In this episode, Aditya shares his journey and challenges in the academic transition from Oncology and Molecular Biology to Sustainable Farming in India.
In this episode, Aditya shares his journey and challenges in the academic transition from Oncology and Molecular Biology to Sustainable Farming in the School of Design at Anant National University, India.
Aditya followed his gut when it came to making major career decision after his Postdoc. During his later half of PhD and while pursuing his postdoctoral research, he developed a consuming passion for changing the high number of suicides committed by Indian farmers.
Aditya trusted his gut and made a unique transition to Sustainable Farming as an Assistant Professor. His goal is to connect the student community with farmers and sustainable farming practices, to help the farmers with diverse solutions, and to create awareness of their situation.
Alongside, he also finds motivation to help young researchers in their career journey, through talks and meetings. If you want to know more about his challenges and this unconventional transition, make sure to listen to this episode!
Tina Persson: Hi and welcome to the PhD Career Story podcast. This is Tina Persson and today's guest is Aditya Parekh. PhD Career Stories is a podcast created and done by PhDs to inspire other academic professionals in their career. And today's guest has a very fascinating story, I would say, because the title that we have agreed that could be a suitable title is “Can you trust your gut to guide yourself in your career?” And that means can you trust your interests? Can you trust your gut and your feelings and connect your heart with your stomach and brain together? And I hope that you will realize that this is fully possible because Aditya, he is today an assistant professor in India at the Anand National University in Ahmedabad, Gujarat in India, and actively working with Sustainable Farming. But he started his career in oncology, cancer research, as a Molecular Biologist. Done a postdoc and then a turn in the United States at John Hopkins. And from what I understand, something there happened with your career, something happened with you that made you take a decision to move from molecular biology and oncology to farming? And that is what we are going to start today discussing with you. So welcome to the podcast. How are you?
Aditya Parekh: Thank you. It is my pleasure to be here. I am very well.
Tina: I know where you are sitting, it's very hot. It's almost 40 degrees and we have only 20 degrees in Sweden. I'm going to start asking you the question. When did you start to feel in your gut that you wanted to make a change in your career? When did that feeling start popping up for you?
Aditya: Yeah, so this is a very interesting question. As you said, back in 2016, I was in the USA, at John Hopkins University, as a Fulbright Scholar and doing a part of my PhD research there. My PhD research topic was very set and I was totally into it. I don't remember the exact day, but I came across a few articles which gave me some horrifying numbers about farmers back in India. So I didn't believe those numbers. I started talking to friends, to other important people who are associated with farming. And it seemed that the numbers were true. It stated that every 28 to 30 minutes, one farmer in India commits suicide. It was unbelievable for me at that point of time, because the person who was growing food for us, if the community is committing suicide at this rate, then that is going to be a dangerous problem. I guess that was the first point which actually shook me and initiated the thought process within my brain. I started to be more involved with this farming, and over the next few months and years, I started talking with people. I actually started my own initiative back in a small village in India to try out farming to understand what the problem is. I started more interaction with the farmers, but in the end I only realized that my interest actually lies in this field.
Tina: Your interest actually lies in that field. You know I'm a coach, so now I'm even more interested. What was it that when you listened to all these farmers, what did you learn that made you even more interested than reading the articles? What stories did they tell that trigger you to be so interested?
Aditya: Yeah. So I guess I have this one skill to listen to people, especially those who are a little less privileged. I like talking to those people from long back, but after 2016 I started talking with farmers. But I realized that whatever they are saying, it is true and the problem is very complex and multifold. So there is no one solution to end the misery of a farmer. But they seem to be very, very honest when they talk about their problems and when they talk about their daily lives. And the problem is so complex that people, including politicians, nonprofit organizations and individuals, all have been trying in their own ways to solve the problem. But still, the numbers are horrifying in the present day. So it might not be 30 minutes. It's maybe closer to 40, 50 minutes. But still, there are more than (unclear) suicides in India, although the situation have become a little better for farmers in India. But there is a long way to go and I feel that being a citizen of the country and being from a very privileged background, being so educated, I should do something.
