In celebration of Women’s History Month, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is featuring Dr. Rubella Goswami. Dr. Goswami serves as Director for the Division of Plant Systems-Protection in the Institute of Food Production and Sustainability.
Tell us a little about your path into your current field.
I was born in a family of physicians and scientists and grew up surrounded by doctors and researchers, so scientific thinking came to me naturally. However, I was as much interested in the artistic pursuits as I was in science. I wanted to touch the lives of people and create an impact. To be honest, it was my parents and surroundings that tipped the balance in the favor of a career in science, particularly biology. But much to their chagrin, I ended up becoming a “plant doctor” with a Ph.D. in plant pathology, instead of the "real doctor” they would have liked me to be.
This inclination came from real life experience in India seeing the drastic effect a harvest failure could have on subsistence farmers on small farms. I came away from that experience with a determination to try to help make things better for those who put the food on our tables but are often overlooked, in whatever little way I could. In those days, agriculture was a male-dominated field with very few women (less than 1% of my undergraduate class was female!), so I had to get used to standing up for myself, working hard work, pushing norms and boundaries, and not being afraid of challenges. I managed to complete my bachelor’s degree at the top of my class despite all odds and continued for a master's degree in plant molecular biology from the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom, and then doctoral degree in Plant Pathology from the University of Minnesota. Over the years, as I navigated my career stepping through roles as a tenure-track faculty in 1862 and 1890 Land-grant Universities, a Fortune 500 company and then in the federal government, the initial training and life skills have been critical for my success. I began my federal career as a National Program Leader with USDA-NIFA, and then served as a Branch Chief with the Biotechnology Regulatory Services and Assistant Director for the National Identification Services with USDA-APHIS before returning to NIFA as a Division Director providing leadership in supporting plant protection related research, education, and extension at land-grant institutions and other organizations across the nation through our programs.
Throughout this journey, I think what kept me going was the people who believed in me including my family along with some resilience and refusal to give up. I would not let the fact that I am a female stop me. Initially, I took up a career in agriculture as a challenge and then it became a passion.
What is your role in NIFA? What is a typical workday for you?
I am currently the Division Director for Plant Systems-Protection. I would say no two workdays are the same for me, and each day brings new experiences and challenges. At present I work from home like majority of NIFA employees, so after the 30 second commute to my office, my day generally starts with responding to emails and prioritizing time-sensitive actions. This is followed by meetings with staff and/or leadership associated with administrative and science program related issues, planning at various levels, workflows, improvements, strategy and other burning topics. In between meetings, I take care of personnel related actions, document reviews, approvals and so on. Intermingled with the regular internal meetings I speak with stakeholders, give presentations, participate in discussions within NIFA and with other agencies/organizations, sit-in on panels, spend time mentoring and attend various work-related training sessions. Of course, not everything happens the same day, but it’s a mix of all these that usually fill my calendar to the max.
What personal challenges have you encountered and how did you overcome them?
I think the biggest challenge has been balancing between my passion for work and my dedication to my family. As a woman, particularly one coming from a traditional background and trying to grow in a field like agriculture, I often feel I have had to put in a lot of extra effort and make sacrifices trying to meet expectations both at work and at home. However, planning, preparation, support from those around me and communication help me keep up with the demands as I continue to perform every day.
What advice to you have for current students who may be interested in pursuing a similar career path?
There is no substitute for hard work, honesty, and positive thinking. Ups and downs are a part of life, but if you decide not to give up and intelligently and diligently work towards your goal, no one can stop you. I also feel it is very important to be flexible and not be afraid to take up new challenges.
Anything else you would like to add or share?
I believe it is essential to know yourself, assess your strengths, interests, and abilities as you plan your career progression and work hard in the present to carve the path to a successful future.