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Feeding students a new kind of knowledge

New assistant professor breeds sustainable food and plants for disease resistance

Man making food in a kitchen.
December 19, 2023

Editor's note: New Faces on Campus is a new monthly feature by ASU News showcasing faculty members who have been hired in the 2023–24 academic year.

Subhankar Mandal is a horticulture scholar and an ace in the kitchen.

During the day, he grows and studies crops. At night, he cooks delicious meals from scratch  mostly recipes from his native country of India.

Mandal, an assistant professor of sustainable horticulture in Arizona State University's College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, said while the world is getting wiser on how to grow food more sustainably, it’s more out of necessity than anything else. He said climate change is impacting world food production, and students who know how to grow food will become extremely valuable to society.

And that’s what makes Mandal, himself, so valuable to society – he is teaching future academics how to feed the world in a healthier and more sustainable way. In turn, he wants them to pass along the message.

“I want to see urban communities also involved in growing fruits and vegetables and making the world a beautiful living place by participating in container gardens, rooftop gardens, community gardens,” said Mandal, who was hired in August in the college's new School of Applied Sciences and Arts at the Polytechnic campus.

Mandal recently spoke to ASU News to discuss his background, his scholarly work and why it’s his mission to produce more future global leaders and scientists.

Question: Can you tell us a bit about your background — where you’re from and how you ended up in academia?

Answer: I hail from a small town located in the eastern state of West Bengal, India, situated between the mighty Himalayan Mountains and the Bay of Bengal. I embarked on my academic journey in horticultural sciences and obtained my bachelor's degree from (translated into English) the North Bengal Agricultural University. My passion for working in this field was instilled in me by my father, a retired state extension agent, and my grandfather, a farmer. I still cherish my childhood memories of spending time in our ancestral mango orchards during summer vacations and watching my father assist farmers.

My academic journey as a horticulture scholar started after I received a national fellowship to do higher studies at one of the premier agricultural Institutions in India — Punjab Agricultural University — a hub for India’s green revolution. Later, during my graduate studies at New Mexico State University, I taught various courses as a teaching assistant and found a passion as an educator. Recently, I taught at California State University, Stanislaus, while working for a multinational food corporation before joining Arizona State University on Aug. 16, 2023.

Q: What is your area of research or academic focus? What are you most excited about regarding your work?

A: My academic and research focus at ASU will be on sustainable horticulture, with a specific emphasis on producing horticultural crops that can thrive in a more resilient environment. My area of expertise is plant breeding, and I specialize in developing selection methods for disease resistance. Based on my experience working with both land-grant institutions and the food industry, I will be taking a transdisciplinary approach to provide a diversified experience to the students, enabling them to contribute toward the sustainability of the nation's horticulture industry. This is what makes me excited about my new job at ASU.

Q: When did you realize you wanted to study this field?

A: I still vividly recall that day. It was a beautiful autumn morning when I woke up to overhear a conversation between a farmer and my dad. The farmer had brought a massive papaya as a gift for my dad, but my dad politely declined, citing his government job, which prohibits him from accepting gifts. Later, I asked my dad about the incident, and he told me that he had helped the farmer manage a disease in his papaya orchard, which had saved the dying orchard. This was a defining moment for me, and it made me realize the immense potential of horticultural sciences.

Q: How do you want to see this field advance to the betterment of society?

A: Horticulture has proven effective in generating income, especially in reducing poverty for those in lower-income communities. Horticultural crops have a greater profit margin than agronomic crops, which helps to improve the economy. Additionally, horticulture provides aesthetic value and a sense of purpose through floriculture and landscaping in today’s stressful world.

Q: What do you wish more people realized about your work or research?

A: World food production is facing serious challenges due to climate change, including water stress, soil erosion and degradation, and persistent pest and disease issues, to name a few. The Applied Biological Sciences (sustainable horticulture) program at ASU prepares students with the necessary skills for growing plants, foods and herbs with minimum environmental impact. Students work with scientists, growers, industries and local communities to address these issues and embark on exciting career opportunities globally.

Q: What brought you to ASU, and what do you like about the university?

A: What I liked most about Arizona State University is it is widely recognized as the country's most innovative university, and it significantly impacts the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including poverty alleviation.

Q: What specifically would you like to accomplish while at your college/school/department?

A: This country has a shortage of horticulture or plant science professionals. Through our sustainable horticulture program at ASU, we aim to train students with experiential learning so that they can become future global leaders, serving the industry and their communities.

Q: What’s something you do for fun or something only your closest friends know about you?

A: I rarely have time for fun, but when I do, I like to cook Indian dishes while listening to news or podcasts. As a native of eastern India, our diet largely consists of fresh vegetables and freshwater fish. I prefer to cook mostly traditional Bengali recipes from scratch.

Top photo: Subhankar Mandal is an assistant professor in sustainable horticulture with ASU's College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. The self-trained chef adds chopped cauliflower to sautéed onions and spices for a cauliflower-onion-poppy seed dish in his Gilbert, Arizona, apartment on Monday, Nov. 20. Mandal’s academic and research focus will be on producing resilient crops for the changing environment and disease resistance. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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