Tina: That 's wonderful. So what I hear is that you like to contribute. You consider yourself coming from a privileged area and you like to contribute. What do you think you can contribute with?
Aditya: Yeah, my initial thought was after my postdoctoral research, I thought the best way to contribute is to get engaged or attached with some nonprofit organizations. And there are many in India, which do great work in the areas of farming, or they work with farmers to solve their issues. But I also realized that my background or my degrees did not support that exactly. Many of the NGOs will not prefer a PhD because a PhD might not have a clear value to them. They may prefer people from other than life sciences backgrounds and maybe from policy or economics or other backgrounds.The other option for me was to continue in academia but change my field, which was again very different as may know. In academia people would surely look into your past degree as well into your research, publications and development in India. And I did not have any of them. What I had was my interest and passion. I understood the problem and I was passionate about solving at least a small part of it. But apart from that, neither did I have a skill set, nor did I have any sort of degree in agriculture. So the third option for me was to start my own initiative. But again, starting your own initiative without much money in your pocket is a risky affair. So I actually did not have a clear direction when I wanted to transition. But over the period of time when I started talking to people, I approached several organizations I had applied for jobs, got several rejections, but somehow the events turned up in a way that currently recognized and appointed by university as an assistant professor, where they agreed and they believe that I can contribute in establishing sustainable farming within the university, and that could be beneficial not only for the students but also for the general impact of them.
Tina: I need to go back to something you said that made me a little bit sad because you said that many of the NGOs, they don't value the PhD from the field you are, Oncology, Molecular Biology. And I felt, why wouldn't they see the value of that. Could you help me to understand?
Because you know that, you learned that because you tried.
Aditya: So I would put this in a different way. So why would they take me in their organization and not a Master’s in Economics or Policy, or even a Master's in Social Sciences? Why won't they take them? They can easily have them at a lower salary than they will get a PhD. Of course, we would demand a little higher salary than the masters. And if I was a PhD in Agriculture, maybe the scenario would have been different for me. But I was not a PhD in Agriculture. I was in a Molecular and Cell Biology setting, studying diseases like cancer or muscle development during my post-doctoral studies, so I was not fit in any of the NGOs. So just telling them about my passion was not enough for them to recruit me.
Tina: And this is sad, isn't it, that you have nonprofit organizations and I think many times they should select people for the passion and the drive because people with a passion, they will learn very quickly. But instead, you know, this is also the experience. I hear that from many other PhDs, they apply for nonprofit organizations and they don't even come for the first interview, because it's sort of just matching the perfect skill to the job ad, and personally, I think it's super sad because they miss the people with a genuine interest that you obviously have. Now I'm going to take a time journey here because you discovered something in yourself when you wanted to go from Molecular Biology, aiming for biotechnology, pharmaceutical industry and then to farming. I want to go back to when you decided to do a PhD, why did you decide to do a PhD in cancer research? What was the drive behind that?
Aditya: Yeah. So I completed my Bachelor's in Microbiology and then did my Master's in Biochemistry. And leaving aside the topic, the best option for many of the Master’s currently in India is to pursue higher education. The reason being PhD probably opens more options, more career options rather than a Master's. So an obvious choice is PhD for most people. But for me, from Master's onwards, I was really curious about research. I would spend extra time in the laboratory, doing research with bacterias, and other steps, even when that was not part of my curricular syllabus. So I am very deeply interested in finding new things and researching. So the obvious choice, because of my interest, and also from the point of view of career options, was going into a PhD. Now, cancer biology is a very exciting subject. We still have a long way to go and about ten years back, it was equally or a little more exciting then. And then I happened to see this opportunity in a very reputed institute where they had opened up a position in cancer biology. So I applied to this position as well as a couple of other positions. But I happened to be selected here and I was very happy for two reasons. One is I would be pursuing my PhD. And the second is, I would understand the disease a little more after my PhD. Sadly, my grandfather died of this cancer. Back then, I did not understand a lot about cancer, although I knew what cancer is, but that was an additional reason for me to dive into this subject.
Tina: So can you see now when you explain why you went into cancer research and now sustainable farming, what do they actually have in common, these two career options that you decided to take? Can you see that or what would you say?
