Women Finding Success podcast: Episode 3 – Professor Neena Mitter

In this episode of the Women Finding Success podcast, UQ's Professor Neena Mitter talks about her journey and career as a researcher from Delhi to Australia, her respect for food and agriculture, and the impact her research has on sustainable solutions for food supply and crop protection.

About this week's guest

Professor Neena Mitter Professor Neena Mitter is the Director of the Centre for Horticultural Science, part of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation at The University of Queensland. She has been involved in molecular biology and biotechnology in Australia for over 20 years. Her journey in science began as an agricultural scientist in India, where learned first-hand the significance of agriculture in shaping the world economically, socially, environmentally and politically. She has been received numerous awards in both Australia and India for her contribution to agriculture, including the Gates Grand Challenges Explorations Award and the Women In Technology Outstanding Life Sciences Award. As Deputy Council member of the Leadership and Diversity Council, Professor Mitten is actively contributing to achieving UQ’s vision of diversity and inclusion.


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Episode transcript

[Dr Elena Danilova - 00:04] Welcome to the Scholarly Soup podcast brought to you by The University of Queensland Library. In this podcast series we're going to meet with amazing women who found their success in academic and professional roles at The University of Queensland. They are resilient, smart, proactive, and more importantly, they're now working together to implement systemic changes that could make your career progression that little bit easier. If success breeds success, then listen to their stories and learn from the best. In this episode, I'm talking with Professor Neena Mitter, Director of Centre for Horticultural Science at The University of Queensland, internationally recognized for developing a world first ecological sustainable BioClay spray for crop protection. Nina's research is innovative and applied, solving the real problems for real people. This conversation was so interesting and I have discovered so many fascinating facts, including a very direct connection between agriculture and fashion industry. Professor Neena Mitter, good morning and welcome. Neena, when I heard your beautiful name for the first time I thought it was a Russian name and maybe in Russian, I clicked to it immediately. Then I looked it up and discovered that this name is of Indian origin. And it means 'pretty eyes'. Where are you originally from?

[Professor Neena Mitter - 01:43] Thank you. I'm glad that you mentioned about my name given to me by my father. And he always used to sing Nina, Pretty Ballerina for me. Neena, which is pretty eyes spelled a little bit differently. But I'll take the compliment any day. So I'm from Delhi and grew up seeing the transformation of Delhi as it progressed. Then my childhood was all about narration and stories about India's independence told to me by my grandfather. So we were refugees from Lahore. So when the India-Pakistan partition happened at the time of Independence, that's where my grandfather who used to work in railways moved to Delhi. So it was like starting life from the scratch. And what he instilled very early on in all of us was respect for food and respect for agriculture. It was like it was never a chance that we will even leave a speck of food on our plate as we finished. And it's that respect for food and agriculture, and hearing stories from him that an Indian farmer is born in debt and dies in debt, which actually shaped my career journey to what I am today.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 02:55] How was it? What was it like to grow in India?

[Professor Neena Mitter - 02:59] At that time, Delhi was very different. It's very different now. So it's, when I was growing up, it was transforming. It was, you know, the economy was developing. We were trying to build good labs and as a scientist, science researcher, it was a different landscape at that time. We had USAID to build different beautiful infrastructure for us like five star laboratories, which looked like five star hotel to walk in, but there was no money for consumables, no money to do the actual research. I still remember the days of my studies, my masters and my PhD, were for running every gel will wait that every team member has to have one lane fixed in it so that we can run the gel, will have to time it with power cuts, so that we are waiting for that power supply to happen, to run it interrupted. Plastic, we're never taught of even throwing one single tip or a tube, wash it five times, autoclave it, reuse it and reuse it. So yeah, it was a different place to be. But India has, as you can see, one of the most powerful economies today. And an absolutely prosperous country, going from strength to strength. Of course still has its own difficulties, which every other nation does as well.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 04:19] What an interesting story. Neena, you're now Director of Centre for Horticultural Science, Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, The University of Queensland. You have come an incredibly long way. Can you tell us a little bit about your career journey and why not fashion industry? Why science, why agriculture?

