Dr. Gurcharn Brar (PhD). (Photo: Eric Skalji)

Dream big

Gurcharn Brar's grad school experience set him up for career success.

One of the newest faculty members at the University of British Columbia (UBC) keeps a photo of the College of Agriculture and Bioresources on his desk where he can see it at all times, a reminder for Dr. Gurcharn S. Brar (PhD) of hard work, supportive grad school supervisors, the dream of a professorship and his passion for one of the most important cereal crops in the world—wheat.

Arriving at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) in the fall of 2012 as a master’s student, Brar had the goal of finding a spot for himself in academia.

“There was no confusion in my mind at all about doing my PhD. I wanted to dedicate 30-35 years of my life to my career … (and) I channelled myself to have everything on my CV to help me land a professorship.”

Brar grew up in Punjab, the northwestern state in India where his father grew wheat and rice on 15 acres, an average-sized farm for the area, he said. He considered medicine as a career but the competition for those spots is extraordinarily tough. So instead, he opted to attend Punjab Agricultural University (PAU).

While still in high school, Brar recalls seeing wheat that looked like it had been dusted with turmeric.

“It looked very beautiful but what I came to know in university was that it was a fungal disease, stripe rust, also known as yellow rust, a massive problem in India.”

By his third year at PAU, he had made a number of important decisions—to dedicate himself to studying this devastating disease, to earn both a master’s and PhD in the field, and to study abroad. Choosing to leave his home country was significant.

“PAU is a world-renowned institution but in developing countries like India, getting funding for research is often a problem, and I also didn’t want to do all of my degrees at one university.”

His world-wide search for opportunities led him to Dr. Randy Kutcher (PhD), pathology professor in plant sciences at USask and Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program Chair in Cereal and Flax Crop Pathology. It so happened there was an epidemic of stripe rust in Western Canada when Brar contacted Kutcher and, after a long telephone interview, the 22-year-old student was on his way to Saskatoon.

“I was really homesick for the first few months,” Brar admitted. “I cried almost every night for the first month, but Randy was not only a good supervisor but also a great human being. He helped me like a father, supported me in every possible way. I enjoyed every single day of grad school.”

Brar worked hard, focusing on two main diseases of wheat—Fusarium head blight and stripe rust. By this time, his commitment to wheat was undeniable; in his first year of grad school, he traveled the province doing crop surveys “and I just loved it. I saw wheat everywhere, even on the Saskatchewan logo. My Wi-Fi network in Saskatoon was called ‘wheat’ and my password was ‘the king of cereals.’ I tell people that I’m in a long-term relationship with wheat and wheat stripe rust.”

Even though he was a master’s student in plant pathology, Brar appreciated being challenged regularly from a breeder’s perspective by Dr. Curtis Pozniak (PhD), professor and director of USask’s Crop Development Centre.

“It was from those discussions that I decided to do my PhD in wheat breeding and genetics, and Dr. Pierre Hucl (PhD) agreed to supervise me with Randy as a co-supervisor. Curtis was also on my committee so it was a terrific combination.”

Casual conversation with his mentors in the college illuminated for him how to be a good researcher but also how to be a good supervisor and teacher.

“These were wonderful conversations,” he said.

As his PhD work concluded, Brar sought academic opportunities and found a UBC “cluster hire” of three new positions for either plant or soil scientists. Brar applied there, as well as at McGill University and a university in the U.S., and was shortlisted at all three institutions.

The selection process at UBC unfolded more quickly than the others, while Brar admitted he harboured self-doubt, his supervisors exuded optimism.

“Randy and Pierre were more confident about my success than I was but after the in-person interview, something in my heart was saying, ‘Gurcharn, you will make it.’”

A call from the dean of the UBC Faculty of Land and Food Systems on Aug. 1, 2019 confirmed Brar’s appointment and his Jan. 8, 2020 start date as assistant professor, plant science. He left Saskatoon for Vancouver on Jan. 7 “and I cried so much I couldn’t speak a word.”

In his new position, Brar said he has total freedom to pursue research on “any crop, any disease, any problem as long as it’s plant science. In return, I need to bring in grants, teach and supervise grad students.”

He has a year to prepare to teach a senior-level plant pathology course and has already submitted a number of research proposals in cereal pathology, genetics, resistance breeding, and plant imaging using the Canadian Light Source.

Looking forward to the academic career that lies ahead of him, Brar described farming as “the most noble profession I can think of. There’s no cheating, no politics, no harm, and I’m proud to be serving—through my research—the needs of this great profession.”


Agknowledge, December 2020
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