Bhavani Shankar

Bhavani Shankar is a Professorial Research Fellow in Food Systems and Health at the Institute for Sustainable Food, University of Sheffield.

*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?

I studied a Bachelor’s degree in Economics at the University of Madras, followed by two Masters Degrees in Economics. One was in New Delhi at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the other was in the US in Buffalo, New York. I went from never having been on a plane and only having experienced warm weather to an extremely cold extremely snowy place. For my PhD I moved from Buffalo to the University of Illinois. My ambition when I started in Economics was to do some fairly traditional stuff like macroeconomics. But during my Master’s I became interested in development economics, having come from India. I started reading and increasingly started seeing agriculture as an entry point into the sort of development work that I wanted to do.

When did you start your first job in your current field?

I finished my PhD in 1998 and then I applied for academic jobs. I was pretty much interested in doing anything related to agricultural economics, and I was quite happy to go anywhere in the world. I must have applied to around 20 odd positions and got rejected for most of them. Then I came across this job advert for a lecturer in ag-econ at Reading in the UK, I interviewed for it and somehow it worked out. I had to decide whether I should to continue looking for a job in the US, or if I was willing to go to this completely new ecosystem. I decided to take the opportunity and moved to the UK. Now I’m so used to cold weather that it's a struggle, actually, when I go back home and it's really warm.

Have you always worked in academia?

More or less, except for a very temporary hiatus in 2005 when I decided to take up a job offer at the FAO in Bangkok, Thailand for personal reasons. The role didn’t suit me at all to be honest, perhaps because I was an academic at heart. I was used to the freedom of academia, and I found bureaucracy challenging. I found that in the regional offices there was less of a research culture. I eventually decided to go back to my previous job at the University of Reading. I worked there until 2010 when I moved to The School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS). At SOAS I was working on under-researched links between agri-food policy and diets. We were conducting research on the implications of how much countries around the world needed to adapt their diets to meet the then new WHO dietary guidelines, which attracted a lot of attention. I became more and more interested in food consumption from an economics perspective. Then the London Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health (LCIRAH) position came along, which was about providing leadership to bring together agriculture with nutrition and health. At the time, the literature was very sparse, there wasn't a big body of empirical research. So, we came into the agenda and it was really exciting. We had a clean slate to start with and the opportunity to design new projects, but of course it was also challenging because he had to convince people, particularly funders that there was actually a connection between agriculture, nutrition and health.

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

The environment, and the way in which climate change is impacting food systems will become an increasingly bigger part of agriculture, nutrition and health research. The food systems and environment community used to be quite separate from the food systems and health and nutrition community. In the last five years more collaboration and interdisciplinary working has been taking place. I think that will only become more solid over the next five years, you won't be able to separate food sustainability from nutrition and health, and thought leaders will work towards shared goals. The other area that I think will grow is equity and social justice. A lot of good work around gender has happened and the community of research has grown. But there are other dimensions of equity which haven't been addressed in a very significant way. I think they will become a big part of the conversation because those conversations are happening other areas of science and society.

Who or what inspires you at the moment?

Actually, I'm inspired by the community of early career researchers I work with. Through various projects I'm so impressed by all the people coming through the system and there's so much talent out there. I often talk to my peers and we always say, if we were starting out now we would never get a job because the field is so much more competitive. All these new ideas are emerging, and people are thinking about new ways of doing things. It's terribly exciting.

How do you feel about interdisciplinary work?

I'm a big believer in interdisciplinary work because the world itself is interdisciplinary. If you want to find solutions to the big problems, they'll have to be interdisciplinary. Agriculture, nutrition and health offers a space to work with teams of really bright people from different disciplines, for example you could be an economist working with demographers and geographers. It’s a really great space for invention and reinvention.

Was there a time where you had to learn a great deal in a short amount of time (a learning curve)?

