Aishwarya, a young woman wearing a blue t-shirt, holds some of the rice samples she is working with

June 17, 2022, by Lexi Earl

Improving rice cultivation: An interview with Aishwarya Shankhapal

Aishwarya Shankhapal is a PhD candidate with the Graduate Centre for International Agriculture. Her project is titled ‘Understanding mesocotyl elongation in rice’ and her supervisors are Prof Peter Eastmond (Rothamsted), Dr Smita Kurup (Rothamsted), Prof Malcolm Bennett (UoN) and Dr Leah Band (UoN).

Why did you decide to do a PhD? What were you doing before?

My desire for pursuing a career in plant science takes me to my childhood memories of my grandmother giving me plants’ leaf and root extracts as a home remedy to cure various ailments. This triggered my fascination about the food and medicinal properties plant species contain which makes them useful. My thoughts about plant biology were nurtured when I joined an integrated master’s course at the Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU), formerly University of Pune, India. It established my basic knowledge of biochemical and biophysical, genetic and microbiological techniques. This curricular period was preliminary training for me, where I was introduced to basic cell molecular biology and plant biotechnology. For my master’s dissertation, I had an opportunity to work at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), which widened my horizons and ability to work in a diverse international culture. This has also made me an impeccable team player.

Why did you choose this particular PhD project?

The opportunity of working at Rothamsted Research and University of Nottingham as a PhD student will strengthen my knowledge in the field of crop and plant sciences research. The PhD programme provides me with an opportunity to work on modern day agriculture-related problems by employing molecular techniques. Further, it is riveting to be associated with a research group that is engaged in producing direct seeding varieties of rice, thereby exploring a detailed root physiology with other interdisciplinary approaches like omics and genetics. As I have relevant work experience in the areas which were mentioned in the PhD project, like molecular biology and bioinformatics, I felt I was a good fit for this project.

Tell us about your research. What do you study? Why is it important?

Water crises are a tremendous challenge for farmers in south and southeast Asia, as they threaten the sustainability of the puddled rice systems. Therefore, farmers are adapting to direct seeding of rice as it offers several advantages such as reduced water consumption, labour, and Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. With direct seeding, deep sowing is an effective method ensuring the seeds are protected and can access moisture (Menard et al., 2021). There are several early seedling traits focused to improve seedling emergence upon deep sowing. One such early seedling trait is mesocotyl length of the seedling. The mesocotyl is a crucial organ which helps the shoot emerge out of soil after germination in many monocots. The length of the mesocotyl varies between rice germplasm and is affected by environmental factors such as light, temperature and water. This variation provides a basis for high resolution mapping to understand the genetic control of mesocotyl length in rice. The aim of my PhD project is to understand the genetic and environmental regulation of the mesocotyl which could potentially lead to the betterment of direct seeding of the rice.

Aishwarya in the lab

How do you explain your research to ordinary people?

Transplanting of rice from puddled fields is used widely for cultivation of rice but this method is quite laborious and is associated with certain problems such as scarcity of labour to transplant the rice from the puddled field, deterioration of soil health and the huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions through the puddles. Due to such disadvantages, direct seeding of rice is gaining popularity because of several advantages: it saves labour, requires less water, provides early crop maturity, has a low production cost, and results in better soil health. There are several early seedling traits which yet need to be optimized for the establishment of this cropping system, such as selecting the cultivars which are suitable for this cropping system, proper sowing time, and determining the germination rate at different sowing depth as it facilitates more water availability. My research project basically revolves around optimizing these parameters and manipulating the genome by targeting potential candidates and conferring the traits by molecular biology approaches.

How is your first year going? Any highlights?

It took me a few months to get acclimatized with the new climate as it is completely different from my home country, India. Apart from this, I met wonderful people from my group and my cohort. In the starting period I was basically reading the literature about direct dry seeding of rice and how it is important. I had a little prior knowledge about this crop as it is India’s staple crop, but the dry direct cropping system was a new system for me as well. I presented an introductory poster at the PhD symposium at Rothamsted and received positive feedback about it which was fascinating for me as it was my first attempt making and presenting a poster. Also, I got a chance to attend the UKRI rice consortium meeting and it was a great experience for me, as I met the people working on the same crop as me. It was fascinating to know the issues and ongoing research of this crop. We have tried some pilot experiments for the project, focusing on the early seedling traits of rice and to get them working eventually. Overall, I feel first year was quite productive for me.

Has undertaking a PhD been different from other degrees you have done? How so?

Yes, undertaking a PhD is quite different from pursuing other degrees as it needs dedication and passion at the same time. One of the great things about doing a PhD is that you can do your own research with your own ideas and if the findings are relevant to the field of your work, they will be referred to by the experts in your field. This is only possible because usually PhD programmes are less structured than other undergraduate and postgraduate programmes and therefore, they encourage students to research their specific area of interest.

What have you learnt through your first PhD year?

I think the most important quality that I have acquired through my first year is self-discipline and self-management. As the PhD programme is quite relaxed in terms of structure, it has given me freedom to think about the problem and find the solutions – from debugging the computer, to setting up small experiments with the advice of my supervisors. My PhD involves time lapse imaging technology and measuring the early seedling traits by a high throughput semiautomated analysis platform. Therefore, in the initial period of the PhD, I gained some knowledge in handling the system and the software relevant to it.

How do you cope with the pressure of doing a PhD?

Moving to a completely new country with a very different climate and no family and friends around was difficult for me initially. Then I found some good friends in Rothamsted and from outside of Rothamsted. We hang out sometimes on weekends. When I was introduced to more people, I got to know about different clubs at Rothamsted. So, recently I joined the arts club and tennis club at Rothamsted, and I think it will help me to relax more from the stressful schedules.

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