would report before time to my institute much ahead of many men. Women must become policymakers and not only followers. For this, they need to be assertive, speak their mind, and lead no matter what! I feel it was the discipline, dedication, and devotion to work that made me reach ahead.
There was no time for me to chit chat or gossip during office time or at home. My children were meritorious and cooperated well. Both are engineers and settled in the USA. My husband had a touring job and he would be away for work 15 to 20 days a month. So you can imagine, probably I am a very motivated person and no problem turns me down as I keep finding solutions for them. I believe to look at the solutions and not at the problems. We need many more women in positions of decision-making to change this situation and mindset.
Lastly, going back to the beginning, you have worn multiple hats in your career. From being a scientist to a global entrepreneur to a project portfolio manager to an eminent writer. From your journey, we truly understand the meaning of “sky is the limit” if we set out to achieve something. What is your piece of advice to students entering their careers now?
Success to me signifies original, meaningful, and lasting knowledge from my group’s research. The test of its origin is that other groups would be unlikely to ask the same question. For it to be meaningful and lasting it should lead to newer questions in the field. I feel we need to be very very passionate. When we are deeply involved in any task we take up, I am sure we do it well. I never worked for any award or recognition. But, it came to me by various authorities, just like you approached me.
Where do you think our country stands for promoting R&D?
I am involved in many national committees of DST, by GoI. The opportunities given by the govt. are immense in all fields. Government has bilateral programs with various countries. I had many international projects. These allow recent developments, newer techniques, and networking. Govt. has a KIRAN program for women. It has exclusive programs for married women also. Most young women must utilize these opportunities.
Your resources or Platforms for commercialization R&D?
There are many Institutes, R&D labs, and private companies in need of such expertise.
For Food Tech: Dabur India, ITC Limited, Agro Tech Foods, Parle Products Pvt. Ltd., Cadbury India Ltd, etc.
Employment Sector/Industry: Food safety manufacturing units, Food and beverage departments, storage units, research units, labs, food processing, and organization to name a few.
How can you use your success to inspire students for a more productive generation of scientists/ entrepreneurs?
I have discussed the journey of my time. These days younger scientists are much more aware and know how they can go about things. With the internet and newer techniques, I am sure the sky’s not the limit for them. Even during the tough covid times, it is the youngsters who have taken the mantle in their hands and are doing their best.