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Dr. Harmeet Chawla

New Plant Science prof to use bioinformatics to design resilient crops

December 1, 2022 — 

Dr. Harmeet Singh Chawla joined the Department of Plant Science as Assistant Professor in Plant Genomics and Genetics on August 15, 2022.   After his graduate program and post-doctoral work in Germany, he moved to Canada to work at the University of Saskatchewan Crop Development Centre. His interest in plant breeding came from his father, a maize breeder in India, and today he seeks to integrate genomic technology and bioinformatics to advance the UM oilseed breeding program.  

Tell us about yourself.

I did my bachelor’s in biotechnology from Amity University in India and then I moved to Germany to pursue higher education. I obtained a M.Sc. and PhD from the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany in 2016 and 2020. After that I moved to Munich for a postdoctoral fellow position at the Helmholtz Centre for health and environment research. In 2021, I got a chance to move to Canada and join as a crop bioinformatician at the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan in Durum wheat breeding program with Professor Curtis Pozniak. Finally, I joined as an assistant professor in the department of Plant Science in August 2022.

Why did you get into this area of study?

I would say that I inherited my interest in plant breeding and genetics from my dad. He was a maize breeder at the Punjab Agriculture University in India. Because of him I got several opportunities to do internships at leading plant research institutes in India. During my PhD, I had the chance to working with Canola breeders in Germany and I could see my research translating to the farmer fields. This was the most motivating factor for me. In 2021, when I joined Prof. Pozniak’s group as bioinformatician, I was working on solving real life problems faced by the farmers in the Prairies. It gave me immense joy to see the genes I identified making a difference to people’s lives.

What are you seeking to explore with your research?

In my research I aim to leverage genomic, bioinformatics and genetic engineering to design climate change resilient crops for Canada. University of Manitoba has one of the best high erucic acid rapeseed breeding program in the world and one of the main foci of my research would be to integrate latest genomic technologies and advanced bioinformatics to further accelerate the progress of this program.

Will you be teaching?

Yes, I will teach “Introduction to plant genomics” course starting in January. As a teacher you are always learning new things and that’s something that appeals to me the most. Every student is different and has a unique perspective of viewing the world. As a teacher I get to interact with them and experience so many vivid personalities. At the end of the day when I go back home, I have this awesome feeling that I made a difference (may be only a tiny one) in someone’s life and may be who knows that one of my students might invite me to their Nobel prize winning ceremony one day.

Any interesting stories you’d like to share about your field of study?

During my PhD in Germany, I was working with winter canola, and I was supposed to organize couple of field trials and I thought to myself “how difficult it could be?”. However, since the harvesting and next sowing time is very close for winter canola, it was extremely challenging to organize these trials. I would go to the field in morning, harvest the seeds that were needed for next trial and then run back to lab, do all the quality checks, package, and arrange the seeds throughout the night. Before this experience, I did not appreciate the work that goes into organizing a field trial and how many hours of work go into producing the one column on my excel sheet. This experience taught me a life lesson to appreciate everyone’s work around me. I try my best to teach my students the same.

What you like to do in your spare time?

In my spare time I love travelling. In almost eight years of my time in Europe, I explored the lengths and breadths of it. However, I moved to Canada in amidst of the pandemic and didn’t get a chance to travel much. But I did explore Saskatchewan (a bit) before moving to Manitoba. Churchill has been on my ”to-go” list and I hope to visit it soon. If anyone has some recommendations, please shoot me an email.

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