Growing up in Sri Lanka, this Tiger ate lentils three times a day, never imagining that she would later use lentils to help address the world’s nutritional problems. Through her plant and environmental science research at Clemson, this Tiger is working to change the world with her research in global food security, childhood obesity and the unhealthy food systems that contribute to “hidden hunger.”

Meet Dilrukshi “Dil” Thavarajah

Title: Associate professor, Pulse Quality and Nutrition, Plant and Environmental Sciences

Years at Clemson: Three years and six months

What I do at Clemson: I have a number of positions at Clemson. I do research, teach graduate and undergraduate courses, and work with Cooperative Extension. I am an experienced pulse crop physiologist currently studying agricultural production systems, especially using pulse crops (lentils, field pea, chickpea) to work towards global food and nutritional security.

My three major research areas are biofortification, prebiotic carbohydrates and gut microbiome, and developing sustainable food systems. I research the micronutrient enrichment of pulse crops to increase micronutrient concentration and bioavailability. I research nutrigenomics on lentil selenium and prebiotic carbohydrates to move toward developing lentil cultivars resilience to the climate of southeast Asia and Africa. The goal is using pulse crops and kale as whole foods to reduce obesity, and identify obesity metabolic and biomarkers. My research also includes developing sustainable food systems to provide daily dietary needs using pulse crops, roots and Brassica vegetables, called “Tiger Gardens.”

In addition, I serve as vice-president for the North American Pulse Improvement Society, am visiting lecturer at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka and a faculty research fellow in the Clemson University School of Health Research.

Through the extension program, my responsibilities include establishing “Tiger Gardens” in local elementary schools to promote healthful food systems to combat childhood obesity and malnutrition. Similarly, I work closely with the South Carolina Fruit and Vegetable Grower Association and others to promote healthy food systems.

What I love about Clemson: I love our outstanding undergraduate students who truly care about global food security, healthy eating and finding food-based solutions to combat hidden hunger and obesity.

Accomplishment I’m most proud of:  I grew up eating lentils three meals a day, but never thought that I could make a difference in our global food system by starting with a small place convert and moving into a nutritionally better place. Failure to link current agricultural production with human nutritional needs has led to the development of unhealthy food systems. Today, these unhealthy food systems have created severe micronutrient malnutrition also known as “hidden hunger” and obesity. To solve such problems, I study pulse biofortification and established the first Canadian lentil biofortification program in Saskatchewan, Canada. I have since established similar programs at North Dakota State University and now at Clemson.  I am proud of my biofortified lentils. My research collaboration with ICARDA has realized approximately a dozen lentil varieties with high nutritional quality to help combat hidden hunger in South Asia and Africa. Along with my graduate students, we are working towards global food security in the U.S., India and Sri Lanka.

Where I see myself in five years: I would like to lead a global pulse-breeding and nutrigenomic center to help lentil breeders around the world to identify proper nutritional quality traits linking production to human health.

Last thing I watched on TV: Grey’s Anatomy

Guilty pleasure:  Frequent weekend visits to see my husband/daughter in California.

One thing people don’t know about you: Most people think that I can eat very spicy food because I grew up in Sri Lanka. This is not true! I can cook spicy food well, but I find it very hard to tolerate red-hot Thai or Indian food.

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