In the U.S., the average person eats 27 pounds of rice each year. In the Philippines, where Santiago Bataller grew up, it’s 258 pounds. In Myanmar, 460.
“You notice that the poorer the country is, the greater their demand for rice as their main source of calories,” said Bataller during a recent presentation. “I hope to have a rice crop that is more nutritious and more accessible.”
The international student and biological sciences Ph.D. candidate talked about how he’s part of a team that’s creating a more nutritious and climate-resilient rice at the ninth annual Rebel Grad Slam 3-Minute Thesis Competition. This event, hosted by the UNLV Graduate College, challenges graduate and professional students to present their research using just one presentation slide in three minutes or less. A total of 80 students participated in the weeklong competition, which culminated in the final round on Nov. 4. In the end, Bataller took home the first-place trophy and a $1,500 scholarship from the Graduate College.
As the world’s population increases and climate change negatively impacts crop production, Bataller, who works with Jeffery Shen, has found that by genetically engineering a single gene called WRKY, he’s able to produce a rice plant with faster germination rates and more resilience to stressful conditions, such as a cold and salty environment.
“Amazingly, this rice plant produced grains with improved nutritional composition, such as increased levels of vitamin B5,” Bataller told the audience during his presentation. “As a plant molecular biologist, my goal is to find solutions to the challenges of food insecurity.”
Bataller’s passion for his research started long before he joined UNLV.
“During my undergrad in the Philippines, I liked to study plants. I was very interested in plants, and my mentor suggested that I continue my research at the master’s level. I studied mushrooms and coconuts, then I wanted to study a crop which had a strong economic influence, and that was rice,” he said.
Bataller, who has been following the Rebel Grad Slam competition since he started graduate school at UNLV in 2016, said he was encouraged by friends who have previously competed to sign up this year and drew on his teaching experience to present complex research in a digestible elevator pitch.
“Being an instructor of biology, I present ideas to my students in ways where they are easily able to understand the concepts,” he said.
Despite his teaching experience and preparation for the competition – including practicing his presentation more than one hundred times – Bataller was surprised by the outcome.
“I did not expect [to win]. This was my first time entering a competition, and I won,” he said. “I felt relieved, happy, and emotional.”
For future Rebel Grad Slammers, Bataller suggests watching previous competitions, watching workshops hosted by the Graduate College, and practicing many times in front of colleagues and peers. He also shares this advice: “GO FOR IT. Try it because it will make you more confident.”
Bataller is heeding his own advice of going for it in his continued fight against food insecurity.
“I understand that food insecurity is not just a scientific issue to solve, but a political one,” he said. “We have a huge challenge in front of us. With scientific innovations, we need to do everything we can to alleviate human suffering.”