Yes, with every project that I do, because a price you pay for interdisciplinary work is that you have to invest enormously in learning new things. But it's a cost that certainly I'm happy to bear. With every project I realise the complexities and the nuances as the project develops, which requires learning. For example, early on in my career I led a project managing rice-fish systems in floodplains in Bangladesh. I was working with a team of fish biologists and engineers and but I was an economist. I was so fascinated, but I was reading all these papers that would only explain about 20% of the dynamics of floodplain fish and how they grow and how they are affected by rice production and flood control. I had to try to get through the barrier of language and be willing to put in the investment. I think the payoffs are enormous and as long as it's interesting, I think it's doable. That's where the biggest rewards are, don't be afraid to get into these areas which you think you don’t know a lot about, because you can learn very quickly and you will find it enormously interesting and enriching when you actually do it. Dare to be a bit different, and take the risk.

Did you have any experience of rejection/failure in your career path? How did you overcome the situation?

I've got this folder in my computer, which is my proposal morgue. It's all the proposals of mine which have failed and it’s enormous. If we look at the number of successes compared to the number of failures, converting those numbers is quite sobering. I have been absolutely convinced of a proposal was the best work to date, and then it got rejected. When applying to jobs after my PhD, I applied to over 20 jobs before I found the University of Reading position. Again, when I looked for an opportunity in the Asia Pacific region, I faced multiple rejections before securing the FAO position. One thing I realised was that there's such an element of randomness to it that you just have to persist, and you need a heavy dose of luck. This may sound a bit disheartening, but in fact it’s a lesson that was certainly helpful to me. Whether in terms of funding applications, paper submissions or jobs. Persistence pays off, which really matters because if you write a brilliant proposal that doesn't get funded, you get disheartened and you give up, then that's really going to make things difficult. You have to be stoic, stoicism is a really good philosophy to follow being an academic, especially for early career researchers where no matter what, you pick yourself up and get on with it.

Have there been any highlights for you so far/ what are you most proud of?

I think my work at LCIRAH, and the community of people who worked together is one of the things I’m most proud of. It started from zero, with no fixed discipline that we had a framework to work within. Over a decade or so it grew and grew and became a much bigger success. The Leverhulme Trust was extremely pleased. When I look in terms of publications, I can't bear to read my own papers or my PhD thesis because I cringe at them now. Also, I was editor of the journal Food Policy from 2011-2015. It was a relatively small journal with a limited number of submissions early on, and when we finished it had three times the number of submissions and the journal became very mainstream. We worked really hard on that, so that is something that I'm quite proud of.

What does your current role involve day-to-day?

I have a slightly unusual position, I'm at the University of Sheffield as a Professorial Research Fellow, which essentially means that I am a research fellow but also a professor. My job is predominantly research focused, and the main objective is to provide research leadership at the new Institute for Sustainable Food within the University of Sheffield. I’m excited to have the chance to build a new research community focused on food consumption, health and sustainability. I lead or participate in a number of existing research projects, and I create new research projects. There's also a lot of external engagement that is involved, whether that’s speaking at various conferences, talking to the media, or participating in expert panels.

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

Chances are reasonably high I would still be in academia, because I just love universities with all the learning and all this exciting stuff that's going on. It’s not just a bunch of long-established people talking to themselves, but it's all these new ideas coming through new generations of students and early career researchers. Fish biology, fisheries dynamics and the management of fisheries are topics that have fascinated me since I worked on the project in Bangladesh. Or more broadly, ecology and biodiversity would be something that I would love to do. But if I wasn’t in academia at all I might have been a journalist or something that involved writing.

What do you do in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies or clubs you are a member of?

I do a lot of work in the garden. I grew up in a bustling city with little garden space in Chennai, but I got into gardening as a result of living the UK. It's an ideal activity to switch off from work. I also like learning languages and recently I’ve been learning Welsh for no particular reason except that it sounds really nice. We spend a lot of time in Wales which inspired me. I can just switch off for 10 minutes and practice some Welsh and stop thinking about a particular work-related thing.

How do you make time for these activities?

When you've done a certain number of hours of work a day, putting in more hours plateaus pretty quickly. It’s counterproductive. There have been times in my career when I've tried to be a workaholic and to be honest, I don't think I was any more productive than when I’ve had a better work life balance. Academia has got to lose the macho culture of people working extremely long hours and being proud of it. I'm not sure that's necessarily something to be terribly excited about. We should be proud about more of a work life balance, and I think people are starting to realise that now.

