Prof Rajeev K Varshney (born 13 July 1973) is a renowned agricultural scientist who is engaged in discovering, developing, and delivering innovative R&D solutions to tackle wicked problems facing global agriculture. He is currently serving as the Research Program Director – Genetic Gains and Director, Center of Excellence in Genomics and Systems Biology at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Hyderabad, India, a global agricultural research institute and a center under CGIAR consortium. He holds Adjunct/Honorary/ Visiting Professor positions at 10 academic institutions in Australia, China, Ghana, Hong Kong, and India. He is an elected fellow of about 10 science and agriculture academies/ societies in India, Germany, USA, etc. and recipient of several prestigious awards including the most coveted science award, Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar(SSB) Prize, and the most prestigious agricultural science award, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Award from Government of India.
Racing against the global challenges of food security, hunger, and malnutrition and in contributing towards the international agricultural landscape, with a focus on genomics and molecular breeding, Dr Rajeev K Varshney (47), scientist and an accomplished research leader has become the youngest and the first agricultural/plant scientist and the 4th Indian after Prof CNR Rao, Prof Kayanmoy Deb and Prof Ashok Pandey to have an h-index of 100, as per Google Scholar (https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=Kdmxy8EAAAAJ&hl=en). Having more than 2000 citations for one paper and 1000 plus citations for 2 papers Dr Varshney has total of 40,000 citations for his outstanding scientific contributions.
Prof Varshney, a highly prolific author has received several awards and recognitions from reputed publishing houses. He has been listed among the highly cited research and world’s most influential scientific minds by Thomson Reuters/Clarivate Analytics for 7 consecutive years (2014-2020) in a row and was also honored with Research Excellence India Citation Award in 2015 by Thomson Reuters. As per the leading Indian daily newspaper Times of India’s report, he was among the only 10 Indians on the list of the world’s 4,000 top highly cited scientists. Most recently (October 2020), as per a study conducted by Stanford University, USA which was published in PLOS Biology Journal, Prof Varshney was ranked 123rd in the World Ranking of the top 2% Indian scientist in the field of Plant Biology & Botany. Prof Varshney is specialized in the area of applied genomics, molecular breeding, comparative and functional genomics, and crop biotechnology. Prof Varshney has 15 publications in Nature journals and more than 500 research articles in highly cited science journals.
Some of his awards include Research Excellence India Citation Award – 2015 by Thomson Reuters; Doreen Margaret Mashler Award-2016 (the most prestigious award of ICRISAT) by ICRISAT Governing Board; IPGI Leadership Award-2017 by the International Peanut Genome Initiative; Young Crop Scientist Award of Crop Science Society of America in 2013; Senior Scientist Award-2015 by Association of Biotechnology & Pharmacy (ABAP), The Illumina Agricultural Greater Good Initiative Award-2013; NASI-Scopus Young Scientist Award-2010; INSA-Young Scientist Medal- 2008 by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA); NASI-Young Scientist Platinum Jubilee Award-2007; ICRISAT Promising Young Scientist Platinum Jubilee Award, 2007 & 2008; AMU Gold Medal, 1995.
Prof Varshney, in his research career spanning for >20 years, has made significant contributions to improving food security in Asia and Africa by creating and applying genomic resources in crop breeding for developing superior lines with stress tolerance and high nutrition and strengthening seed delivery system in major tropical crops.Together with his colleagues, he has developed and deployed DNA marker technologies for the identification of useful genetic variation in tropical crops. Varshney, together with his team, has used these resources and technologies to identify genetic loci/candidate genes for drought and pest tolerances in key staple crops for sub-Saharan Africa and India.
He has initiated and led some international programs that are creating and delivering superior crop varieties to some of the world’s poorest farmers. Some of the most recent results on the ground from his teams work together with partners includes; development of two superior chickpea varieties by genomics assisted breeding in India, First ever high-yielding chickpea variety developed using marker-assisted backcrossing (MABC) released in Ethiopia, and high oleic acid groundnut variety. These two groundnut varieties were among the 17 biofortified varieties of eight crops that Indian Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi dedicated to the nation on World Food Day.
Sir, what is your personal background/upbringing/ early education and motivation to pursue research career
I have come from a middle-class family in a small-town named Bahjoi in western Uttar Pradesh, India. I completed my High School and Intermediate education from U.P. Board and Bachelors and Master’s degree in Botany with specialization in Genetics, Plant Breeding & Molecular Biology from Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, India. I consider myself fortunate to have pursued my research work (Ph.D.) with Prof P.K. Gupta, Hon. Emeritus Professor, and a well-known name in the field of plant genetics and Dr. P C Sharma. Later, I took up initially Post-Doc and then Research Scientist position at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics & Crop Plant Research (IPK), Gatersleben, Germany where I worked with another stalwart Prof. Dr. Andreas Graner.
