My Plant Path: Deepak Haarith
Growing up in the large city of Chennai, India, Deepak Haarith was first exposed to agriculture when his family would get freshly picked vegetables delivered to their apartment each day.
“I grew up in apartments where there was no land to look at and there were no crops growing around us. I was always intrigued that we used to get fresh vegetables delivered to our home each day. This was where I first got interested in plants. I was curious where these plants grow and how they grow, despite never seeing anything grow around us,” says Deepak.
That intrigue grew as Deepak explored the world of higher education and he began to develop an understanding of the importance of food not only as sustenance, but also to his home country’s economy. At this time he also began to draw inspiration from the work of Professor Norman Borlaug, who he later learned had helped bring India out of famine and crop shortages, and ultimately sparked the country to become food self-sufficient.
Eventually Deepak decided to pursue an interdisciplinary degree at SASTRA University (Integrated Bachelors and Masters of Technology in Industrial Biotechnology) where he explored many different areas of science. Of all the fields he was exposed to, it was plant-microbe interactions however that caught his eye, and it began his fascination with plant pathology.
“Plants are the oldest land organisms which can produce food from sunlight, and they’re probably the main producer of food for all life on earth. Microbes on the other hand, are probably the oldest living forms on earth. The interactions between these two, in fact, affects the production of food, or anything the plant does. So it is really important to understand this old archaic interaction that actually feeds all of us. Putting all of those components together, that is why I became so fascinated with plant pathology and plant-microbe interactions.”
Drawing on his fascination with plant-microbe interactions, and his inspiration from Norman Borlaug’s work, when Deepak decided to pursue a Ph.D. in plant pathology, he could think of no better fit than the University of Minnesota.
“The University of Minnesota was one of my top choices for graduate studies not only because it is recognized as one of the best departments in the world, but also because this was where Professor Norman Borlaug received all of his degrees.”
Now a Ph.D. student in the department, Deepak’s research focuses on understanding the microbial, especially fungal, composition of soils where soybeans and soybean cyst nematodes (SCN) have interacted over a long period of time in crop rotations. Deepak will use this data from his research to find potential suitable biological control strategies against SCN, a major threat to soybean production.
Deepak hopes to harness what he learns from his time with the department by developing cropping models and cultural practices to help farmers back in India reduce pest-induced crop losses.
“I really believe that science is useless if it is not useful for people in their everyday life. I hope to use the knowledge that I’ve gained from all the degrees I have earned in my life to make public policies that will impact the food systems in my country and possibly in the world, and also pull as many people out of hunger as possible.”