Inside a Scientist's Journey: A chat with Rai Kookana

Category: Our People

  12 Dec 2023

Inside the Scientist's Journey: A Chat with Dr. Rai Kookana

Article by Dr. Divina Navarro, CSIRO

In this interview with Dr. Rai Kookana, we explore the story of his career. Rai shares experiences from his background and early interest in science, reflecting on memorable projects and insights from his career. Through a series of questions, we learn about the key lessons Rai gained, the changes he witnessed in his field, and his advice for budding scientists. Join me on this journey as Rai candidly talks about his work, the people who influenced him, and his hopes for the future.

Background: (Can you share a bit about your background and how you initially got into science?)

RK: I come from a humble background, where my parents, who were farmers with no formal education, prioritized our education. Growing up in rural India in the 1960s was challenging, with no access to basic needs like roads and electricity. In my primary school years, I didn't even have shoes. I had to walk 4.5 km each way to attend a high school with very limited resources. My wish for a bicycle was fulfilled only in year 9, and even then, the lack of a paved road made it challenging.

Regarding my journey into science, I chose science in school with the goal of securing admission to a university, a dream I realized after topping my class of 200 students in year ten. I earned admission and a merit scholarship for my Bachelor of Science (Hons) degree. To continue my education, I competed for and secured a junior research scholarship, which allowed me to pursue a Master's in Soil Science since my parents couldn't financially support me. In 1982, I began working as a Research Assistant at the university.

The turning point came in 1985 when I received a Commonwealth Fellowship for my Ph.D. at the University of Western Australia (UWA). After completing my Ph.D., we returned to India briefly, but my kids struggled to settle. Consequently, we migrated back, and a few years later, I was offered a position as a Research Scientist at CSIRO in Adelaide. The rest, as they say, is history.

Career Highlights: (Rai, you’ve had a long and prolific career, looking back, what are some of the most memorable projects or achievements that stand out to you?)

RK: A pivotal moment in my scientific journey occurred in 1993 when the South Australian government grappled with potential contamination of the wheat crop due to a mouse plague. Strychnine-laced bait was aerially applied to control the mice, using non-sterile wheat grain that could germinate. I addressed this concern, enabling the SA Government to demonstrate the quality of wheat for export. This success led to the initiation of a CSIRO research program on organic chemicals as environmental contaminants.

Figure 1: IUPAC meeting May 2013

Among various projects, our work on nanopesticides, particularly the development of risk assessment frameworks through international collaboration, stood out. Notably, this project yielded high-impact papers, including two in Nature Nanotechnology. Our recent research on PFAS with the Department of Defence in Australia and the USA is of utmost significance, given the global concern about these "forever chemicals." CSIRO's role in addressing PFAS in the environment has been, and will continue to be, well-received.

Personally, I find satisfaction in the enduring impact of our published work, reflected in my H-index of 74 and over 24,000 total citations. Additionally, the extensive collaborations and strong ties with Government Departments developed over time are sources of pride.

Key Learnings: (I'm eager to understand the experiences of fellow scientists, both the highs and lows of their journeys. What are the most significant lessons you've learned throughout your career?)

RK: 1. Understand clients' needs and respect their viewpoints.

  1. Avoid over-promising and under-delivering; manage expectations, deliver on time, and within budget.
  2. Recognize and appreciate the vital contributions of technical staff, the true pillars of a team.
  3. Adapt to changing circumstances while maintaining the underlying theme of your work.
  4. Find reward in supporting post-docs and junior colleagues.
  5. Acknowledge the ever-expanding horizon of knowledge—the more you know, the more you realize how little you know.
  6. Embrace humility at every career stage; there's no room for arrogance, regardless of your rank.

Figure 2: Book launch for school children in India

Advice for EMCRs: (What advice would you give to the early and mid-career researchers out there who are trying to establish their careers?)

RK: 1. Stay updated with international literature and publish in high-impact journals promptly.

  1. Trust your instincts, be patient with results, and see every failed experiment as a step toward discovery.
  2. Emphasize collaboration for success; connect with researchers in your field nationally and internationally.
  3. Attend conferences and consider organizing them to enhance collaboration and client engagement.
  4. Don't be intimidated by high-profile scientists; they are often humble and willing to help. Building relationships with them can be rewarding.

Legacy and Impact: (There’s so many things to ask, but so little time (and page space)…Rai, as you retire, what aspects of your work do you hope will leave a lasting impact on the field or on future generations of scientists?)

RK: I think I built a research platform on ‘organic chemicals as environmental contaminants’ at CSIRO, which I think will grow in future.  Specifically, some of our research, such as on Nanopesticides and PFAS should l last for a while. Also, the series of conferences/ symposia (e.g., Whats in Our Water) that we organised will perhaps continue for a while.

Future Plans: (An important question…What are your plans for retirement???)

RK: I am keen to volunteer and help overseas research students facing any problems. In fact, I have commenced this with University of Adelaide, already. Similarly, as an Honorary Fellow of CSIRO, I will be available for helping young scientists, if needed.

Closing Thoughts / Words of Wisdom: (Any final thoughts or words of wisdom you'd like to share with your colleagues and those entering the field?)

RK: I think I would say that politeness, patience, and perseverance would be something that would be rewarding in the long run. When feeling low, don’t lose heart and plough along, the winter nights can be rather long, but a daybreak is guaranteed.

Go for a walk during lunch break if you can. Breaking the state and having a tranquil moment is very helpful. At least this helped me, as I would try and go for a walk at the back of Waite, though it was a hard climb but well worth it.