Aditya: I guess one thing common in both of them is possibly my intent to help the community. What I realized at the end of my postdoc research is, I was doing decent research, I had published decent papers as well, in reputed journals, but the benefit to the community is not either very direct, and not very quick. So the benefit of my research might show in a few decades time. So over the period of years I started feeling that my action should benefit people directly and sooner rather than later. So that helped me to go or rather venture into an area where my activities would benefit the people directly and sooner than later.
Tina: What I hear from you is that you like to help people, and you like to make an impact. And you correlated to, you know, your grandma. And then when you listen to the farmers, you hear how they suffer, you hear. And you can also, what I hear is, you know, it doesn't have to be like that. Farmers commit suicide, but with some changes, they could be successful farmers instead. And that would make a great impact on my country and my society. And that, of course, that goes for cancer as well, you know, there's an impact. This is what I hear, that you like to help, you like to help people and support people. It's a wonderful skill and that you applied differently. So now coming back to, because I know you have other dreams, we talked before the recording of the podcast here that you also like to help people on other levels here, you like to help them in their careers?
Aditya: Absolutely. Yeah.
Tina: And where did that come from? How did that pop up in your mind here?
Aditya: Yeah, I guess, you bet it, I like helping people. Whether it is farmers, or people of my own community, which were PhDs and postdocs. So when I was in my first year of my postdoc, I happened to know about the National Symposium, which was conducted by that institute in collaboration with another institute. And the symposium did amazing things to help people. In the first year I only heard about it, in the second year I volunteered. I was a part of that symposium. I helped conduct the symposium and in the third year I was the lead of that initiative of the symposium, along with a wonderful team of course. And I felt joyfull there. I felt very happy that my initiative in small ways was helping people of my own community. So I guess I did have pleasure from these activities, whether it is helping farmers or helping people of my own community. And, this is direct help, this help will not show up after 30 or 40 years.
Tina: I know, it's a direct help and direct impact action. And what's beautiful with that is that you have learned, when you wanted to do your initial transition, when you were realizing when you interviewed the farmers that you wanted to, then an obvious choice was, of course, that you say, okay, then I go to these NGOs, and then you were rejected and I can hear between the lines here that you were disappointed. It is why, you know, because I want to work with that. And if I have the background I have, how can I then get a job like that? It must be possible. I feel misunderstood, and now by helping people in their careers, you most likely can help them to find another way, another look at it from a different perspective. So you can still actually go for your passion, even though the first step is a reaction and a disappointment because you didn't give up, you decided, I don't take this for a no, but if you look into the future, you start to dream big. How would you like, you know, I would like you to think, these NGOs and so that look for the perfect candidate rather than looking at the drive, the passion and the interest. What advice would you like to give these organizations? What changes in the recruitment process would you like them to take a look at?.
Aditya: Yeah. I guess one big factor here is money. Globally, not only in India, but globally, it is generally seen that good jobs should be done for free. So I guess this is not a good trend, not only in India, but globally. So you often have less money for people who are actually doing very impactful jobs on the ground. And this trend has to change globally. So you need to put a lot of money to attract very good people to go and do this job. They gain a lot of skill sets, but money is one of the criteria which do not allow the recruiters to recruit PhDs, and the PhDs also do not apply to these sorts of jobs. So I guess if by any chance, we can pour in a lot of money for the good of us, you know, automatic and back to back, I guess the scenario can change totally.
Tina: I think you're pointing to something that's super important here, and I completely agree with you. It has, for a while, been a trend that certain jobs should be for free. And you look at the job I do, you know, being a coach, “Oh no, you should do that for free”. Yeah, of course I can do that. But I have to pay my bills. Yeah, I need food on my table. I say that Aditya, and you are very welcome to argue against me, but I would say that certain organizations, and that could also be universities and other organizations, use people's passion so they work for free. And it's like not respecting the value they actually give. So the value they actually have is just reduced to nothing. And I can see the huge risk of that. And it's not only NGOs and these organizations, it's actually businesses that I've been in, you know, coaching, fitness. Fitness business is the same, you know, when you're a fitness instructor, you're hardly paid, but people do it because they are so passionate about it. People do coaching for free because they like to help people so much. But the point is, in the long term, if I don't charge, I can't help people. So we at PhD Career Stories say to you: charge, pay, you must charge and you must pay for service, because that's the only sustainable way of surviving, helping it is actually to involve money in some way. So I think it's a very important topic that you bring up on the table, because PhDs should not sell the services for free, they shouldn't, there's too much value in it. So thank you. But what do you think we have to do about it or what could we do about it?
