From a Childhood in the Himalayas to Addressing Global Food Security: Shivali Sharma
8 March 2022
This is part of a weekly series in honor of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science featuring interviews with inspiring, talented female scientists whose work involves conserving crop diversity.
Shivali Sharma grew up in the foothills of the Himalayas, in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, never thinking that one day she would be a highly respected plant breeder. But her grandparents, who lived in a farming community, inspired her to think about how improved farming could benefit everyone.
Shivali completed a doctorate in plant breeding at Himachal Pradesh Agricultural University and, after working as a rice breeder in the private sector, she joined the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in 2008. She received the center’s Promising Young Scientist Award in 2012 and was soon promoted to Theme Leader of Pre-breeding in 2016. She is currently a Senior Specialist in Plant Genetic Resources and Pre-breeding at the Crop Trust.
We spoke with Shivali to learn more about what drew her to a career in plant breeding and hear her advice for other women in science. The transcript of the conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Why did you pursue a career in science?
I was always curious to know why things work the way they do and to understand the processes and facts behind it. Science is amazing. When we get one answer, it takes us to the next level where we find several unanswered questions and unsolved puzzles. This creates curiosity and makes us more passionate about research.
As a child, I was very interested in science and wanted to become a scientist. I liked the experiments and practicals, which we used to do in labs as they exposed us to the world of reality. Reading about great scientists, adventures and discoveries always inspired me, so I wanted to explore the things around me and get in-depth knowledge about them.
In intermediate school I took physics, chemistry and biology, all of which developed my interest in plants. While doing my bachelor’s degree in agriculture, I further developed interest in plant breeding, which is both the science and art of developing new varieties. It amazed me so much that I decided to pursue my masters and Ph.D. in plant breeding.
There are so many new ideas that motivate me to explore further and provide solutions. There are so many problems, and if I can contribute a bit to society, that would be great. That is what I am trying to do.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Crops are facing lots of challenges, especially due to climate change. But we are lucky that nature has blessed us with a lot of genetic diversity, and a lot of this diversity is being conserved in genebanks. As a plant breeder, I enjoy working with this diversity, be it its characterization, evaluation and conservation for future use, or using the diversity in crossing programs to develop new recombination, which can be used in breeding new varieties.
Particularly, I am amazed to see crop wild relatives – the wild species of crop plants. You may see them just growing in nature without any care, on their own. That’s how they are developing a mechanism to survive the worst climatic conditions. They are better adapted to the worst climatic conditions compared to global cultivated crops. We are used to taking care of the cultivated crops just like our babies, but the wild species are much hardier.
My pre-breeding team at ICRISAT aimed to bring those hardy characteristics from the wild species into the crops being grown in the farmers’ fields so that we can make them more resilient to the changing climatic conditions. This is something I really enjoy a lot and I look forward to developing new varieties, derived from wild species, which will be more profitable for the farmers and able to withstand the worst climatic conditions.
How can we encourage more girls and women to pursue a career in science?
The most important thing is to provide equal opportunities to both women and men, without any gender bias. The other thing is to motivate girls from an early age, and schools should play a role in this. They could invite female scientists to school for a lecture and interact with these young girls. If I look back, I developed my interest in science in my school. So, I think that is a stage in which we need to put in more emphasis and ignite the spark for science in those young minds.
When women scientists are sharing their stories, it would be good also to share their journey and their struggles. Mentoring and support is especially needed during the early career phase, which is a very challenging time. For me, this was the time I got married and started a family, but at the same time I was struggling hard to establish myself in a new working environment. So, this is a very critical phase. Good mentoring and support, along with a flexible working environment, helps this phase sail smoothly. Otherwise, there was a time when I was thinking about quitting.
Did you have any mentors or role-models who helped you?
The most important person who supported me both in my personal and professional life is my mom. Since my childhood, she motivated me to dream big and encouraged me to work hard. When I started my scientific career, my mom was my biggest pillar of strength. She was the one who took care of my family so that I could focus more on work. I was also lucky to have male scientists encourage me since the beginning of my career.
Based on my experience, I would say it is not about having a female mentor, but having a good mentor who understands your strengths and weaknesses, your circumstances, motivates us all the time and can be a role model. I was fortunate to have mentors who encouraged me, guided me, and helped me to maintain work-life balance. So, it’s more about having a good mentor than a female mentor itself.
Why is it important to have more women and girls in science?
I would say anyone who wants to explore new ideas, execute new things and is ready to take up new challenges should have a career in science, irrespective of gender. Science research is teamwork, and I think women are generally good team players, they are more creative and they can work better under pressure compared to men. They are also gifted with problem-solving skills. These are some of the key skills required in the scientific field.
Further, having more women and girls in science means more diversity, and diversity is always good – diversity of wider experiences and views, with different visions to look at things and interpret the results. An active engagement of energetic and passionate women and girls will make a holistic and successful team which can help to address the global challenges for sustainable agriculture and ensure food and nutritional security for all. Overall, it’s all about having the intellectual brains with clear vision and focused approach. That’s the key for success in scientific fields.