Suneetha Kadiyala

Suneetha Kadiyala is a Professor of Global Nutrition at The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

*This series of ANH Academy career journeys were taken from real interviews, carried out by Lauren McIntyre, IMMANA Research Uptake Manager.

Tell us about your background. Where, when, and what did you study at university for your undergraduate and graduate studies?

My undergraduate and master's were both in nutrition science at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Gujarat. I chose the University because it was known to be the best for nutrition, and my parents supported this although Baroda is far away from Hyderabad. The reason I chose to study nutrition was more convoluted. In the 80s and 90s, most people in my family or networks tended to have more well-defined career paths. This was before India’s economic liberalisation, and there weren’t that many innovative career options or opportunities. Becoming a doctor or an engineer was considered a secure career option. I wanted to do something different but I didn't know what! Somehow, I came across this course called nutrition and thought I would try it. I decided to study nutrition science to master’s level because basic science aspects of nutrition were the primary focus of most nutrition degrees offered in India, and that was what I was mostly exposed to. Then I decided to do a PhD because I didn’t know what else to do, even though at the time I was not totally satisfied with why I was doing what I was doing. Since my peers seemed to be going to the US at that time to study, I decided to go there too. I applied to Tufts University and got accepted to work on a project investigating sarcopenia. Once I got to Tufts, I discovered international nutrition. My professors at Tufts University knew more about malnutrition in India than I did, coming from India. I had that “aha!” moment, I knew this was what I was searching for and I had a feeling that I had arrived. I was two months into my PhD on sarcopenia at the time. Thankfully, my professor was very kind and allowed me to continue working in their lab but to change my major to international nutrition - later renamed as Food Policy and Applied Nutrition - with a minor in development economics. This is where I really learned how to think about issues of hunger, malnutrition, poverty and structural determinants of nutrition and health from a multidisciplinary perspective. My career today really began with my education at Tufts.

Did you move straight into your field of work after your PhD?

If only things are that straightforward! Just like with my PhD, the next steps weren’t straightforward. I didn’t think I would get a job, get married and have children before completing my PhD. However, all three happened. Life has its own plans, and we need to go along and make the best of it. I couldn’t complete my PhD as expediently as I was hoping for because my initial project did not work out and I had to give that up after two years of work. I was very upset for a few months because I hadn’t been able to complete my PhD as planned. After moping around for a few months, I went to Washington D.C., where I had many friends in this field, to find another dissertation project. I had been working on HIV and nutrition issues in South Africa, and I wanted to continue work on this topic. I wrote to Stuart Gillespie at IFPRI, they had just published a discussion paper on the topic I was interested in. When we met, it turned out we were thinking of the same issues to research. He advised that they were seeking funding and that if I was interested in working on the project I could apply to work with him. I was newlywed, living with my husband in California at the time. Stuart called me to let me know I got the job and I was so excited that I immediately said I would take it. He asked if I wanted to talk to my husband first and I was like “Oh yea! Perhaps I should”. I was fully supported with the decision, and I moved to Washington DC. My husband followed a year later. I started as a research analyst at IFPRI, had a child and got my PhD while working pretty much full time.

What happened after your PhD?

I continued working at IFPRI on HIV and nutrition issues in Sub Saharan Africa, where I led a research portfolio collaborating with The AIDS Support Organisation in Uganda through the 2000s. In 2008, we had to move to IFPRI New Delhi for personal reasons. It was also when the global food price crisis hit the world. This generated substantial interest both from researchers and donors, who were questioning why, despite all the progress and investments in agriculture, vulnerable populations were not cushioned from food insecurity and undernutrition due to food price shocks. This led me to my current focus on working at the intersection of food systems, agriculture and nutrition. Although my work was progressing well at IFPRI, and I had made lifelong friends and learnt an enormous amount, when you are in an organisation for 12 years it’s not unusual to have an itch to move. At this point, colleagues from LSHTM and the London Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health (LCIRAH) shared a job advert for an academic position at LSHTM. I applied to see where it took me, and that’s how I got to where I am now!

What are the biggest challenges in your work now?