[Professor Neena Mitter - 04:43] As I mentioned before, agriculture is in my DNA. I have understood the power of agriculture, socially, economically, politically, environmentally. It really is something that shapes the world, it's the fulcrum for me around which the world revolves. So for me, there was never a question mark. I grew up in the presence of very strong women in my family. My mum, even at that time in the 1960s, taught political science to Grade 11 and 12, and was the principal of a school, my aunt was a psychology lecturer in a college in Delhi University. But for me, it was not about becoming a teacher or a doctor, it was always about growing plants to feed the world. So I think for me, it was pretty much very strong determination not to listen to anyone, and just follow my heart and my passion of doing something in the agricultural space. And this is how I took my first position. So I finished my graduation from Delhi University, and then did my masters and my PhD from Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi. That's where, I think I started, when I started my career in India, as an agricultural research scientist, after finishing my PhD at that time, we had to do a mandatory training within real farmers in the field for a certain period of time just to understand what the landscape and the situation is like. And I still remember that day and I've told this story many times, because it is, it is a real thing for me. I am telling to a very wise old farmer, how biotechnology can solve all the problems in the world. And he listens to me very patiently, and says, 'Daughter, if you can give me a handful of good seed, I can do the rest'. And for me, that has been my mantra as I progress through my career. So yes, 10 years of career as an agricultural research scientist in India, before moving to this wonderful land, Australia, conquering the fear of the unknown. Landing here and starting my research career all over again, once again, not forgetting about agriculture as my core theme. And if you look at it India, even today has 120 million farmers who are smallholding farmers means they own less than two hectares of land. So it's got a different significance for them. But look at Australia, you know, a report by Deloitte in 2017 described agriculture as Australia's forgotten hero. What COVID has done now is really brought it to the front, right and center. Whether we look at our national Ag-innovation agenda, we look at Queensland's economic recovery plan, agriculture is the pillar now whether we think of food, feed, healing the world, it is there. So yes, for me, that's what defined for me career and agriculture. And your question about why not fashion industry? Oh, see what agriculture is doing to fashion. It's not just about cotton and jute. It's about leather jackets made out of banana peel. And recently in the news, I don't know whether you saw it, it's about someone who has designed a beautiful skirt out of dried mango skins. Really caught the attention of the fashion world. So agriculture can do it all.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 08:14] There you go. Oh, how many people are going to now pursue this career? Neena, thank you. But of course, any career is, you know, is a journey, right? And was there any time when you felt like it was really, really hard for your career progression?

[Professor Neena Mitter - 08:36] Once again, I think I can recount two sort of defining moments there. One, as I said, when I left Delhi and came to Australia. So I did start my career as an agricultural research scientist in Delhi. And as I was very happy, I even started a lab in molecular plant pathology there. I was instrumental in defining some of the strategic agricultural plants there and was progressing in my career. But when I explained earlier, the sit-, the working conditions were a bit different. And I had big dreams, I really wanted to achieve much more. So that was one step that I took off, coming to Australia, two suitcases, a two and a half year old in my lap, a husband who didn't have a job at that time, leaving 10 years of my seniority and agricultural career in India, it wasn't an easy decision to take. When I got the job as an agricultural research scientist in India, it was a competitive job where millions of people sat in the exam and very handful of us got selected. And no one even dreams of leaving a permanent job in India. Once you have it, you stick with it. So that was a difficult step to start my career here as a postdoc, as an entry level researcher, and I took that risk because I had that passion and I had that vision and really wanted to achieve more and haven't looked back. Second moment was when Queen- so I, after reaching Australia shifted a few jobs as every early career researcher does, and landed with department, what is Department of Primary Industries at that time in Queensland Government and is now called the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries or DAF Queensland. And I was once again really growing there because my strength was my industry links and I could see you know, the what, what I'm doing and how I can translate it into the field as I'm progressing. And then in 2010, QAAFI was formed, or Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation and Institute at The University of Queensland formed in strong alliance with DAF Queensland and 20 of us were chosen or selected to move from trans DAF Queensland to become UQ employees. Now why I'm saying that was a defining moment was at that time, we were transferred at our salary scales. So it was not about where I was in seniority in DAF. It was about what was my salary at that time. So I became a Level C Academy in the UQ hierarchy or a senior research fellow. And when I started looking at the CV’s of UQ Academy, I almost had a heart attack. Such stellar CV's. At DAF, I did not get a chance to sub- be the principal supervisor of PhD students. I was not eligible to write ARC grants, publications was not my motivation. It was all about delivery of impact through industry partnerships. So it was scary to think how am I going to progress now in this field? Once again, I always say you just had need to have resilience and determination. 10 years from Level C to now the Director of Centre for Horticultural Science, more than 120 publications, publications in journals like Nature Plants and PMS (Pest Management Science), having a wonderful, wonderful team of PhD students who have graduated with me. So once again, I think it shows research excellence and industry impact can go hand in hand. And there is no dichotomy between fundamental and applied science. You just need to have the motivation to do it.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 12:29] So what is the research focus now? What problems are you solving?

