Shalini Yerukala is a Research Specialist III from Hyderabad, India. In 2019, she received her Ph.D. in Entomology, Plant Pathology, and Nematology with a concentration in Sustainable Disease and Integrated Pest Management Systems. Shalini was interviewed as a part of the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology’s series of spotlights on staff.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you get into your career field?
Hello, I am Shalini Yerukala. I come from a rural agricultural family in Hyderabad, a city in the Southern part of India. Both my parents are organic farmers. They grow organic food products including rice, corn, maize, legumes, fruits, vegetables, etc. Since childhood I have been exposed to agriculture fields, cultivating land, and sowing different varieties of crops every year. The way the pests and diseases that hamper agricultural production and their impact on economics is making farmers sit back with overwhelming anxiousness has been the motivation for me. Having come from a rural background to contribute my part to the world and to the farming community, I chose the field of agricultural sciences for my bachelor’s degree.
Further, my motivation in developing sustainable approaches in plant disease management led me to choose plant pathology as my major during my master’s program. Wherein I developed ecologically friendly strategies in managing the wilt complex of castor (Ricinus communis L.). I am honored to receive the India state government scholarship for my entire studies from Professor Jayashankar Telangana State Agricultural University, Hyderabad, India. I always worked hard and excelled throughout my education, ranking highly in state and national standards.
I was one of the 15 students from all over India, who got selected for the prestigious international fellowship – Netaji Subhas- International Fellowship from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) for my Ph.D. degree internationally. I joined my Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee (UT) in the Entomology and Plant Pathology Department. During my Ph.D., I developed a comprehensive plant protection strategy for tomato crops using endophytic entomopathogenic fungus Beauveria bassiana under the guidance of my primary advisor Dr. Bonnie H. Ownley.
I am currently working as Research Specialist III at UT, in Dr. Ownley’s lab, conducting research aimed at understanding the mechanisms of plant bio-stimulants.
In my master’s research at Professor Jayashankar Telangana State Agricultural University, Hyderabad, India. I investigated the castor wilt complex, which is the interaction between a wilt pathogen (Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. ricini) and a reniform nematode (Rotylenchulus reniformis). I screened the reaction of wilt-resistant and wilt susceptible genotypes in the presence of F. oxysporum f. sp. ricini and reniform nematode in greenhouse and open field trials. Recorded for percent wilt incidence in all the genotypes. Experiments on histopathology of wilt susceptible and wilt resistant genotypes of castor in presence of the reniform nematode were conducted. Screened commercial biocontrol agents, botanicals, and chemicals against castor wilt complex. I developed protocols for securing representative soil samples containing biocontrol agents from agriculture fields, and methods to reduce wilt nematode disease using biocontrol agents, botanicals, and chemicals. Here, we found that reniform nematodes are capable to break the resistance in wilt-resistant castor cultivars; and integrated disease management practices are essential to reduce castor wilt complex disease. As a part of my master’s research, I worked with nano metal applications in crop protection, I conducted experiments to screen antimicrobial potential of copper nanoparticles against bacterial biocontrol agents and found that copper nanoparticles (CuN) show high antibacterial ability against well-known two plant biocontrol agents Pseudomonas fluorescens and Bacillus subtilis, and both bioagents found to be sensitive to CuN.
In my doctoral research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, I worked on plant host interaction studies of endophytic B. bassiana, and its colonization mechanisms in tomato crop. I developed experimental protocols for molecular identification of B. bassiana by PCR, DNA sequencing, and BLAST analysis and for cultural identification by microscopy. I have combined large-scale greenhouse experiments with a comprehensive set of in vitro studies. I conducted plant pathogen bioassays in the laboratory and greenhouse for evaluation of development of tomato crop protection from plant pathogens, insect pests, and plant-parasitic nematodes using B. bassiana. I supported my Ph.D. work with three separate meta-analyses to determine the efficacy of endophytic B. bassiana. Meta-analysis of endophytic colonization efficacy of insect pathogenic fungus B. bassiana across diverse plant kingdom. My overall Ph.D. research findings provide a quantitative review of endophytic colonization by B. bassiana across a range of plant species, which enhance current understanding and provide new information for development of sustainable, eco-friendly disease management strategies.
I am currently working as Research Specialist III at UT, in Dr. Ownley’s lab, conducting research aimed at understanding the mechanisms of plant bio-stimulants by using meta-analysis, focused specifically on crop yield, and disease management strategies. I collected research data and analyzed the results for the publication. The major research goal is to identify and determine the best plant bio-stimulant for different horticultural crops for yield enhancement and to suggest the best model to the farmers for application in the field.
