A question & answer session to get to know the 2022 GG Scholar Caitlin Kestell, 1st year graduate student in the Crop Sciences Program. She has joined the lab of Dr. Ralph Dewey.

What aspect of genetics and/or genomics most interests you?

The aspect of genetics that I am most interested in is gene editing and genome engineering. There is amazing power in these tools which I find very exciting for solving future problems. As geneticists, we have the power to alter the very code which makes an organism what it is. Looking ahead, we can use the power of gene editing to tackle many of our society’s most pressing problems whether it be human genetic diseases or improved crops for a more sustainable agriculture.

What (or Who) influenced you to go into your field of study?

In the summer of 2021, I took an undergraduate course called Modern Research Skills in Genome Editing and Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This class helped me focus my passion for genetic engineering, and learn applications that are useful to humans and to agriculture. In this class, I got hands-on experience utilizing CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology to knock out zebrafish genes. I was fascinated by the immediacy of CRISPR’s effects on the zebrafish embryos I studied. It is a miraculous tool that has significant potential to solve a wide array of problems. In this class, I also heard from a guest lecturer who discussed the importance of sustainable agriculture. This really got me thinking about ways genetic engineering can be used to work towards this goal.

Who or what do you hope benefits from your research?

CRISPR allows scientists to directly edit existing genes within the plant to introduce new traits such as increased yield, disease or pest resistance, and much more. While mindful of the regulatory landscape, I believe genetic engineering is truly the way of the future for sustainable agriculture. Given the increasing pressures of population growth and climate change, this will soon be more important than ever. I think genetic engineering has the potential to solve many of the agricultural and food supply problems we are facing today. I hope all humankind will benefit from this research. This type of work is important in the US, where food security isn’t necessarily a huge problem, but is even more important globally when thinking about areas of the world that will be hardest hit with extreme droughts and other crises in the coming decades.

How can your research be used to inform decision makers (e.g. policy makers, resource managers, health practitioners, K12 educators, etc etc)?

Research into gene editing and the creation of GMOs can be used to inform decision-makers by educating them on the safety of GMOs. Globally, there is a persistent culture of distrust in science and distrust in genetics that needs to be addressed if we are going to work together to solve major problems. The first step in this work is educating children, adults, farmers, teacher, and all people about the science behind and safety of GMOs. Hopefully this will lessen the regulatory burden on scientists.

What do you think is the most pressing issue or problem in your field of study?

We all know climate change and population growth are going to continue in the coming decades. This presents us with never before seen problems of both growing enough food, and being able to grow it where it is needed. It is imperative that we address drought and extreme weather events, and our ability to grow food crops in those conditions. With the help of gene editing, we will be able to grow crops efficiently in those areas. Beyond just growing crops in difficult landscapes, we can work on disease/pest resistance and the nutritional improvement of many common food crops. While traditional breeding has been successful in the past, due to the pressures we are now facing, we need to move at a quicker pace than traditional breeding allows, and that is why we need GMOs.

How do you expect the GG Scholars program to impact your work?

The GG Scholars program has already been immensely helpful for me in not only making connections with faculty in my field, but also helping me transition to graduate school and make new friends. GGS has already and continues to help me build a network of researchers around me. In the future, I will look towards my GGS colleagues for collaborations and help with research questions. Sustainable agriculture is a huge interdisciplinary challenge that will require the expertise of many scientists. I look forward to having the support of GGS graduate students and faculty as I tackle my research in the coming years.

How would you describe your research interests to a 3rd grader?

All living things: you, me, your pets, and even the trees in your backyard have a special set of instructions inside them that tell them how to grow. These instructions tell the tree how tall to grow, what color to be, and where to grow leaves and roots. These instructions are called DNA and every living thing has DNA. Important foods you often eat such as corn, wheat, and vegetables do too! Scientists like me can make changes to that DNA in our laboratories, and create a corn plant that is different! We can make changes which result in corn plants that are better able to grow, produce more corn, and are even more nutritious. Scientists use this amazing superpower to improve not only corn, but all of your favorite fruits and vegetables!

What’s your dream job?

My dream job is to work for an agricultural biotechnology company using genome engineering to produce improved crops. I want to focus on traits such as disease/pest resistance, improved yield, enhanced nutrition, and stress tolerance. I want to not only enhance crop production here in the USA, but I also want to provide other parts of the world with the necessarily tools to feed their populations. I think it is important to use science and emerging technologies to focus on parts of the world which will be hardest hit by climate change. For countries where drought and heat stress is going to be the largest problem in the next few decades, I want to provide them with crops that are resistant to these stresses so they can continue to feed their populations effectively.