{Professor Neena Mitter - 12:35] The two key areas of research. One is all about sustainable crop protection. So it's about protecting our wonderful plants, from pests and pathogens, and doing it in a way which is sustainable and environmentally and ecologically safe. And this particular research area of mine has led to the invention of what is called BioClay. So in BioClay, what we are doing is bio, the word bio is the biological active or the nucleic acid from the pest or pathogen to kill the pathogen itself. So it's almost like nature versus nature. Or we keep on hearing about vaccines these days. It's like an RNA vaccine for the plants and clay particles are just a fancy postman or a carrier for that biological active. So the clay particles are absolutely inert biodegradable particles which can then deliver this RNA that can target the pest or the pathogen. And what is really important I feel for this technology is as the world is moving more and more towards pesticide free agriculture, such sustainable crop protection measures are very, very important. Pest and pathogens are very clever. When we have these synthetic pesticides, you will hear news about resistance to these pesticides. So the pesticides are no longer active because the pathogen has evolved and has beaten them to this race. So you know that happens. Second thing is the issue of residue. We do not want any toxic residue on our fresh produce or on any of the crops being grown. And that becomes an issue as well sometimes and I remember the motivation for me for BioClay development was a story about children dying in India after consuming a community meal which had toxic pesticide residues in it. Third thing is all about protecting our waterways. We do not want run off to our precious Great Barrier Reef and other precious waterways. So that's once again a very big issue with pesticides. Another important thing we do need I'm not saying we don't need pesticides, I'm just saying we need alternatives. But it is very hard to develop green chemistries or a new synthetic product which addresses all these concerns. It may take almost 13 years and about $250 million, and about, you know, one in 1390 products maybe make it to market. So that's one of my research focus, as I said, is BioClay. And we have grown from strength to strength, started in 2011 from a team of three, it's a team of 50 now. We start- the co-inventor for me for this BioClay technology is Professor Gordon Xu at the Australian Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at UQ, and Professor Max Lu, who is now the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Surrey. We have an industry partner, we have granted a commercial license. We are targeting fungi viruses in insect base, we have an Australian Research Council hub. So not only it has grown in terms of numbers from one to 50, starting from $100,000, as the initial investment from Gates Foundation, now it's $30 million investment into the BioClay platform. So yeah, absolutely motivated to take it through and have a young team which will make it through and I'm sure you're going to ask me about avocados. So I'll save the avocado story. Next question.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 16:21] Yes, that's correct. That's exactly what I was about to say. To everyone who loves to add guacamole to their burrito bowls, you will be interested to know that Neena played a crucial role in avocado revolution. And now it's over to you, Neena. What have you done?

