Born in a tiny, remote village in India, Karim Maredia left home at the age of 5. He went to live with his aunt and uncle in Mumbai – the country’s most populous city, 400 miles away from home.
“I left my parents to get an education,” he said. “My aunt became like a mother to me. Mumbai was in another state which had better schools, better education and better opportunities. “My father was passionate about education. He was the first person in the whole village to pass high school. At the time, our country was under British rule and he had to travel 300 miles to take a high school exam.”
Today, the Michigan State University (MSU) entomologist is one of the world’s authorities on diverse agricultural topics such as biotechnology, biosafety and integrated pest management (IPM). It’s a huge departure from the young boy who once used a broomstick and heat from the scorching Indian sun to keep birds and bugs from the family’s harvested grains.
“In those days, there were no dryers and, in our village, there was no electricity. Putting those grains on the hot concrete slabs without pesticides, that was IPM,” he said. “The kids stood there with broomsticks in hand for three hours until all of the bugs were dead. But it was so hot, it was my feeling that the bugs were dead within an hour.”
Insects, however, were not always top of mind for Maredia. As a youngster, he yearned to become a veterinarian so that he could care for the buffalo on the family farm. Instead, a neighbor convinced his parents that entomology was a better career choice because of more job availability. To fill the void left by not pursuing veterinary medicine, Maredia befriended several animal science students in college.
“I’d tag along with them to class. Eventually, I got so good that some people really thought I was a veterinarian,” he said. “I could do artificial insemination, and work on animal health. To this day, that is my one regret – not becoming a veterinarian.”
Maredia earned his undergraduate degree in India, and both his masters and doctoral degrees in the United States. After that, he returned home and got married –to a beautiful young lady from Mumbai chosen by his parents.
A few months later he landed a job in Mexico where he worked at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, also known as CIMMYT. That’s where he met Norman Bourlaug, Father of Green Revolution, a researcher Maredia had greatly admired from afar.
“India was in a food crisis in the ‘60s – a real, real food crisis,” he said. “Millions of people would have died but that’s when Dr. Bourlaug and the Green Revolution came about. They brought the new high-yielding dwarf wheat varieties from Mexico to India and helped to save millions of lives.”
Maredia spent three years in Mexico working with plant breeder teams from around the world to help develop insect-resistant maize varieties. He and his wife, who also started work at CIMMYT, lived in the same apartment complex as Bourlaug. They observed the famed agricultural scientist who had earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. “I saw Dr. Bourlaug and other researchers at CIMMYT bringing in scientists from all around the world, working closely with them and that really changed me. Just working in Mexico changed my whole life,” he said.
The couple left Mexico and came to work at MSU in March 1989, arriving to five inches of freshly fallen snow. Maredia wanted to collaborate and build partnerships, and teach the “next generation of young minds.” Eventually, he successfully lobbied faculty, received funding and started the first international pest management course at MSU.
Fascinated with biotechnology and its potential to help farmers and agriculture, Maredia has been leading a $20-million Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation project since 2010 which is guiding the development of biotechnology policy in Africa. He has brought hundreds of policy makers, regulators and legislative leaders from around the world to MSU to be trained on the topic.
“That’s what I wanted to do – to share the knowledge and experience from Michigan with the world,” he said. “There was so much good going on that could be shared with other countries, especially in terms of the approach, the methods and the tools we have at Michigan State.”
Maredia and his wife, Mywish, an MSU agriculture economics professor, attribute their success in large part to Maredia’s father, who came to Michigan to live with them in 1992 after his wife’s death - Maredia’s mother.
“My father believed in education and sharing of knowledge, and he constantly inspired us to do that,” he said. “We were able to travel to do our work. My father took good care of our kids [both now in their 20s].”
The other credit, he says, goes to MSU. “This university has given us room to grow and to achieve our dreams,” he said. “It’s the openness, the support and the multicultural international environment, the flexibility and the reputation of MSU.
“I will never forget Michigan State. It’s a special place. If I had been at any other university, I would not have been able to do what I’ve done here.”