Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy: The Bee's Knees

Not many people can say they head a federal agency, but this man is one of them.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy is the current Administrator for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), a massive section of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The NIFA was created in 2008 to nurture research developments in agriculture and foster more environmentally and economically sustainable practices.

After attending university in Bangalore, India, Dr. Ramaswamy moved to the US to pursue his Masters and Ph.D. in entomology, the study of insects. Since then, he has headed Kansas State University's Department of Entomology, served as Associate Dean of Purdue's College of Agriculture, and been the Dean of Oregon State University's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Not only has Dr. Ramaswamy published close to 150 journal articles and a book, but he's also earned grants from the National Institute of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Science Foundation.  (The success rate of the latter was less than 20% in 2005.)

All in all, a pretty average life.

I sat down with him to learn how someone could do all of that, but still make time to consistently play with his dog, Misu, and ride his motorcycle around DC every weekend.

First and foremost, how old is your dog? And also, I love him.

Misu will be six on November 9th.

The 200 pound love of my life.

The 200 pound love of my life.

Sorry, we can focus now. How did you get involved in agriculture? Why science at all?

It was serendipitous. I started out wanting to be a writer and so started in English literature, with political science and economics as minors. But then my brother applied for me to get into the Ag school in India, and of course for Indians, it's all about being a doctor or engineer. I wasn't good at math and didn't want to become a doctor--my brother was already in med school. So I get admission and lo and behold, I enroll in agriculture at the University of Agricultural Sciences, where, incidentally, your dad went to school a few years before I did. I majored in entomology and plant breeding; also figured out I was actually not too bad in math. I ended up wanting to get a master's in entomology, for which I did a research thesis. Really enjoyed it. Met a visiting professor from Rutgers in entomology--he enticed me to go to Rutgers for my PhD, which was on the sexual behavior and physiology of cockroaches. Incidentally, your dad studied at Rutgers, as well! Then like they say, the rest is history--I travelled farther and farther as a scientist and educator and ultimately an administrator.

I have always wanted to make a difference. My research has resulted in publications and tangible ways to help people and farmers. Then, I was appointed by President Obama to oversee the US government's investments in the food and agricultural sciences. Now, the work my agency does has a global impact and is making a huge difference in people's lives in America and in the world. Pretty amazing. 

I think it's pretty hard to argue that you're not the exact definition of the American Dream. What factors have helped you get to where you are today?

Being hungry. Being inquisitive. Being optimistic. Dwelling on the possibilities. Being positive--even on my worst days, I never show it. I am always smiling and whistling. Bringing levity to everything I do. Like they say, attitude rubs off. Never waiting for someone to tell me what to do. Maintaining integrity and holding myself and others accountable. Always setting an example and never expecting others to do something that I myself wouldn't do. Wanting to make a difference. Being a visionary and helping others buy into a shared vision to make a difference in others' lives. Always framing the conversation and pushing the proverbial envelope; I eliminated the words "no" and "failed" from my personal dictionary and I just worked harder to make things happen. Being very outcome-driven; I don't get hung up on the path and process, but the outcome, which can be achieved from multiple paths and processes. Being available to help and lend a hand. Living vicariously through others' efforts and supporting them to achieve their dreams.

Like they say, what goes around comes around.

Credit to Bill Whitehead and Cartoon Stock.

Credit to Bill Whitehead and Cartoon Stock.

How can we create a more science-literate population?

Getting back to the basics in K-12 education and making it fun. I am concerned this bandwagon that people are getting on about STEM education is going to do more harm. Also, not to focus only on cognitive or technical knowledge, but to also help inculcate experiential learning and non-cognitive and leadership soft skills.

What's your biggest concern for my generation? 

Actually, I am not concerned about your generation. You and the hundreds of others kids I engage with and millions in 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America), I am heartened that we'll be okay! Sure, in every generation, there will be slackers or drug (ab)users. But you know, that ends up being proportionately about the same generation after generation. I think making school more interesting, meaningful, and fun will help us get even the slackers engaged.

What advice would you give to 19 year old you?

I am a calculated risk taker and very competitive. Being the youngest child likely influenced me to be competitive.  I always tell my mentees to be willing to take risks. 

But, above all, what I have to say is this:

Love life. Hold yourself accountable. Make a difference. Maintain your integrity. Have fun. 

These are things I learned from my single parent mom, who had an eighth grade education and worked three jobs to raise four boys (after my dad's death when he was 42) under fairly difficult circumstances. She never showed us she was worried. There was always a way to get things done. She always dwelled on the possibilities.


Think you're interested in agriculture?

Indulge your interests below:

The Pathways Program offers NIFA internships for students and recent graduates to gain experience in fields involving agriculture, environmental science, and the social sciences. If you have questions, send them to askusdapathways@dm.usda.gov.

Want something on a smaller scale?

Agriculture internships

Environmental science internships

FFA grants and scholarships

Want another picture of Misu, but this time out of focus?