During my stay in IPK-Germany, I had an opportunity to attend a conference “From Green Revolution to Gene Revolution”, in Bologna- Italy, where I met with stalwarts of the agricultural science fraternity like Dr. Norman Borlaug, Dr. MS Swaminathan, Dr. Gurdev Khush, Dr. Ronald L. Phillips and many more. Dr. Borlaug, during his talk, challenged next-generation scientists to embrace new tools and technologies to tackle food security issues in the developing world. As an early career researcher, this motivated me to think and work on translational aspects of upstream research work for development of better crop varieties with improved yield and nutrition.
Where do you work now and how long have you been working here? Please share some memorable previous positions.
I am currently working as Research Program Director- Genetic Gains and Director, Center of Excellence in Genomics & Systems Biology (CEGSB) at International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Hyderabad, India, for the last 15 years.
Before joining ICRISAT, I have worked as Research Scientist at the Institute of Plant Genetics & Crop Plant Research (IPK), Gatersleben, Germany. For a period of about 6-7 years (2007- 2013) I had a dual appointment with 50% position with CGIAR Generation Challenge Program based at CIMMYT, Mexico as Leader Sub Program 2 and 50% position with ICRISAT as Senior/ Principal Scientist. All these positions were stepping stones and provided me an enabling environment and foundation for me to climb the ladders of science leadership/ management roles over the years.
What are your research areas/expertise and why you chose only this?
My current area of expertise is genomics, genetics, molecular breeding and capacity building with a focus on discovering, developing and delivering innovative R&D solutions to tackle wicked problems facing global agriculture. I am passionate about understanding the genomic and germplasm architecture of crops and strengthening the seed systems, as it is not just important for the development of better-improved crop varieties but we also need to ensure that these varieties are easily accessible to small holder farmers on time.
What questions are you trying to answer in your work?
My research is aimed to understand the molecular basis of resistance to biotic and abiotic stress, by using modern genomic tools and technologies coupled with Systems Biology approach for improvingyield and nutrition of focused crops thereby human health.
How did you become interested in this subject?
Growing up in a small town of Uttar Pradesh, India, I wanted to become a space scientist, which was fueled by my hobby of reading comics. However, our country primarily being an agrarian economy, everyone’s life is touched and impacted by agriculture and I was no different. Eventually, my interest in being a space scientist turned into understanding the science behind genes and this is where I developed my interest in plant genomics and the molecular breeding field.
What process do you follow to find answers in scientific research?
We have been sequencing the genomes of several crop varieties together with collaborators and partners from all over the world. For example, we have been successful to sequence the reference genome assemblies for 13 plant species that include pigeonpea, chickpea, two diploid progenitors and cultivated groundnut species, pearl millet, sesame, mungbean, adzuki bean, longan, Jatropha, Soybean and Celery.
These efforts have helped us to integrate these genomic innovations in crop breeding programs for the development of improved varieties, e.g.our partners in India and Ethiopia together with us have been able to develop3 chickpea varieties, Pusa Chickpea 10216, Super Annigeri 1 and Pusa Chickpea 20211, which have drought tolerance and fusarium wilt resistance in India and 1high-yielding chickpea variety “Geletu” with drought tolerance in Ethiopia. In the case of groundnut, ICAR-Directorate of Groundnut Research together with ICRISAT has developed and released two high oleic groundnut varieties namely “Girnar 4” and “Girnar 5”. In the coming years, we look forward to developing many more molecular breeding products and it would be very satisfying to see these products in small holder farmers’ fields.
What is the role of technology in your job?
Technology plays a very important role in today’s modern science practices and it can be said that I am one of the early adopters of genomics tools and platforms to modernize and fasten our research work. It is because of the advent of next-generation sequencing technologies and platforms that we are now able to sequence crop genome in much less time and money, what it used to take before these technologies arrived. For instance, legumes, which were earlier referred to as orphan crops, due to lack of availability of genomics resources are now no more considered an orphan.Thanks to genomics tools and technologies that over the years have fastened the research and helped to identify genetic loci/candidate genes for drought and pest tolerances in key staple crops for sub-Saharan Africa and India.
Can you tell us Milestones of your research in particular its societal impact.
The most important part of our research is that it is being used in downstream research and is translated into improved crop varieties. I can proudly say that our research work together with collaborators and partners is being extensively used in crop breeding programs in many countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. As mentioned above, 4 chickpea and 2 groundnut varieties have already been released and several others are in pipeline. Furthermore, the Tropical Legumes projects, funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, under my PIship, have facilitated the development and adoption of new improved legume varieties, creation of market‐demand to benefit smallholder farmers and empowerment of national programmes in sub‐Saharan Africa and South Asia.
