Vijaya Raghavan, James McGill Professor of Bioresource Engineering, is the 2023 recipient of McGill’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Learning. The Award, which recognizes “sustained excellence in leadership and innovation which has had a significant impact on teaching and the learning experience at McGill and beyond,” was presented at the June 2 Agricultural and Environmental Sciences morning convocation ceremony on Macdonald Campus.
“Lauded as a visionary and a role model, he has demonstrated leadership both as chair and graduate program director of the Department of Bioresource Engineering,” said Anja Geitmann, Dean of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, in presenting the award. “His contributions include the creation of ten new courses, leading the development of new programs and the initiation of lasting collaborations with industry to ensure that students can gain practical experience.” Further, she noted, “he implemented several developmental projects in India and West Africa, establishing educational programs that flourish to this day.”
“His former students work in industry, academia, and governmental organizations around the world,” Geitmann said. “They laud him as a person with a strong work ethic, a humanitarian, a person who believes in research and education as a means to empower people and improve lives.”
According to one former student, Professor Raghavan “is not only a dedicated teacher and an outstanding academic supervisor but also an exemplary mentor. He takes it as his personal responsibility to ensure that each and every student is successful in their life and career.” Another says “It is very rare to come across such a genuine selfless personality, who finds pleasure in the betterment of people’s lives.”
Learning throughout life
“Life is all about learning,” says Professor Raghavan, whose professional and personal journey, from Bangalore to Montreal, bears witness to this statement.
He grew up in Bangalore as part of an extended “joint” family – his parents, siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins – which developed a sense of responsibility that still informs his teaching and research. Too young to enter medical school – his first choice – after finishing high school, he opted for mechanical engineering, earning his degree in 1967. “It was all related to finding a good job,” he says. “I had to start earning money!”
Raghavan began teaching mechanical engineering courses at BMS College of Engineering in Bangalore, as well as tutoring high school students in the evening. “But I realized that this life of teaching might not be sustainable without further degrees.”
He began applying to graduate programs in India and North America, and a friend prompted him to apply to the Agricultural Engineering program at the University of Guelph. Raghavan was not only accepted but also offered a research assistantship that would give him enough funds to pursue his master’s while also sending some back to support his family in Bangalore. “So that was it – I would go to Guelph. There was nothing else to consider except… what is agricultural engineering?,” he laughs. “To me soil was dirt, and food was something you eat!”
What he didn’t know, Raghavan soon learned. He completed his masters degree and then a PhD at the State University of Colorado, graduating in 1973 and working for a year with a friend’s new company, where he developed a machine for packaging roses – until he saw a posting for a research associate at McGill.
Contributing to society
Not long after arriving at the Macdonald campus in 1974, Raghavan, who had been researching soil dynamics, began developing a new interest in post-harvest technology, which posed a unique set of learning challenges. Processes for drying and storing grain to ensure its longevity and protect it from infestations while maintaining its nutritional value require not only a knowledge of the grain’s biological features but also the physical processes that could be deployed to conserve foods post-harvest. “I needed to learn a lot of physiology and biology,” he recalls.
Lifelong learning has characterized Raghavan’s trajectory, as has his commitment to sharing knowledge. His post-harvest research, which aims to help farmers increase productivity and food security, has led to collaborations that developed post-harvest programs at the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) Bangalore as well as UAS Dharwad and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in India. “The agricultural universities around India are connected to farmers, so real knowledge transfer can take place there,” he says. “Meeting and talking with farmers directly is something I enjoy very much.” He has also directed projects that have enhanced post-harvest technology and reduced harvest loss in West Africa, Brazil and China.
“The university has a vital role to play in society,” Raghavan says – a point supported by the impact of his teaching and research. His work at McGill and internationally has led to him being asked to serve on an expert advisory committee on food related challenges for Health Canada. He is also a director of the Royal Society of Canada.
Today, he is graduate program director for Bioresource Engineering and, of course, a teacher. “So much of what I have done has been achieved through the group efforts of my students, who are now all around the world,” he says. Raghavan also emphasizes all the contributions of his beloved wife Subhadra and his research team of many years: engineer Yvan Gariepy, microbiologist Dr. Darwin Lyew, and current Bioresource Engineering colleague Professor Valérie Orsat. “There are lots of opportunities to contribute to society,” he says. “If I can share that point with students, I think it can go a long way.”