A profile in science and food
Some of Sonny Ramaswamy’s earliest memories are of food. Growing up in southern India, his childhood was filled with a sweet and spicy mix of aromatic cardamom, fenugreek, coconut, cloves, coriander, and cumin.
“When we talk about comfort food, we revert to what comforted us as children,” said Ramaswamy. For him, that would be a mix of flavors that came from a childhood spent in a multicultural Muslim state, with a Hindu family, and attending Jesuit schools.
In his memory, vegetarian meals of lentils, bitter melons, eggplants, and other vegetables of every size and color combined with occasional Hyderabad-style meats, Goan-style seafood, and a subcontinent full of spices.
It’s no wonder that Ramaswamy loves to eat. And to cook. And no wonder that he developed a keen interest in agriculture, an interest that took him to the United States as a PhD student to study agricultural entomology, and eventually brought him to Oregon this summer as the new dean of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
It’s been a journey of intellectual challenge, of scientific discovery, and, yes, of food.
He talks with gusto about the Hungarian goulash he
enjoyed while in graduate school in New Jersey, and the Cornish pasties and Polish sausage he discovered while a post-doc at Michigan State. As a young professor at Mississippi State, Ramaswamy was introduced to catfish and hush puppies and backyard Cajun-style crawdad and shrimp boils.
From Mississippi Cajun, Ramaswamy moved on to Midwest meat and potatoes, first to Kansas State, then to Purdue, where he was associate dean of the College of Agriculture and directed the university’s agricultural research programs.
Between meals, he worked. Today, Ramaswamy is an expert in the reproductive biology of insects and plant-insect interactions.
“Few people understand that half the food produced worldwide is lost after harvest to insects and spoiling,” he said. “All of our food crops are vulnerable. Not only do we need to figure out better and more efficient ways of growing our crops and livestock, we need also some serious plant protection research if we are to feed the world’s population in the coming years.”
Ramaswamy is passionate. “The United States’ land-grant universities are exquisitely positioned to feed the world,” he said. “We know how to do it. What a fantastic opportunity; what an incredible responsibility!” Ramaswamy’s passion is backed by a career working in land-grant universities and international experience that will help him lead the College of Agricultural Sciences that includes OSU’s largest research enterprise, worth $85 million annually.
And he is passionate about food. So, you might ask, has he ever eaten insects?
“I’ve traveled throughout the world and partaken of wonderfully delicious insect dishes: Thai-style giant waterbugs, sautéed grasshoppers, chocolate-covered ants, to name just a few.” Entomophagy, Ramaswamy explains with enthusiasm, is common in most parts of the world, except in Europe and the U.S., and provides a significant and savory source of nutrition. “Don’t forget that shrimp and lobster are first cousins of insects,” he said.
And don’t forget that Ramaswamy is a leader in agricultural science. “I want OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences to be the ‘go-to’ place for research in food production and natural resources. Oregon has it all, from ocean to rangeland, from wine to wheat. I want us to be able to say, ‘If you have a problem, we have a solution.’”
Sonny's Observations: a blog by Dean Sonny Ramaswamy