[Professor Neena Mitter - 16:40] I have the privilege of being called the Avo Queen. So absolutely, so I started working with avocados to make them disease resistant from a certain disease. And as I say, I always work very closely with industry which took me to different growers of avocado in Australia. And one thing that I kept on hearing from them was look, disease is an issue. But disease becomes an issue when we have more avocado trees to grow. We don't have enough avocado plants. When we go to the nurseries to order for 20,000 or 30,000 avocado trees for our orchards the answer we get is made, 'Put your money now but come back in three years to get the plants'. And then I researched more. And I found out it wasn't just an issue for Australia, it was a global issue. They were wait periods of even five years or seven years in some countries to get the right kind of avocado plants to grow. So you're shifting, as we say pivot is the key word these days. And I did that pivot at that time and started looking at why is this an issue and realise that avocado is, it doesn't root, it really doesn't like to root very easily. It's not like you know, you take a cutting, you buy a Bunnings rooting mix, and then you put it in, and there you have. It takes 18 months for an avocado cutting that you get from a tree to actually get rooted and deliver a plant which is ready to go to an orchard. So this is where we developed what is now I call Smart Propagation. So we have developed the world's first technique where we can get just a five- one to five millimetre of cutting, a really tiny cutting from a good avocado tree, and produce 500 plants out of it within 12 months, ready to go to the nursery. And then of course having the time there to be grafted with Hass avocado, which we all love. So that I feel has really changed the field of avocado plants growing. We have now, very proud to say, our first commercial license granted, we have field trials running now in seven different location isn't on in Australia, from New South Wales to Western Australia to Queensland to even further up far north in Queensland. And I have tasted the fruit of my first avocado trees that came out of tissue culture. So it's really looking great and what that has done for us in terms of smart propagation is we have now extended it to other plants which have similar problems whether it is issuing, you know whether it is a pharmaceutical plant of great value, whether it's medicinal cannabis, or whether it is our wonderful Australian natives or plants like macadamias. And also it has brought to the forefront the conversation which I really take pride in. That it is not just about food supply and food security. It is also about plant supply. We really do need those smart systems to have enough plants that can grow to give us enough food. So this, this becomes a very important cog in- for me, you know, propagation, production, processing and people. That's how the chain works.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 19:58] What an amazing story.

[Professor Neena Mitter  20:00] You know, avocado is now the passion or as my husband feels, you know, say, you know my midlife crisis is. If he's happy that it's the avocado, strikes my heart. I even actually developed a recipe, a very Indianised recipe for avocado, which was filmed on SBS with a Master Chef cook, and he uses that recipe in his restaurant in Tasmania. So yeah.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 20:30] All right, so I just want to maybe shift our conversation a little bit. So you are the only female Centre Director in the QAAFI management team? Is it hard being a woman in a male dominated environment? What are the challenges that you face? And more importantly, how do you overcome them?

[Professor Neena Mitter - 20:52] It is hard and it is challenging at times. And the sooner we understand that lack of women in leadership roles holds back not only the women, but also all people and all society, I think the sooner we understand this, we will be able to make this world definitely a much more better place. The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2020 estimates that even now it will take about 100 years to bridge that gap at the rate of progress that we are making today. So it's not easy. And the challenges we face is not only being at the table and leadership roles, but also making your voice heard on that table. And you do have to work twice as hard sometimes. But what I've seen over and over again in my career is that women in power bring a very different perspective, an essential perspective. An organisation really needs to step up their efforts, not just in terms of hiring or recruiting women in leadership roles, but having that on various forums, or we have the examples at UQ of being our Vice-Chancellor and our Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Innovation, you know, exemplifying how this leadership can enrich an organisation. Another important facet that I like to mention here is not just about gender, but about cultural diversity as well. Women and Women of Colour also bring a very different perspective. Sometimes we try that, for us, the leadership style becomes boxed as a Western leadership style. And that I have seen as a challenge as well, that as a Woman of Colour, I bring a very different style of leadership and sometimes it becomes hard for the people on the other side to understand. Another thing, I think we need to break the shackles off of are the existing stereotypes of women being labelled as just as a caring mother, and very efficient office worker or a housekeeper, emotional person, maybe not being able to handle stressful situations, maybe not being able to make tough decisions. And these are all stereotypes that we really need to collectively change. And we are doing it but we need to do much more. And that's where I am also working towards. I'm not only as the Director of Centre for Horticultural Science, but I am also the Chair of the Cultural Inclusion Council at UQ. And we are devising a strategy for cultural and linguistically diverse person. I'm also a Deputy Council Member of the Leadership of Cultural Diversity, which is led by Australian Human Rights Commission. So all these initiatives I think, are in place for all of us collectively, not just women, but everyone together to make it better.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 24:02] Neena, you have so many awards, and I'll just mention a couple. So Young Scientists award from the Prime Minister of India, Queensland International Fellowship, Gates Grand Challenges Explorations award, Women in QAAFI award. And more recently, Women in Technology Outstanding Life Sciences award. They're all testament to your achievements and your leadership. What would you advise a woman who is perhaps in a crossroads and not sure if she should pursue her academic career?

