Why One Entomologist Works to Discover New Agricultural Innovations
By Emily L. Sandall, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: This is the next post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) It is also the first in a set of four featuring ECPs who were selected to present their work during the ECP Recognition Symposium at Entomology 2023, November 5-8, in National Harbor, Maryland. Read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.
Sajjan Grover, Ph.D., is a senior scientist in the Entomology Pipeline Testing Platform at Bayer Crop Science, Chesterfield, Missouri. He completed his bachelor’s degree in agriculture at Punjabi University in India in 2013 and his master’s degree in entomology at Punjab Agricultural University in 2016. He came to the U.S. in 2017 to pursue his Ph.D. in the lab of Joe Louis, Ph.D., at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) and graduated in 2021.
Grover has been heavily involved in organizing and participating in outreach events and other volunteer service within ESA and the UNL Entomology Department. He enjoys mentoring students who are interested in a career in entomology, and he has won several awards at the department, university, branch, and national level. Grover is currently the North Central Branch representative to the ESA Diversity & Inclusion Committee; Physiology, Biochemistry, and Toxicology Section representative to the ESA Science Policy Committee; and an ECP representative on the ECP Extension, Outreach, and Engagement Award judging panel.
Grover was selected to present his research at the ECP Recognition Symposium at Entomology 2023, November 5-8, in National Harbor, Maryland. His presentation was titled “Jasmonates impact aphid foraging behavior, feeding physiology, nutrition, and reproduction rate.”
Sandall: What has your journey in entomology looked like? Have you always wanted to be an entomologist?
Grover: I am from Punjab, the state located in the northwest part of the country, also known as the breadbasket of India. Punjab’s economy has been primarily agriculture-based for several decades. Though my family is not directly engaged with agriculture, I had seen agriculture around me enough to feel motivated to pursue my education in agriculture. I did my bachelor’s degree in agriculture and studied all different aspects of agriculture from agronomy to biotechnology. During my undergraduate, I studied courses on agricultural entomology and I found it most interesting of all.
Before I joined an undergraduate degree in agriculture, I had never heard of entomology as a career option. I was fascinated by the existence of a wide variety of insect pests and pathogens and how they interact with agriculture and the environment. That’s how I decided to pursue my master’s degree in entomology. My master’s research further helped me identify my strengths and motivated me to pursue a Ph.D. degree abroad.
Tell us a little bit about your research and work, both current and past.
It was the very first time during my master’s when I started doing research and led the RNAi project in whitefly. We studied the role of the juvenile hormone esterase gene in whitefly reproduction in the lab of Dr. Vikas Jindal at Punjab Agricultural University. My master’s project was challenging for me, since it required a strong molecular biology skill set and understanding. At the same time, it set me off for taking new challenges with motivation, and I came to the U.S. for a Ph.D. in entomology and worked on plant-insect interactions in the lab of Dr. Joe Louis at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
My research projects utilized a blend of ecological, biochemical, molecular biology, electrophysiological, and bioinformatic tools to understand the plant’s natural immunity against insects. Most of my Ph.D. work was focused on sorghum-sugarcane aphid interactions but I also worked on sorghum-fall armyworm interactions. My research projects focused on understanding the molecular and biochemical basis of sorghum resistance and tolerance to insects and helped unlock the natural potential of plants to fight against insects. The best thing about my Ph.D. was not just interdisciplinary research but that it helped me to develop in all different areas. I got several opportunities to mentor undergraduate and graduate students, participate in department and university service, and engage in student activities.
I joined Bayer in 2022 as scientist-II in the In vitro Testing Team (focusing on hemipteran discovery) and recently moved to a new role as senior scientist in the Plant Testing Team, Entomology Pipeline Testing Platform. I work in the early discovery phase of product development, where we heavily collaborate with diverse teams, mainly focused on developing soybean and cotton traits against insects.
Besides research, Bayer offers several professional development opportunities and resources to prepare yourself for the next career move you are interested in. I also get to spend time developing myself besides doing research.
