Kay Watt

Kay Watt
Deconstructing drought to further food security

Note: This interview was conducted in spring 2017, when Kay Watt was a 2016/17 Business Development Fellow.

Kay Watt is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Integrative Genetics and Genomics graduate group, and the Plant Sciences department. She is a NSF GRFP fellow, a Fulbright scholar and a former Peace Corps volunteer. She has a BA in religious studies from Smith College, and a BS in biotechnology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

What’s important about your research—and where do you hope to take it?

My research centers around understanding and solving the wicked problem of food insecurity. Drought is a severe issue contributing to food insecurity, and my research strives to understand and deconstruct the traits behind drought tolerance in chickpeas, a globally and nutritionally important staple crop. Once the mechanisms behind drought tolerance are better understood, they can be introduced to new seed varieties. In turn, those seeds can be sold or traded in historic and novel drought-prone regions, bolstering food security in marginal or subsistence communities.

What are you most passionate about in your work?

Working with subsistence farmers during my Peace Corps service in Panama sparked a passion for contributing to the vision of a more food-secure world. Earth’s inhabitants need applied, robust scientific knowledge that can positively impact the lives of many in concrete and tangible ways, and we need solutions to the complex and very troubling problems behind global hunger and poverty. Agriculture is the backbone of society, and I am lucky to have had the opportunity to help work on these problems at UC Davis.

How will what you learn as a Business Development Fellow help you change the world?

One of the most critical facets of scientific research is translating it into a sustainable business that can effect real change in the world. The fellows program has taught me the fundamental principles guiding innovation and entrepreneurship that I will take with me into industry after graduation. 

What is the most valuable lesson or experience you have had through the fellows program?

There is no substitute for experience, and during the Entrepreneurship Academy there were two occasions where we were asked to step outside our comfort zones and give 15-minute pitches to a variety of professionals, over the course of two hours. I initially found this nerve wracking, but by the end of the experience I had become comfortable reaching out to people, understanding their interests and engaging with them on a more authentic level. This experience is indicative of the whole Business Development Fellows experience, where both learning on my feet and applying classroom skills has added not just to my academic knowledge, but changed the way I interact with people, both as a scientist and as a professional. Having the opportunity to work with MBA students and understand their perspectives has also been valuable.