COLLEGE STATION – Gulzar Akhtar came to the U.S. in January to study roses. He’s going home to Pakistan this month having learned much more.
“Before coming here, my mind was completely different,” said Akhtar, who is completing a six-month internship with Dr. David Byrne, Texas A&M AgriLife Research rose breeder. “Everyone helped me, my supervisor (Byrne) is the greatest in the world and everyone cooperated with me. I am amazed.
“I am happy to go home, but I am also sad that I am leaving this place,” he said.
Akhtar’s research on roses yielded results that will be helpful both for Byrne’s breeding program at Texas A&M University and for the rose industry in Pakistan. He verified through DNA testing, for example, the close relationship between the Rosa centifolia species grown in Pakistan for its fragrant, extractable oil, and the Rosa centifolia species in U.S. grown for its blossoms. That’s important for breeding roses, because it enlarges the genetic traits that might be available for developing new rose varieties for different purposes.
“I learned a lot more about the different species with his work,” Byrne said. “Gulzar also looked at the genetics for certain traits, and that is very important in his work as well as ours – for the productivity and flower traits. When you’re breeding a rose, you’re looking at a lot of roses and how quickly they repeat. So he collected a lot of data, because one of the things we need to understand — for him and his country as well as for us — is the effect of heat on roses.”
Ultimately, new varieties of roses in both the U.S. and Pakistan could come from this joint study. But both agree that the popular plants aren’t the only thing that grew out of the experience. The concept of university life as well as the comforts of home both had an impact on Akhtar, as did cultural awareness for those he met while here.
Asked what ideas he will “take back” to Pakistan from his experience, Akhtar said, “The research work plans. The teachers here have good projects, and they manage the project in a different way. They spend a lot of time on the research, and they have good interactions with their students. They have all the facilities in one lab for everything related to the project. And if we need anything, they can give it to us in a few minutes or a few hours.
“The main focus is to give practical knowledge to the student, so they take them in the field and they work with them,” Akhtar said. “I feel such things are very good, and I would also like to develop such an interaction in Pakistan.
“Also, there are many seminars here about new research. Even a professor who has done research in another state goes to other universities to present their findings. That is good to share this research, and we will also use this model in Pakistan.”
Having a good work environment was a plus for Akhtar.
“Dr. Byrne is too nice. There were many things new to me here, and he supported me and guided me like a teacher and like a friend,” Akhtar said. “I didn’t feel any difficulty here. Also the students helped me greatly, because all the systems, all the instruments are mostly different from what I knew.”
If there is one thing in his field of study that he would like to introduce in Pakistan, it would be landscaping, he said, acknowledging a new-found passion for the beauty and usefulness of the practice.
“Here everything is planned in every corner of the city,” he said. “When I go back, if I have an opportunity in a city or a home, I will manage the landscape of that area like that. I like landscaping very much. I think that because of landscaping where on every corner plants are planted, that is why there is no dust and it is very clean.”
Akhtar also experienced leisure times and new interests, and time outside of the lab and rose data collection also yielded some lasting memories. He enjoyed sports facilities on the campus, found out about online shopping and was astonished by good roads and a traffic system that allows a pedestrian to safely walk across the street while drivers observe crosswalk etiquette.
“Everyone met me in a very good, exciting way,” he said. “I feel like they have known me for many years. Other students came to meet me and they said, ‘you’re going to come and take a dinner with us.’ This behavior I like.”
And then there are what Akhtar called “machines” – devices for everything from the rose production to comforts at home.
“In the field, most labor is done by the machines, and with these machines we could save a lot of time,” he said. “My country has problems with electricity, but hopefully in the future it will be good, and we can use more machines.”
And in a home there is a machine for everything, he said – his favorite being a rice cooker.
“I saw this for the first time. You place rice and water in that cooker, turn it on for 20 minutes, and you have rice,” he said. “This is very different and very easy, because I like rice too much. And every day I can cook rice with this machine.
“There also is a machine to make chapati (flatbread). We have to work for 20 or 30 minutes to make chapatti from wheat. But here, in the big grocery stores, one person is working the chapati on a machine and it goes like this,” he said, waving a circle in the air. “And there is a whole bunch of chapati produced. With these machines, we can save a lot of time.”
As for what he will pack for his return trip, Akhtar now has an iPhone and will stock up on chocolate.
“I will also practice in Pakistan the things I learned here that I think are better for us,” he said.
His interactions leave behind valuable lessons for his U.S. collaborators as well.
“When I have exchange students, I learn a lot from them from a cultural point of view,” Byrne said. “We talk a lot about different cultures and how they impact our behavior, and it’s always very useful. Of course, we talked a lot about roses and what they do in Pakistan, which is very different than what we’re doing here because we do landscape roses whereas they are raising roses for oil.
“But it’s really about learning to understand cultures,” Byrne added. “When things happened in the news in Pakistan, I could talk to him to try to understand it, because from our point of view we get one story which sometimes is not always quite right. There are a lot of different perspectives.
“It is just fascinating to think about how one lives in Pakistan with limitations on things like electricity that we take for granted. I think most people don’t realize how lucky we are, and how many things we have here that many people don’t have. And I think that’s important to realize when you start exchanging ideas and trying to understand the work going on in research.”