From my research experience at UT, I gained transferable skill sets to adequately design and execute research projects. Acquired necessary skills in the identification and comprehensive knowledge on diverse plant pathogen and insect pest species to develop disease management strategies. I successfully presented my research findings at various academic conferences nationally and internationally to advocate my innovative research discovery. You can find detailed information regarding updates of my research, publications, and achievements at LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/shalini-yerukala-820b06103 or Research gate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Shalini-Yerukala
Journey to the USA: I hope my story may inspire and motivate someone to never give up in any situation in life.
I feel that my journey to the USA was my destiny. Life holds something beyond what we expect. When I was still studying for my master’s, I applied for the ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) international fellowship award. Although it was the last day of the application and 15 minutes before the deadline, I applied for the award. I received an email from ICAR, after a few months, notifying me I was shortlisted for an Interview in New Delhi-the capital city of India. It was a big surprise to me. I had not traveled out of my city until that time. I was hesitant to tell my parents about the opportunity because I knew that they would not allow me to go to Delhi for the Interview, let alone to a country far away from India. However, I tried and consoled them. I reached out to my professors at the Agriculture College in Hyderabad for help. They advised me to email the professors in different countries and see if they would be willing to accept me as their student. With only two days remaining for my interview, I emailed several professors in different countries. Although there was less time, I had my hopes up. Finally, I got an acceptance letter from Dr. Parwinder Grewal, from the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at UT. At the same time, I got a call from my dad saying that he arranged everything to go to Delhi. I went to Delhi by train and on the way, I still remember making presentation slides overnight. I never had the experience of presenting anything before or giving an interview. I went to the interview, and it was different than I expected. I did not give up on myself and gave my best. After coming out from the interview, for a brief time, I thought it was not meant for me because there were many people, students, and scientists who were competing. At that time, I did not have a passport or GRE scores, but I was a scholar with the highest grade in agriculture sciences. Destiny meant something, I was selected, and I am here now with you all. I am a proud member of the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Tennessee and I have successfully completed my Ph.D. I had wonderful opportunities in the EPP department and in UT. I learned about research, leadership, teaching and advanced agriculture technology, meeting good people, who are my lifelong friends. I never even thought in my life I would ever go to a different part of the world and be exposed to a country with an international culture.
What do you consider to be one of your greatest achievements? Why?
My greatest achievement is coming to the USA. It changed my life perspective. Staying away from family and living alone, I have learned to have patience in everything I do, and has trained me to face challenges and see the potential in me. To work for a better society, I began to take action on mentoring students in different aspects of sustainable practices of agriculture which helped me win the presidential election in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at UT. I also had the wonderful opportunity of winning the presidential elections of UT Graduate Student Senate and being the first International Graduate Student Senate to hold the office. I was actively involved in various levels of graduate student education and worked on committees aimed at developing campus services geared toward diversity and equity. I also coordinated, planned, and organized social events across the university to improve student involvement and participation in cultural events. This position allowed me to hone my organization and communication skills by organizing events for graduate students and activities as well as meeting with high-level university administrators to set up educational research resources. My favorite part of graduate school has been serving and helping students and learning about different cultures. I am fortunate to get these wonderful opportunities at UT. I will appreciate and be grateful for it for all my life.
What is your current research question? What are your primary obstacles in answering this question?
I am curious to know how different microbes stay as endophyte in a plant competing or mutually benefiting, and how does the plant compensate them and produce good crop yield.
If someone wanted to get to where you are now, do you have any advice for them?
Being positive and optimistic in any situation and believing in yourself is important. Be confident in whatever you do, put your full heart and soul into your work or anything you do, and I am sure something great will come. The real power of change is that you get to create yourself.
What are two of your favorite hobbies?
My passion for dancing allowed me to win an international dance competition at UT in three consecutive years, 2019, 2020, and 2021. I even started my dance channel to enrich Indian culture and heritage to international friends and audiences. Here is the link for the channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCBLsuPHg74J_FBQN2hq0ozw. Two other hobbies I really love are biking and exploring nature.
Any additional information you would like to share?
I am honored to serve as an ambassador for Knoxville Asian fest 2022, representing Asian countries and sharing rich Asian heritage, culture, traditions with our fellow friends, family, and educating the importance of diversity at UT.