How the expenses incurred during research work are fulfilled like different biggest grant agencies funding your research?
I am very fortunate and thankful that our research work has generous support from several funding agencies like Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), CGIAR- Generation Challenge Program, USAID, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, Government of India, Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, National Science Foundation, USA, CGIAR- Research Program Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals and many more.
Why you did not settle abroad when you had plenty of opportunities?
That’s the beauty of working in this field, it does not have boundaries. The research work that we conduct here is not restricted to any particular country, it’s global, and so does the community and the audience that it serves. I get to work with colleagues, collaborators and partners from several countries, just to put this in figures, we have a huge network of >180 partners from 35+ countries across six continents.
Whom would you like to credit for your achievements and success?
I consider myself fortunate to come in contact with mentors and guides like Prof PK Gupta, Emeritus Professor, Department of Genetics & Plant Breeding, Ch. Charan Singh University, Meerut during my PhD time and Prof Dr. Andreas Graner, Executive Director, IPK- Gatersleben, Germany during my post-doctoral tenure. I pursued my Ph.D. under Prof Gupta, who is a globally recognized name in the field of genetic and plant breeding. As I always say, it is not possible that anyone working in the field of genetics and plant breeding, could have completed his/her studies without reading books written by Prof Gupta.
Some of the best qualities of him that have always inspired me are hard working, commitment and perseverance. Even at this age, he tries to learn about new research and the latest advancements in the field of genetics. His energy level to perform his tasks is unparalleled even today. After my Ph.D., I had an opportunity to pursue my Post-Doc research work with Prof Andreas Graner, Executive Director, IPK- Gatersleben, Germany. Prof Graner has been a great role model and inspiration for me and in shaping my professional career. He always used to say and I quote “If you want to grow and be successful, always try to help and inspire your team members to grow and succeed, as the success of team member brings success for yourself”.
In addition, during my professional journey over the years, I kept on receiving guidance and support from several science leaders including Dr. MS Swaminthan, Dr. Trilochan Mohapatra, Dr. William D Dar, Dr Swapan Datta, Dr Kadambot Siddique and several other eminent personalities, the list is long. I may not be able to mention all names but certainly thankful to all of them and also would like to thank all my colleagues and collaborators at ICRISAT and around the world for all their collaboration, support and cooperation. Last but not the least I would like to thank my family for their togetherness.
What aspects of your work do you think could be described as Indian science?
Science research cannot be restricted to any one nation, we conduct our research with partners in the national system from India, sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world as well, with the potential to help the global scientific community as well as smallholder farmers across the globe.
What do you think are the challenges of using traditional ways of knowing with Indian science?
I don’t see it as a challenge, in fact, scientific research always provides an enabling environment for conducting multi-inter-tans-disciplinary science. For example, our genome sequencing work of 429 Chickpea lines, saw 39 scientists from 21 research institutes across 45 countries tapping into next-generation sequencing (NGS) technology to better understand the genetic background of chickpea. It is time that we should not be doing science in silos, we need to undertake multi-, inter- and trans- disciplinary approaches for delivering significant outputs to society.
How do you think scientific research, which contains a lot of technical language and data, can be more accessible to the general public, specially of India?
This is a very important question, as a scientist, we often use scientific jargons and sometimes miss to communicate our work in a lucid way to the target audience as well as to the general public. This is where the role of organizations like Biotech Express and others is envisioned to translate the scientific achievements in easy language, for better understanding and benefit of the public at large.
What do you enjoy most about being a scientist?
Being a scientist, I feel like I am always in lifelong learning mode to explore more and more. It also provides enormous opportunities to keep on interacting and meeting a large number of people from across the globe, especially students and early career researchers, who have new ways of working and that is what keeps me in learning new approaches and practices.
Can you tell us about future goals of your lab?
We aim to keep addressing complex issues faced by the international agricultural community, by understanding the genome and germplasm architecture of different crops, which will help to develop improved crop varieties addressing vagaries of climate change, food and nutrition security. We recently have completed sequencing of 3000 chickpea accessions and look forward to sequence the remaining 10,000 to 15,000 accessions in the coming years.
Any message(s) to Life sciences community.
As I believe, for all the citizen of any nation it is an obligation to contribute towards the growth of the country in any possible way. All fields are significant and have their importance, but for a country like India, which is a majorly agrarian economy, serving in the agriculture and life sciences field will be more fitting. I’ll be very happy to see more and more young researchers focus on agriculture and life sciences, as it is one of the most important sectors, which was also evident during the COVID-19 global pandemic. As rightly said by Father of Indian Green Revolution Dr.. MS Swaminathan, “If Agriculture Goes Wrong, Nothing Will Go Right”.