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MSU professor makes international connections


MSU professor makes international connections
Photo by: Beth Wynn

When Raja Reddy came to Mississippi State University from India 25 years ago, he saw opportunities for his family and for his research. As an agricultural scientist, he understands the concept of reaping what he sows.

But he did not expect his career to take him back to India to give those same opportunities to other curious students.

Reddy, a research professor with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, studies environmental plant physiology and has focused his career on plant cultivars that thrive in hot, cold and dry conditions. His award-winning work on modeling climate change and its impact on agriculture is rooted in a practical need: how to grow enough food for a rapidly expanding population on a planet that is getting hotter.

“Food isn’t just a local issue; it’s a global issue,” Reddy said. “The scientists I work with, including graduate students from Guyana, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Iraq and India, and I screen crop cultivars for multiple stressors, such as heat or cold, drought, ultraviolet radiation and nutrients. We are studying issues we can solve.”

Reddy invests time and effort into his students and research projects, not always knowing how that seed will grow and bear fruit, but hoping the harvest will improve both Mississippi and other places in the world with food security challenges.

“Our research addresses the needs of Mississippi’s agricultural community and the food our farmers produce,” Reddy said. “For example, a couple years ago, rice growers in the Delta had an issue with low fertility because of high temperatures. So we are trying to screen several rice cultivars for high heat and extreme temperature tolerances.”

Mike Phillips, head of the MSU Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, said an increase in food production and food security is essential to adequately nourish the world’s growing population.

“The world population is expected to reach 9.1 billion people by 2050, 34 percent higher than in 2009,” Phillips said. “This presents a major challenge and especially pressures natural resources. Dr. Reddy is on the forefront in addressing these issues as he conducts cutting edge research with many crops. He not only expands our knowledge and understanding of how crops respond to changes in climate, but also provides teaches and mentors future agricultural scientists from around the world.”

Mississippi’s climate is similar to India’s and other parts of globe with growing populations. Many of the agronomic crops grown in these countries are similar. So when MSU President Mark Keenum began focusing on recruiting international students, Reddy reached out to colleagues from his early years in India, many of whom are now administrators and high-level researchers at agricultural universities.

Seeds of friendship sown in his youth became a harvest of international academic and research collaborations.

“I’m connecting people,” Reddy said. “We’re arranging student and faculty exchanges to get new ideas and to explore the opportunities for Mississippi. In order to be a global leader, you must have a culturally diverse population. Diversity brings new ideas and drives innovation.

“We need our students to experience different cultures, develop business partnerships and understand what global markets demand,” he said.

Competition for education remains fierce in India.

“There were 1,100 applicants for 40 seats in the master’s degree program in India when I left, and it’s still the same,” he said. “MSU has the opportunity to recruit some of the brightest students in India, and when they get a world-class education here, they can apply what they’ve learned to help feed the growing world population in almost any location.”

Reddy helped arrange exploratory trips for MSU administrators to visit key institutions in India.

“Based on our initial visits, we decided to concentrate on three southern states in India,” he said. “Most of our Indian graduate students come from those areas, because we grow many of the same crops in Mississippi.”

While the students come away with research experience or an advanced degree from one of the top agricultural research universities in the United States, the exchange is not one-sided.

American farmers can reap business opportunities from the seeds of collaboration sown at MSU.

“We can learn from their practices and perceptions about developing different plant cultivars and the crops they are growing, such as pigeon pea,” Reddy said.

Pigeon pea is widely used in India and the Middle East, he explained.

“You can’t have an Indian meal without it. Most Indians eat vegetarian meals, and the pea is an important substitute for meat,” he said. “Australia grows a lot of pigeon pea and exports it. There may be a market need we could fill in Mississippi.”

Reddy said MSU can also benefit from the research going on in India, like that at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, in Andhra Pradesh.

“They work on beans, peanuts and grain sorghum for the semi-arid tropics,” he said. “The institute has a collection of all the germplasm for peanuts in the world. We can get free germplasm from them and use this genetic material to develop our own peanut varieties.”

In addition to conducting research, writing journal articles, authoring book chapters and mentoring graduate students from all over the world, Reddy works with the MSU International Institute to recruit professors and students.

“We want to attract faculty to join the International Institute, to connect them with their peers in India for collaborative projects, and to invite them to see the research opportunities available, not just in India, but in African and South American countries,” he said. “There is so much to be learned about nutrition, agricultural economics, water use, animal science and even basic science. We need to work together to help eliminate world hunger.”

For more information about the International Institute and opportunities for faculty and student exchange programs, visit http://www.international.msstate.edu/about/index.php.

Dated: 6/2/2014