Which research project did you find most interesting in your career so far?
The most interesting research project in my career so far is to decipher the role of jasmonates in providing resistance to aphids. When it comes to finding the function of natural compounds, we put them in a binary system, which means either it provides resistance or susceptibility. Sometimes we see articles published with conflicting results. Nature is complex and much more complicated than we expect.
In this project, we found that jasmonates can provide resistance at early time points after feeding, and they provide susceptibility at later time points. I presented this interesting study in the ECP Recognition Symposium at the ESA Annual Meeting. This paper has already been published in the interdisciplinaryMolecular Plant-Microbe Interactions journal, since this study has wider implications in other fields as well.
What are you looking forward to in the next year or two?
In the agricultural industry, it takes years to advance products from one phase to another. I haven’t worked this long in the industry to witness product advancements. In the next years, I am really excited to take part in those activities and learn new things. At the same time, we get opportunities to collaborate with several teams that not only hone our soft skills but also broaden our scientific understanding across different fields.
I am a very ambitious kind of person and always keep my future in mind. Thus, I am preparing myself for the next roles in the next few years as research project lead and team lead while actively contributing to science and society.
You are very involved with ESA. What inspired you to become so involved with the Society, and what has been your favorite experience thus far?
My first ESA meeting was in November 2017 in Denver, Colorado. This was the first entomological meeting of such a big magnitude I ever attended. I have attended most of the North Central Branch meetings and all ESA Annual Meetings since then. Getting involved with ESA has been very rewarding for me. It helped me expand my network, build my name in the Society, and have a successful career. Serving ESA is like giving back to ESA. My favorite experiences include organizing events around building careers for students and ECPs, because I feel like it is my responsibility as a scientist to uplift others and help them navigate their career paths.
Do you have any advice as an early career professional?
When I joined my Ph.D., I always saw myself pursuing academia. I never thought of a career in industry because I didn’t explore any other field before. Someone suggested to me to explore non-academic career options and keep my options always open. So, I started applying for industry internships and had an amazing experience working at Corteva Agriscience for a few months. When I looked outside the bubble of academia, I realized the world is huge and there are tons of ways to contribute to science and global food security.
My favorite part of my internship was that it changed my vision for research in a very positive way. The boundaries between industrial and academic research are not as distinct as we think. We still use a similar technical skill set and answer research questions from an application aspect. My suggestion to all early career professionals is to keep yourself open to diverse career options and explore as much as you can, without preconceived notions. You will end up working in such a great place you never thought of.
Another important thing is to find some time and engage yourself in different activities such as outreach, mentoring, and service to university and professional societies. It is very crucial for overall development, and you will find it very rewarding in several ways. These skills will help you flourish in any career you end up in. Also, when you go to conferences, get yourself out of your comfort zone, meet other conference attendees, talk and network with them, and ask them about their roles and experiences. Entomology is such a small world, and someday you will be working with them. I have several colleagues known to me for several years and never imagined that we would be working so closely.
What is your favorite arthropod, and why?
Out of all the insects I ever worked with, I love aphids. When it comes to plant-aphid interactions, the fine peculiarities of how their system developed and evolved really fascinates me. Although significant advancements in the area of plant-insect interactions have been made, there is still a lot we don’t know. During my Ph.D., I loved to explore the intricacies of plant-aphid interactions. As soon as they start feeding on plants, they can trigger the plant defense responses and reprogram the plant transcriptome, metabolome, and proteome. Their ability to hijack plant defense systems also adds another layer of complexity to the outcomes of these interactions. As a fun fact: Though they suck, I have found them very easy to rear!
Emily L. Sandall, Ph.D., is a biodiversity science analyst and advisor in the Foreign Agricultural Service of the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC, and the Systematics, Evolution, and Biodiversity Section representative to the ESA Early Career Professional Committee. Email: email@example.com.
All photos courtesy of Sajjan Grover, Ph.D.