Aditya: I guess the move has to be from both, say, bottom up as well as top down. The move coming from either way, will not be sustainable for long. So if people demand, and the institutes or the governments do not listen to them, then it would be hard to have any tools. And on the other side, if institutes or organizations or governments want to do something, but if people are not willing to receive it, it will be useless as well. So I guess I don't know how awareness can be increased more in the system in the whole, but certainly the move has to be appreciated, acknowledged and taken forward both from the top as well as from the bottom.
Tina: And also that, now when you are interested in career service (unclear) to bring into the system and mindset both from university and private clients, that you should have some money involved in the business, because when you bring in money in the business there's a responsibility on it. If I coach you for free for example and you don't like me, you can't get the money back. But if you are disappointed, you can always say, Tina I pay you. I expect, you know, professional coaching here. So you have something to talk about when it comes to responsibility. This is an important topic, that's very important. But now, when you work as an assistant professor, what are you doing to help the farmers? So the listeners say, okay, now you are an assistant professor in your university environment. What can you concretely do, or what are you concretely doing to help them?
Aditya: Yeah, so I should say that I just started my efforts, and it takes some time to see fruit on the ground. But I should tell you what has happened. So what I've done is I have let students and farmers interact, farmers will tell their problems to students and students will at least be aware of the problems, if not finding a solution for them. And this awareness, small awareness, also counts. So I have tried to connect the community with the farmers. The second is, right now I have a bunch of young minds in my team and I'm trying to develop sustainable farming practices, so that in future maybe they can learn from the farmers and the farming system in general. So I'm working with brilliant minds in the university.
Tina: And may I ask the farmer challenge in your country, what is that based on?
Aditya: So if you ask me, what the root cause of the problem is, I guess I should say that there is a great disconnect between people who consume and the people who grow our food. I guess a good connection could solve a lot of problems. Now, second, farming has not been a very profitable business in any of the countries, because you can go to any of the European countries, there are only a few farmers that are rich, and most of the farmers do not belong to the rich category. And part of the reason is, their output depends a lot on the things they can't control. For example, the weather. Say for example the demand side of the consumer. These things are not controlled by the farmers. Okay, so there are a few uncertainties which make farming not as profitable, but certainly things can improve if people get more and more connected to the farming, and people will find solutions in different ways, be it giving more money to the farmers, be it valuing the farmers knowledge and people will find their own personalized solutions. But first you have to be connected and value what the farmer is.
Tina: Yeah, and what about this one here. I know my country, but I don't know your country. What is the job status of being a farmer in India, is that a high or low status job?
Aditya: It is a low status job. And I don't remember the numbers correctly now, but there is this very bad trend which is growing, in which the people from farming backgrounds are leaving their professions each day. I can't say the numbers now, but if people continue to do so, then who will grow food for us?
Tina: Exactly, that's the awareness maybe. Yeah, because that's the situation in my country. You know, we have hardly any farmers left, and we have this war in Ukraine, suddenly, you know, the food prices are going up and yeah, we have no farmers left, very few. Okay, okay. I need to eat. Yeah, but maybe we should start to appreciate having farmers. And also, as you said so nicely, that we appreciate the food we're eating. So it's high quality food that is produced by our local farmers. So if they are appreciated and have a high status, you know, and get money for what they do, maybe things will start to change. You know, I need to understand that what I'm eating needs to be produced somewhere.
Aditya: Yes. And value people who are producing.
