In Profile: PSS’s Venugopal Mendu advances ways to improve cotton fiber
By: Mike Nelson
Six years ago, Venugopal Mendu was westward-bound, preparing to interview for a faculty and research scientist position at Texas Tech University. On paper, the job suited his interests in cell wall biology and biochemistry. As his plane descended over Lubbock, he looked out the window — and knew he'd made the right choice.
"When I saw all those cotton fields around the airport, I figured, 'This is the perfect place for me,'" Mendu said.
He took the job with the Texas Tech, made his home on the South Plains and became an assistant professor of plant and soil science. Fittingly, his research focused on cotton fiber.
"Considering that 40 percent of the cotton grown in the United States is produced in this area and that about 96 percent of cotton fiber is cellulose, which has so many practical uses in the world, what could be a better environment for teaching and research than right here in Lubbock?" he said.
Mendu continued researching ways to improve cotton fiber, earning acclaim for identifying and characterizing the genes involved in plant cell wall biosynthesis. In honor of his career of achievement, he was awarded the 2018 Chancellor's Council Distinguished Research Award, the most prestigious honor given to faculty members throughout the Texas Tech University System.
Mendu received $5,000 and a medallion for his excellence, funded by annual membership gifts to the Chancellor's Council — a giving society that supports the chancellor's priorities by impacting student lives through scholarships, recognizing faculty achievement and encouraging excellence across all four system universities.
"I was really honored and thrilled to receive this award," said the soft-spoken Mendu. "To have Texas Tech recognize my research and my efforts to develop scientists for the future, it makes me feel very appreciated."
Growing up in India, honors and awards were not on Mendu's mind. His chief interest was science, primarily plant life.
"I loved to read about science, especially flowers, plants and different leaf shapes and structures, which fascinated me," he said. "When I would visit my grandparents, they had a variety of plants that I would study, and sometimes I would bring a plant back to class, because I could relate it to what I saw in the textbooks. Soon I could identify many types of plants, and I thought, 'Maybe I can do something useful for the world.'"
Mendu earned his bachelor's degree in agriculture and master's degree in genetics and plant breeding from Acharya N.G. Ranga Agricultural University, India's largest institution of higher education. Seeking "the most advanced training in cell biology and biochemistry available" he moved to the U.S., where he earned his doctorate in plant physiology, biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Kentucky.
Looking for experience outside the U.S., Mendu travelled to Paris where he served two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Biology at the École Normale Supérieure, one of the most selective and prestigious higher education institutions outside of France's public university system. It was there he heard about the opportunity at Texas Tech.
"When I came to Lubbock for my interview, I wanted to see how things are here, what they expected of me and what Texas Tech could offer," he said. "They wanted someone to work on cell wall biology, which is what I like and have training in. And I also found a plant and soil science department that was very receptive and accommodating to my proposals. I was offered and accepted the position. The department has been really supportive in so many ways."
As a professor of molecular biology and a scientist, Mendu is almost always at work, which he doesn't mind.
"All my time is spent either in research, in developing proposals or in preparing for my classes," he said. "That goes beyond regular hours, because my students email at all hours, and I try to respond as quickly and completely as I can.
"And I really enjoy teaching. I invest lot of time preparing for class, organizing slides, trying to bring the latest knowledge to the classroom. [Students are] really taking what I teach and using it to discover more for themselves," he said.
As a researcher, Mendu has contributed to fundamental discoveries, working with colleagues to better understand the properties and capabilities of the cell wall mechanism in model plant Arabidopsis and crops like cotton and sorghum.
Plant cell walls are made up of cellulose, the earth's most abundant organic biopolymer used in numerous consumer products. Because cotton fibers are almost pure cellulose, the commodity crop provides researchers like Mendu a unique opportunity to better understand one of the major building blocks of all plant life.
"We have also discovered, from studying species of the Texas wildflower, antimicrobial compounds that can kill harmful bacteria," he said.
While the nature of his research may be daunting to the average non-scientist, Mendu stresses there is much about plant life that's remarkably easy to understand.
"When we think of how we grow plants in a greenhouse or in a small space," he said, "we know that by simply changing the light and soil, you can affect how the plant grows. You don't need to know molecular biology to grow lettuce."
Given his involvement and enthusiasm for his work, Mendu admits he has little time for hobbies.
"I guess you could say science is my hobby," he said with a chuckle. "I enjoy reading about different areas of science, to learn more. And I like to travel. I especially enjoy visiting places as part of my research and that's taken me all over the world, to Africa, Asia, South America, Europe.
The international aspect of his work "has been wonderful," he added. "I've trained visiting students from Colombia, Malaysia, Brazil, Ethiopia, from everywhere. And to see all of my students develop not only their skill but their passion for making the world better through science lets me know I made a good choice in my life."
CONTACT: Eric Hequet, Department Chair, Department of Plant and Soil Science, Texas Tech University at (806) 742-2838 or firstname.lastname@example.org
1129NM18 / PHOTOS: Artie Limmer