That's a tough one to answer. Two things come to mind. First, I’m always asking myself if and how I am making any difference in the world and what does my work mean? I think it's good to ask ourselves that so we don't lose track and get carried away with the next promotion or the next staff review, although these things are important of course. The second challenge is around funding. How do you secure funding for the ambitions that you and your team members have? What is possible and deliverable in a way that you can make substantive contributions with the time and funding available? I want to emphasize the importance of supporting early career researchers. It is not just about securing funding for me and my peers, funding is needed to ensure career-development for our brilliant early career professionals. They bring a keen mind, fresh perspectives and skills - without them the field would become stagnant.    

Do you feel a sense of responsibility for your team in terms of funding pressures, to support them with opportunities to grow?

Absolutely, we have a responsibility to provide career development opportunities to our team members, especially our early career researchers. Deliberately creating career pathways for early career professionals should be a priority. Otherwise, for the next 50 years, we could have people just listening to me or my peers saying the same things over and over again at innumerable conferences - it would quickly get boring! We need new ways of thinking; new methods, new tools, new research questions. There's so much talent out there and we need to harness that. Another important issue at hand is that we work with various organisations, in large international collaborations. It’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that collaborations are meaningful to all the collaborators. In my work, I do this this by creating convergence of all our needs and aspirations across all organizations and team members working on these projects. I find working with my collaborators extremely enjoyable, gratifying and humbling.

Is there anything that excites you, or inspires you at the moment that you can look forward to for this coming year?

There are a lot of opportunities to innovate. I am not able to bring myself to say COVID-19 has given us these opportunities. I don't think we needed a pandemic to help us develop phone surveys or to figure out how mobile-based program delivery happens. It just jolted us all out of our comfort zones and has challenged us to think about things we should have probably thought about long ago. We have developed alternate ways of functioning due to COVID 19; things we thought were the gold standard such as household surveys or interventions now need to be done differently in many places. Previously, we told ourselves “I don't want to deviate too much from the conventional gold standard, because the journal will reject my paper or my project will not get off the ground if I suggest wild ideas”. However, now that we are all in the same boat, there is a shared comfort in this journey. We are all learning together in this unknown context - I like this collective journey.

If you did not have the job that you have now, what would you do and would it be ANH-related?

Before I discovered nutrition, I thought I would like to be a human rights lawyer. I do wish I had pursued this before I decided to study nutrition. Human rights law is so different to a rights-based food security community intervention. Now that I know more about food insecurity and gender inequalities I think I would have been particularly interested in food, gender and children’s rights. I do feel a twinge of regret for not having become a human rights lawyer.

What changes do you predict in your field of work in the next 5 years?

It's actually changing in exciting ways. Looking forward to the next decade, food security and nutrition research will continue to be important due to food system shocks. We need to understand what these shocks mean for nutrition, and we will have to make deliberate attempts and set objectives to understand and address these linkages. For example, addressing climate change alone will not improve nutrition; we need to have clear nutrition objectives and ways to operationalise these when addressing climate change. In the last dozen or so years, we have learned that there are very few happy accidents, and that policies must proactively incorporate nutrition objectives if we are to improve nutrition outcomes. The exciting part is that whether you're an economist, an agriculture scientist, a political scientist, or a nutritionist like me, there is more recognition of the need for multidisciplinary research. We now have more opportunities to work together that were not available as widely in the 90s or early 2000s. Back then it not was considered academically robust to collaborate so broadly. Now, it's more mainstream. We don't know what will happen with COVID-19 and the politics of the world. However, we are seeing increased commitments from donors, governments and universities to tackle food systems, environment, nutrition and health issues. The last decade was great, and the next one is an exciting time to be in this field.

Do you have any future milestones that you’re working towards?

Other than the usual, to reach the next level in academia? I'll be honest, I'm a person who actually did not have a very well laid out career or a life plan. I arrived at it step-by-step, so in that sense I see my future as abstract, like an abstract painting; even though there are broad patterns it’s not immediately apparent.

Did you engage with any career support services during your PhD to help you e.g. careers office, and would you recommend these to others?

