Ana María Vázquez-Catoni
Meet Karina Morales, Plant Breeding Ph.D. Student
From editing genomes to empowering women, Karina builds collaborative scientific communities from the inside of her campus and beyond.
Karina Morales is a Ph.D. student in the Plant Breeding program at Texas A&M University (TAMU). She is currently working in the Rice Genetics and Genome Editing lab advised by Dr. Mike Thomson.
Her research looks at what controls the number of days from planting to flowering in rice. This is an important trait as flowering is one of the most heat-sensitive times in the rice life cycle and often occurs during the hottest part of summer. If rice can flower earlier, it may be able to avoid this heat stress and give higher yields.
Karina has been exploring this concept in two different ways. Beginning in her master’s, Karina looked at approximately 200 varieties of rice from around the world to characterize their time to flowering and what regions of their genetic information relating to this.
The other way she has been studying days to flowering in rice is through genome editing. Using the CRISPR/Cas9 system, Karina has been working on creating a library of knockouts of different flowering time genes to see how they interact with each other in a Texas variety. In this system, Cas9 acts like scissors and a guide RNA acts as a GPS to tell the scissors where to cut. After a cut is made, the cell will try to fix the break but often makes mistakes which can cause genes to lose their original function. She hopes to produce a variety that will flower sooner than current varieties to help with avoiding high temperatures during flowering.
A Sierra Nevada native in love with science
In high school, Karina had the fortune of having hands-on biology and environmental science classes. Growing up on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas, Karina had many opportunities to go out and explore nature. When learning about topics in ecology and environmental sciences there were many opportunities to go and physically see them in action rather than looking at pictures in a textbook. These immersive experiences motivated her to pursue a major in biological sciences.
During Karina’s sophomore year at Azusa Pacific University, she learned about plant biology research with Dr. Charles Chang. Her project consisted of looking at the impact of elevated ozone on soybean, a plant that does not thrive in Los Angeles weather.
While working with Dr. Chang, she was awarded a fellowship from the American Society of Plant Biologists to travel to Japan and work with the National Institute for Agro-Environmental Sciences. She studied the impact of elevated carbon dioxide and limited nitrogen on rice physiology and morphology. Karina’s project abroad gave her a unique opportunity in international research. She was immersed in a collaborative environment filled with scientists specialized in various disciplines including plant breeders, geneticists, agronomists, and soil scientists.
“My research experience in Japan opened me up to the idea that agriculture and plant sciences are not just in one country and what we do here can impact other countries as well. It got me really excited at the thought of international agriculture as a career and looking into what those possibilities would offer.”
Ultimately, she was convinced she wanted to pursue plant biology as a career and found her way to TAMU for graduate school.
During Karina’s first summer in Texas, she had the opportunity to attend the Rice Research Production Course at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. It was a great opportunity for Karina to get hands-on experience for every aspect of rice research, from the basics of planting styles and land preparations, all the way to post-harvest losses and rice storage.
“Through that experience, I was able to build a really good community within the rice research groups, meet friends and build collaborations. I was able to build a lot on my collaboration with the genotyping services lab there and connect with one of their breeders who I was able to bring out to TAMU.”
From struggling to striving
From her freshman year in high school through junior year in college, Karina struggled with severe chronic pain. She couldn’t go to classes because of it.
“I got through it with sheer perseverance and pushing through with a lot of support from family, friends and supportive faculty members. There were many days of questioning and wanting to give up and in these times my support network was invaluable, reminding me of how far I had already made it and giving me hope to continue onwards.”
Karina also struggled with transitioning from California, where she had spent her whole life, to her new beginnings in Texas, a 24-hour drive from her home.
“Growing up in California, I was never too far away from my family. It has been difficult being so far away.”
However, Karina has been able to find a community through her department's graduate organization and TAMU’s SACNAS chapter.
For women in ag science, by women in ag science
Karina is part of a team that launched a student organization for women in agricultural sciences at TAMU last fall. Their organization includes mentoring, as well as social and professional development opportunities for faculty, graduate students and postdocs. Events held so far have included speed networking and a mentoring matchup. In the coming semesters, she hopes the group will expand to allow for increased professional development and interaction with women in agriculture beyond TAMU to allow students and post-docs to receive support in looking at government or industry jobs.
The idea was conceived when Karina was the coordinator for Plant Breeding Circle Seminar at TAMU.
“Dr. Natalia DeLeon came in as an invited speaker and while she was here, we held a roundtable discussion about women in agricultural sciences and had it a really positive attendance with students and faculty. But it started to bring up a few of the issues women in the Soil and Crop Science and Horticulture departments were starting to face. Through that discussion, we recognized that there wasn’t much of a cohesive unit between the women in our department: a lot of the women were starting to feel siloed because, in the majority of our labs, there was only one or two female grad students out of a larger group.”
A couple of weeks after this roundtable discussion took place, Karina met with Dr. Peyton Smith, one of the faculty members that attended. They started discussing what it would look like to form a group and work with these issues. A few weeks later, Melinda Knuth, a Horticulture Ph.D. student, joined the team and since then, they have been brainstorming how it would look like to have this type of network and what types of events would be held.
Through Karina’s initiative, she is helping to connect and empower women in her field.
“I’d like for them to know that they are not alone in their struggles or what they are going through. There are a lot of us, women in ag, that want to support each other and there is a great community. Sometimes, all you need to do is reach out and a lot of us are willing to help.”
Through Karina’s academic career, she has learned that it is ok to not know everything.
“I feel like a lot of times coming in, there’s an expectation that you need to have all of the answers figured out, that you need to have a good idea of exactly what you want to do and where you want your research to go, that you need to have some sort of plan mapped out. But things don’t always work out, it’s ok to not have the answer. Usually, there’s a lot of people who are cheering you and ready to support you, including your advisor, postdocs, graduate students in your lab or in your department.”
Through her research, Karina would like to make a big difference in global food security.
“Over 50% of the world population depends on rice, but rice is a very nutrient and water-intensive crop. It’s not a very efficient plant to grow. I'd love for the work I do to make rice a better and easier crop for farmers and make rice production more secure in the future.”
Karina also described the impact of agriculture on society, beyond the production of food, raising livestock and creating of goods.
“...once you have a stable food supply for someone, you give them the platform to go to the next level, whether that be receiving an education, help them move between job opportunities. Without food, you can limit other people’s opportunities in life.”
Karina believes it is important to allow the opportunity for younger minority women to see that there are people like them in ag sciences.
“In my experience, I have met very few female minority scientists in agriculture. I think it is great to highlight these women so that those of us who are starting in our careers or those looking to potentially start a career in agricultural sciences, can know that there are others who have gone ahead of them and they can have people to look up so they can identify with.”
You can follow Karina on Twitter or contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
This interview was developed, transcribed and edited by WAGS co-founder Ana María Vazquez-Catoni.