Tina: Yeah, value people that produce and serve. You know I think that's a very interesting perspective and honestly, this is something that came very quickly in my country here, that people started to realize when, okay, wait a minute, we can't buy from Ukraine any longer and then we can't buy from there. We need farmers in this country. So now we can see that, it's a new generation of younger people, and it's interesting because I actually visited a farming industry here, in the south part of Sweden, and it was not what I expected. I thought I would see a lot of people, you know, doing hands off jobs. No, they have machines for everything and it's super digitalized. It was far away from what I thought. The machines and digitalization have moved into farming completely, even for animal care, you know. So it's a high tech industry at the moment. Yeah, that's cool. Sustainable farming is part of what I hear from you, is part of what you want to do is actually to connect the society. They understand there is a connection, what you get in your stomach from what the people actually produce on the field. Did you discover that feeling when you visited the United States?
Aditya: The first feeling that I should do something for the community started when I was in the United States. But I of course did not know what to do, so I started planning a few things. Back in India, I started a couple of my own initiatives and as I said, started talking with farmers, started understanding their problem by that interaction. So all of this helped enrich my experience and knowledge. And the good thing about this (unclear). So it just reinforced the belief that the interest is not a false interest, it's not fake.
Tina: It's not a false interest. But I'm going to twist the question a bit to say, hypothetically, you know, if you hadn't gone to the United States, you had stayed in India, do you think you would have this position today then?
Aditya: I'm not very sure about it.
Tina: Thank you for being honest. But you know, this is maybe, you know, why it is important. This is what we career coaches say and life people say, you know, the best thing you can do is to travel and see the world. You will be inspired and you will find a way. So maybe that is, you know, you needed to do that trip to find your passion, in the United States. But, you know, I'm going to talk about where you are here right now. And that is I like to look into the future with you. So where do you think you're going to be in 3 to 4 years? What do you think you will do then?
Aditya: I guess, to be honest, since I said I'm not as skilled as some of the people who are from agricultural background. So I need to hone my skills, I need to read a lot more to be able to deliver more to the students. And I need to find ways where I can have a better impact, direct impact to farmers. Still, I'm trying to figure out what is the best way that I can do. Of course, teaching students, teaching young minds is a very good thing and we are preparing them for the future. That is a good thing, which is of course on the table. But as I said, I want to see the impact of creating in the next few weeks or months. So I'm still trying to find out the best way I can do that, being in the university system. Second, I guess in the next 3 to 5 years, I hope that I will be in this area. I see myself as being involved in work that has a more direct impact on farmers, but also on the sideline, as you said, I also want to have an impact on my own community of PhDs and scholars . So I want to work in both areas for the next 3 to 5 years.
Tina: Yeah. Wonderful dreams, and I'm sure you will succeed with that. So we are close to the end of the podcast, but I would like you to start to reflect over if you describe yourself, what would you say makes you unique?
Aditya: Um, I'm not sure that I'm unique.
Tina: Everyone is unique.
Aditya: Yeah, but I guess. I feel more connected to people. I feel more connected to people. And I like seeing my effort impacting their lives, their academic life, their daily life, or whatever it is.
Tina: You like to impact people.
Aditya: I guess this is something you intended to share.
Tina: Yeah, I can see the uniqueness, you know, you reached out to this podcast and the way you have helped people, and your deep passion to be curious about things. It's amazing and not giving up, you know? So I would say it's been an honor to have you here and I wish you good luck with supporting and helping farmers in your country, I think is a major impact that you're going to do, because in the end, if I don't produce the food, there will not be splendid food for the rest of the people in the population and also that, you know, impacting people in their careers. And I know you have a deep interest in career development for people in India, PhDs and academic trained people. And I'm sure you will succeed fantastically with that. So thank you a lot Aditya for being here in this podcast PhD Career Stories. And to you guys who have listened or watched this podcast, I say thank you very much. I know we have people from all over the world watching us. So this was Tina Persson from PhD Career Stories. And don't forget to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, or go to our webpage - phdcareerstories.com. I tell you that we have new things coming up and I have a new host coming up in our channel. So just stay tuned. And if you know anyone with a story, don't hesitate to reach out to us and give us a name. Or maybe if you are interested, just let us know. So this was Tina from Career Stories. Goodbye.