How has being a parent affected your work-life balance?

I've got a 11-year-old daughter, sitting next to me doing her COVID enforced home-schooling work. Balance is absolutely critical, and the way I deal with it is that after certain cut off point I just put my work away and that becomes family time. My wife is also an academic so we face similar work pressures. We try to take frequent short breaks away for a change of scene. That's not been very far during the pandemic. But even just 20 miles down the road to a small town near the lake, where we stayed for a couple of days was a chance to do something different and to get out of this small room that I spend a lot of time in. If you don't do that, I think your works starts to suffer. Being able to switch off and draw that line between work and family time is absolutely critical.

Have your family played a role in choosing your career path?

To some extent yes, such as when I had a brief career change working at the FAO in Bangkok. After my daughter's birth I've also turned down a lot of things that I might have said yes to before. A key factor for many early career researchers to keep in mind is that if you're starting out and before you have a family that's your real opportunity to do lots of adventurous things. You have to be prepared to start saying no and walk away from things when your family life becomes more important.

How do you manage stress at work and what advice would you give others?

I used to get quite stressed out in my early career not visibly, but underneath. Just because somebody is not physically stressed doesn't mean they've somehow found a magic mechanism for them. I observed a couple of people who were sort of my mentors, to see how they coped with it and really the answer to everything was don't take yourself too seriously. Don't take your work too seriously. A lot of people get sucked into taking their careers very seriously to the extent where it can cause you to be unhappy. The problems that we researchers have can be really tiny compared to the problems of the people that we study in agriculture, nutrition and health. People who are struggling to put food on the table for the families, people who facing huge health shocks. Their lives are so difficult and complex and they would probably laugh at our trivial problems like “I didn't finish this paper”. It’s helpful to keep that perspective and not take things too seriously. 90% of stress is how you react mentally.

What have your experiences with mentoring involved?

In my career I’ve found that I’ve gravitated towards somebody who then effectively becomes my mentor. Jeff Waage is a good example of someone who I learned a lot from about his leadership and how to effectively manage people. What is common among all the people I consider to be my mentors is that they know how not to take their work and themselves too seriously.

If you were a mentor, do you think the possible challenges faced by your mentees working your field would be different from yours? If yes, in what way?

Gosh yes quite different, because it's a much more competitive environment these days. The number of really bright people coming through is quite large, there is much more competition for positions. The expectations have also changed, people are expected to do remarkable things in short periods of time and when I came into the system it was much more relaxed. British academia was quite traditional, there were things like senior common rooms. I remember you'd have your lunch in the senior common room and chat with your colleagues. Now all that's become a luxury. Everyone eats a sandwich in front of their computer and it's become very constrained in time and the number of things that people are expected to do. The requirement to have mentors is indeed something that is much more important now compared to when I started. I didn't really need a mentor at the time, I just needed time to observe people and how they went about their ways. Things are different now because of the workloads and the expectations that exist. I think having somebody who would actually advise you and remind you about things like how to handle failure is really important.

Can you recommend something for people who need inspiration or information about a career in your field?

I mentioned stoicism, which sounds like a mysterious religion of sorts, but it really is nothing like that. It really is just a framework of thinking, which I find enormously helpful. It's a body of thought which formalises how to react to big challenges that come up in in life and finding ways around things that you might want to give up on. The important thing is getting to that other side. There's a website called which is a helpful resource for people wanting to get into it. There's also a book called The Obstacle is the Way which I find quite useful reading. There's a really interesting article in The Guardian, which came out about five years back called the Helsinki bus station theory. It’s essentially this idea that success is about persistence. In Helsinki, Finland, there's a bus station from which lots of buses travel to different places, but for a certain period of time, they all follow a common path. The idea is that once you get on that bus you know your destination. So, in terms of choosing your career destination, be brave. Once you get on that bus don't get off and start again because  all that's doing is wasting your time. The people who effectively reach the destinations are the people who stuck to that bus.


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