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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge
gita yadav2

To continue with our series on female researchers who play vital roles in improving local and global food security, we present Dr Gita Yadav, whose work focuses as much on understanding how nature has evolved and optimized mechanisms to enhance photosynthetic efficiency, and on how plants communicate with each other and the rest of the biosphere, as it does on encouraging female participation in science.

I studied natural product biosynthesis in microbes with a focus on substrate preferences based on active site architecture. The main reason I chose this for my PhD was that it enabled me to add to my previous degrees in Botany and Stereochemistry, and gain new skills in genomics and computational biology. In fact, I am using all of these skills in my present work.

My current research focuses on two distinct themes: the first is related to understanding how nature has evolved and optimized mechanisms to enhance photosynthetic efficiency, which collectively are called the Carbon concentrating mechanisms (CCM). My other interest is to decipher the silent language of plants, or rather ‘the variable chemical code’ that plants use for communicating with each other, and with the rest of biosphere.

My work is important to food security because enhanced photosynthetic efficiency translates directly into higher productivity, greater biomass, and in turn, food security. The key is to rectify a flaw that is at the heart of photosynthesis: the global carbon fixing enzyme RubisCO performs less well in most plants due to its inability to distinguish atmospheric CO2 from Oxygen. We are investigating green algae that have evolved a unique biophysical CCM to successfully separate RubisCO from oxygen, resulting in a tremendous increase in photosynthetic efficiency. We are trying to identify key components of this process in the hope of using it to improve crops.

Women in science represent an increasingly diverse global sisterhood! I’ve had the opportunity to interact with women in science who are national/international scientists, rural/cosmopolitan students, postdocs, teachers, administrators, communicators and so forth, and it is quite remarkable that most of the challenges faced by women in science transcend national, cultural and disciplinary borders. The same can be said for our strengths, but we won’t know that unless we share experiences, increase connections, and build strong platforms for sustained support.

Growing up, I had no expectation about being a scientist. I was born at the Military Headquarters of War (MHOW) in India, with three generations of illustrious army officers in the family. I grew up constantly travelling with my family, and we often lived in distant small town cantonments (military camps). My parents encouraged us to explore the outdoors and visit sacred groves, and I also discovered my love for reading. We didn’t have the internet, but we had libraries - I loved the adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but also the adventures of Mendel, Darwin and Marie Curie. I did not know I could be a scientist, but I was moved by stories of scientists: how Newton felt about light transforming to matter, what Lavoisier might have discovered if he hadn’t been killed on the guillotine, or how Vavilov’s crop gene bank was saved even though he died of the one thing he spent his life trying to prevent - starvation.

I am inspired by Janaki Ammal. She was a brilliant Indian female scientist, and her work in floral cytogenetics and science outreach is incredibly inspiring. In retrospect, I find it especially pleasing that she was a plant biologist, and that she too worked at the India-UK interface. Although it’s a pity I hadn’t known about her in my youth, lacking internet, social media or access to scientific outreach! My role model was my homemaker mum, and for a long time I wanted to be just like her. Then she made the decision to become the Principal of a special needs school, and I watched first-hand how brilliantly she managed that role, and how it fulfilled her to be ‘something more’.

Women’s roles in science and innovation are hardly well known! Who knows the seven Dutch ladies whose post WWI research provided vital information about the Dutch Elm disease, or the pathbreaking lichen experiments of Beatrice Potter? Or of Lettice Digby who worked right here at the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge, to report the first ever hybrid polyploid: a curious event with an even more curious name!

The only way to change the situation is to tell/share these stories. Luckily, we can tell stories in many ways, most efficiently through social media and sustained outreach campaigns. For instance, at the Department of Plant Sciences, our initiatives include conducting the Enid MacRobbie Lectures through the Equality and Diversity committee, hosting Science on Sundays events, and subscribing to the Athena Swan Charter. At St Edmund’s College at the University of Cambridge, where I am a fellow, we bring out individual stories in our Research Salons, and we celebrate events such as UN’s International Women’s Day and IUPAC’s Global Women’s Breakfast. In India, as part of both TIGR2ESS and the Indian National Young Academy of Science (INYAS), I meet and interact with girl students in remote/rural areas and tell them stories about science. We are now starting a series on women of INYAS (or #WinYAS! a hashtag that’s gone viral already).

I think women in science (WiS) are slightly more prone to self-questioning, guilt and doubt, and fear that combining an academic career with a family is not possible. Highlighting stories of successful women scientists can go a long way in creating awareness, connecting WiS with role models and opportunities, bridging gaps, and bringing out the huge untapped potential among WiS whose contributions often go unnoticed.

A lot of my work was at the interface of botany, geography and climate, even before my new-found Carbon religion. But working with TIGR2ESS, (where I’m a co-lead in its Flagship Project 2 focused on understanding green algal CCM) has made me realise the amazing benefits of working at the intersection of multiple fields and technologies. Between six multi-disciplinary Flagship Projects in TIGR2ESS, we use high resolution land records from rural India, we use genomes, we use fossil records of pollen in ancient civilizations, we use robots, mathematical simulations, and all kinds of data analytics, to address the global challenge of feeding an ever increasing population! Once a year, we all come together to present our ideas and progress; we do long distance field trips together that are almost like picnics. Getting people on a bus is the best way to break ice: it gets them talking and designing interdisciplinary collaborations! TIGR2ESS has been a fabulous learning experience for me.

Please find Gita's profile on our website.

More information on Gita's work can be found below:  

India Group:

Cambridge Group:

Twitter handle: @gilienv

Photo credit: Toby Smith. Gita, third from right, telling stories of scientists to secondary school girls at Govt Girls School, village Dahina, Mahendragarh district, India.