Nathan Grant, doctoral student in molecular plant sciences
Research to Feed the Future
Doctoral student Nathan Grant joins the WSU/U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative through his research
By Cheryl Reed
Passion and compassion aren’t synonymous, but in the case of molecular plant sciences doctoral student Nathan Grant, the two provide the synergy for his research and future career goals. Working side-by-side with his faculty mentor, Dr. Kulvinder Gill, Nathan is helping develop a heat-tolerant variety of wheat that could be grown in some of the world’s most hot and hunger-challenged regions of the world.
As an undergraduate student at Washington State University, Nathan didn’t believe he had what it took to be a doctoral student. He had been working in a laboratory during his undergraduate work—first just washing dishes, then mapping genes—but he still didn’t equate that to doctoral research ability. So when his advisor and wheat geneticist, Kulvinder Gill, invited him to stay on for a doctoral program after he completed his bachelor’s degree, Nathan was surprised.
“I didn’t feel like I could do doctoral work,” says Nathan, “but my experience in the laboratory as an undergraduate gave me enough experience that my advisor trusted me.”
When he came to WSU in 2008 as an undergraduate, Nathan first studied computer engineering, but quickly realized that the field was not his forte. He considered viticulture and enology, but decided that he wanted to be more of a generalist, so chose the field of agricultural biotechnology, where he first connected with Dr. Gill. Now as a doctoral student in Gill’s laboratory, Nathan has been fortunate to be part of a research team working on a $16.2 million US Agency for International Development (USAID) project led by WSU to research heat stress in wheat.
Billions of dollars’ worth of wheat is lost or damaged each year due to heat and drought. With the threat of climate change, food security in areas like the Asian sub-continent may become a major threat in the future. Recognizing this, the U.S. government in 2013 partnered with 24 “Feed the Future Innovation Labs,” including WSU, to increase wheat yields, improve farm profitability, generate new scientific information about heat stress tolerance, train the next generation of scientists, and build human, institutional, and infrastructure capacity at partner institutions (http://css.wsu.edu/usaid-about-crwil/).
Because wheat is a heat-sensitive crop that grows best in cooler temperatures, creating a variety more tolerant to heat could be part of the answer to solve global hunger problems, particularly in the focal area of the government research: the North Indian River Plain, a 630 million acre of fertile plain in northern and eastern India.
“This research is a huge collaborate effort with other institutions worldwide including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal,” says Nathan. “We’re fortunate to have this institution and its facilities for research, because some of the other institutions do not.”
The team first found elite wheat varieties tolerant to heat stress and pooled all their traits together, such as height and biomass with the goal to eventually create one breed that might thrive in hot regions of the earth. So far they screened about 1200 different germplasms from around the world with average climates similar to Africa and Asia. Nathan’s role is to look at the photosynthesis aspect of particular wheat samples, measure gas exchange, and determine if that translates into a favorable attribute for heat tolerance.
The research team has now bred several plots of modified wheat that is being monitored and tested in WSU’s wheat breeding greenhouse. Grown in deep pots under 95 degree temperatures, the plants look to be thriving—but Nathan continues to check their photosynthesis performance daily to determine which new variety might have the best targeted traits.
Turning Passion to Compassion
In addition to working on his research in Gill’s lab, Nathan has been teaching a biology 102 lab class this semester and working on his dissertation on screening for photosynthesis in wheat. In writing and preparing for a career, his vision for the future falls beyond the research laboratory.
What began four years ago as a disbelief in his ability for a Ph.D. program has evolved into a new reality for Nathan: a confidence in his ability as a scientist and soon-to-be doctor in the field of molecular plant sciences. His passion for plant biotechnology has merged with a newfound compassion to help people understand the benefits, importance, and truth about genetically modified plants. As a matter of fact, after he graduates in 2018, Nathan would like to step into policy-making in Washington D.C., where he believes he can make a difference.
“In a world with so much misinformation about GMO crops, I’d like to help keep people informed,” he says.
To learn more about the USAID research project in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, visit http://news.cahnrs.wsu.edu/blog/article/wsu-leads-development-of-heat-tolerant-grain/.
To find out about the Molecular Plant Sciences program, visit https://mps.wsu.edu/