Luminaries: Sudhir Kumar Sopory

BY PRATEEK TRIPATHI ASPB Student Ambassador, Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Southern California, Los Angeles (Originally published September 2015)

Vice Chancellor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India

What got you interested in plant biology in general, and what influences directed you to your specific area of research?

soporyI think it was not by choice but by chance. When I was doing my bachelor’s degree at Kashmir University, the college where I was studying started a new BSc(Hons) program in botany. I thought I should opt for this, and luckily I was admitted. Since then, I have remained attached to plant biology. I did my master’s and PhD in the same field, and I have continued my interest in plant research for the past 40 years. Every day I learn of new findings that reveal more about my ignorance of the subject than the knowledge I have gained.

Who influenced your scientific thinking early in your career, and how?

There are two teachers I would like to mention. The first was my master’s teacher, Dr. A. K. Kaul. I liked his teaching style and learned a lot from him about how to teach and make the topic interesting to students. He taught us by raising doubts and questions that induced random thinking processes within us and motivated us to explore more. The second was my PhD adviser, Professor S. Maheshwari. He was one of the most instrumental people not only in my professional career, by teaching me the basics of how to deal with science, but also in my personal life. He was very meticulous and always emphasized being perfect. He insisted that his students also read in areas of research not directly related to their topic, which has helped me a lot to stay motivated with the flow of new ideas.

What do you think are good career moves for young scientists?

Young scientists can opt for an academic research career in a university or join a private-sector organization. Important principles to stay alive in research are to remain curious, which will direct you to your ultimate goal, and to concentrate on scientific questions you wish to address in the future. Curiosity leads to discoveries. At some point, if you feel that research is not what you would like to pursue further, you can choose other options in industry, the media, or law (e.g., intellectual property rights).

If you were able to repeat your years as a graduate student or your early years as a postgraduate student, would you do anything differently? If so, why?

During my PhD studies, the  problem I was given was not to my interest. I always wanted to do more of biochemistry and molecular biology, but during my PhD I did tissue culture, which did help me in later years.  Part of the reason for this assignment was availability of resources and infrastructure. It happens with many students, I guess. I would like to have taken up projects that have social relevance.

What journals do you regularly follow?

In plant biology, I have always tried to follow the top 20 journals, like The Plant Cell, Plant Physiology, The Plant Journal, Plant and Cell Physiology, and others, not because of the impact factor but because of the content, new science, and new concepts. Certainly I also look at Cell, Nature, and Science, especially news and views, but I also continuously try to follow journals that publish new methods and technologies. I prefer to also follow journals not related to my area of research, and now being in administration as vice chancellor of the university, I have started to follow some social sciences–related journals, too.

What scientific discoveries over the past couple of years have influenced your research directions?

Being in the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology and leading the abiotic stress group, I found the work on stress perception and signaling revealing. The work on light and hormone regulation and mechanisms thereof and on development of plant organs and differentiation is very interesting, and this work is now slowly revealing the secrets of plant life.

What do you think is the next big thing in plant biology?

How plants survive. How they adapt to different niches. The sensing mechanism is very important to examine to have a better understanding of plant systems. Understanding plant evolution will be a really big thing, as well as evolution of polyploids and apomixis and so forth.

What do you think will be the next big thing in your specific area of study?

People have to understand the basic signature of gene expression and proteome, how it is linked with adaptation, and whether it is genotype specific or species specific. This aspect is not yet clear. In the field of transgenics, where people have used different genes for stress tolerance, one needs to understand how different gene products lead to the same phenotype. What is the molecular footprint that drives these behaviors?

As an employer, what are the key qualities you look for in a potential team member?

First of all, a candidate’s CV speaks for itself in terms of publication records, references, reports, and so forth. However, the CV contributes only to initial attention to the candidate. The major thing one needs to judge, in my perspective, is the candidate’s real motivation and ability to engage in independent thinking. These are the qualities that direct a researcher to be a leader in science.

What advice would you give to a student interested in plant biology today?

Be curious and be committed. Plant biology is an amazing field, and a lot has yet to be explored. Move away from Arabidopsis and rice, and discover further facts about the beauty of plant life.

How do you look at the future of basic plant science as part of a policy-making body?

Research in plants can have an impact in the field of agriculture, the energy sector, and livestock improvement. Work on plants can also help us fulfill our social commitments. Plant science needs more funding for both basic and applied research.

SOURCE: Tripathi, P. (2015) Luminaries: Sudhir Kumar Sopory. ASPB News 42(2): 17 – 18. Reprinted by permission from ASPB.