We had career talks at Tufts University. What I think held me in good stead was being open to ideas. As much as it can be one of my weaknesses, it is also certainly one of my strengths. I love ideas, I love connecting dots and taking a big picture view to a specificity. This comfort comes from probably being somewhat of an abstract thinker. To conduct research on frontier topics, such as the ones I have worked on to date, requires being shameless about what you don't know and asking questions. I always felt like I could ask people and I encourage others to do the same. The fantastic part of this community is that there are people out there who will want to help you. Often, we think “I'm too junior, they are too busy”. However, most people are not sitting in their office thinking “I'm too senior or I’m so smart”. One just needs to have that faith in the person. Just ask and be willing to be open about what you know, and what you don’t know but are keen on learning. Ask if they can point you to the person with the right resources if they do not have them, and you will get there.

What would your advice be to early career researchers about the challenges of a PhD?

A PhD is as much about resilience as it is about having an inquisitive brain and passion for the topic. Even if you're not feeling passionate down the line because you're fed up, you just need to see it through. Remember that eventually you can move on to other topics. Flitting across topics is not so useful during your PhD and sometimes you need to get it done. Some might ask, what if you're having problems getting it done? Completing your dissertation can be a lonely journey. I suggest developing a very strong peer support mechanism. That means, go out for a drink or meal or go for a walk or run with other doctoral students. It’s not about the topic, it’s about having a place where you can talk about your frustrations and small or big accomplishments. There are times when supervisors are not supportive, then you will need to find allies in your doctoral dissertation advisory group. When I was working on my dissertation, I walked into my colleague’s office and asked how to do propensity score matching. He generously offered to sit with me for three weeks, every Friday to look at what I did and provided guidance. If I hadn’t asked him, I wouldn’t have got that help. You also need to proactively develop alternate mechanisms and not always look for a structure within the official doctoral program. This is because the problems and challenges that students face are so varied; it is difficult for one system to cater to every student’s needs throughout their doctoral degree life-cycle.

What have you learned from role models in your life?

To be honest, I don't have one role model. What I do is to take away different things from people, whether it's positive or negative because most people have both strengths and weaknesses. I have had supervisors who gave me very straightforward feedback, which I always liked. It was sometimes harsh, and it may not have worked for some people. My PhD advisor once said “this shows that you know how to write a fancy equation in MS Word”. I really liked the spirit in which she said this: “you need to learn how to communicate to a wider audience in proper language, you need to be clear in your own head about why you have done what you have done. Unless you articulate it, an equation is not going to help even if it looks lovely”. I have learnt from a variety of people by observing how they write, give feedback, collaborate with others, lead effectively, and make people feel a part of the team.

How do you balance your work and family life?

I love people and I'm Indian on top of it. A South Asian’s life often revolves around people. Of course, I'm stereotyping, forgive me for that. I unashamedly I spend my weekends talking to my friends and family. That's what gives me strength, inspiration and joy. It's important to me that my kids also connect to family, including their cousins and old friends who are all scattered around the world. I read, although I go through my ups and downs with reading. I love my hot yoga. I don't see life as a balancing act. Balance is like saying “how are you managing gravity?”. As my team at LSHTM knows, I don't know how to think about work-life balance. In that sense, I am not the most helpful person in giving advice. All I can describe is my own position and not what others should do in this regard. People have differing household responsibilities and support available. My family, my children, my husband - all help me in many different ways. It's not just one person’s job to manage work-life balance; one needs an ecosystem. When I focus on work-life balance, a modern-day mantra, I feel like I am not attaining this utopia and then I get stressed. But instead, when I pause and appreciate having a supportive family and a passion for my work, then it feels easier. I consider my colleagues as my extended family; they are the people I look forward to meeting every day. If you can cultivate that kind of work atmosphere, you can enjoy both sides of your life. One of my friends said work- life balance is a mirage and said she would rather aspire to work-life harmony. I found this phrase very helpful and I just want to throw it out there for whoever is reading to see if this framework might be of help to you. The word harmony is calming: one is in a happy state doing both, as opposed to performing a precarious and impossible balancing act. Hopefully you have a choice, and sometimes you don't. I am striving for this state of harmony, where all things important to me coexist peacefully, even if not balanced.

What is one piece of advice you could give to someone beginning their career in your field?

Have strong training in one discipline and complement that with learning how to relate to other relevant disciplines. Increasingly, we’re looking at a world that is going to be interconnected. Share what you know generously. Be passionate and compassionate.


If you have any questions or feedback about this career journey, please contact l[email protected].