[Professor Neena Mitter - 24:38] Follow your heart and passion and you would not go wrong. Also strive for excellence in anything you do. It does not matter whether it is a small experiment or a big picture vision, give your 100 per cent to everything you do. That's what my message is and reach out, talk to people, network in a positive constructive way. Research these days is multidisciplinary and multifaceted. So don't box yourself in silos, just make it work for you. Look at the Nobel Prize this year going to two women in their 50s, for CRISPR and gene editing. These are the kinds of inspirational things which are happening. Research is nowadays not just limited to what you do in a lab. It's very much multi-dimensional and multifaceted. It's about delivering impact and changing lives. It brings together these days, whether it is social science, or policy or psychology, automation, digitisation data, that all becomes a part of your research portfolio. And it's for you to find that niche. It's for you to find what sparks your passion the most, and then branch out that way. Your question has also reminded me of one more story from my childhood. It's very famous classical story in many cultures, I think. It's about the frog living in the well and thinking that's the entire universe. And it's called Kupamanduka in Hindi, that is kupa is the well and manduka is the frog living in that well. So just don't be a Kupamanduka. Just come out and explore the universe, and you'll find there are many ways to progress.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 26:26] Neena, if you had a chance to have another go, would you choose the same journey?

[Professor Neena Mitter - 26:32] Oh yes, absolutely. I'm following my dream and passion. Every day I come to work. It's with a spring in my steps. And I love working at this organization and doing what I'm doing. So answer to this, yes, same journey for me. What I could have done differently is now I feel that what I sort of lagged, when through my career journey is, and I should have started that very early on is connecting these young future leaders with industry. I think we should, as in the sphere of agriculture, make these young leaders start on their industry connections very early on, make industry partners as not only just industry partners, but consumers and end users, a part of that design thinking process. I did start a little late in the sphere. But now I make sure whether it's my undergraduates or my Masters, or my PhD students, or Early Career Researchers, they are all engaged in conversations with the industry, they get a chance to present to them, they get a chance to listen from them. But they also get a chance to tell them what excitement and what exciting work they are doing. And that has benefits both ways. Industries engaged and they benefit as well, in terms of having that vision, even when they are in the lab that what they are doing is actually going to make a difference one day. So this I think is very important these days.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 28:02] Do you have a favourite quote? Can you share?

[Professor Neena Mitter - 28:06] For me, "The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them." Now this is from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Nobel Peace Prize winner, and she was the first female democratically elected Head of State in Africa. And this has a big connection with me, I always say and inspire my team to dream and have a vision. It's really important. And sometimes even we get, you know, caught up in the day to day functionality, For me, yeah, breakfast, pack lunch for my daughters, you know, drive, and oh, it's 8:15 already and I'm stuck in traffic for my Zoom meeting to start, and then ending the day thinking of another meeting another day. And what I have done for me is I do meditate for 20 minutes, early in the morning, wherever, whenever that early morning of mine is. And after that, it really gives me about 10-15 minutes to think about the bigger picture, to think about vision both personally and professionally. So I think if you need to dream, and you need to have bigger vision. So my message for the young leaders of tomorrow is dream more, do more, develop more, create more, connect more, inspire more, and the world will be yours. And you will make this planet a better planet to live in.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 29:38] What an amazing, amazing story and a great conversation with you today, Neena. Thank you so much for your time and thank you for sharing.

[Professor Neena Mitter - 29:47] Thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity. Thank you.

[Dr Elena Danilova - 29:51] That's it for this episode of Women Finding Success. The podcast series was initiated by the SAGE Athena SWAN team at The University of Queensland Thanks to Workplace Diversity and Inclusion team and Gender Steering Committee for their support and coordination. The series is produced by Dr Elena Danilova with technical production by John Anderson. If you enjoy this podcast, please like, subscribe or write a review on the platform you get your podcast from. Thank you for listening.


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