UW–Madison student-advisor pair named to 2023 cohort of Gilliam fellows

PhD student Ryan Martinez and Assistant Professor Jake Brunkard have received the prestigious Gilliam Fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

The HHMI Gilliam Fellows program supports pairs of graduate students and their dissertation advisors who are committed to building healthy academic ecosystems. The Gilliam program also seeks to ensure that students from groups that are historically underrepresented in science are prepared to be leaders in research and science education, and PhD students are selected as fellows based on their potential for scientific leadership.

Brunkard’s Genetics lab investigates how plant cells monitor their nutrient availability. Within that area, Martinez studies a family of plants native to Australia that grows particularly well in areas with fewer available nutrients.

“Australia has soils that are really low in phosphorus, which is an important plant nutrient and it’s a non-renewable resource,” Martinez explained. “My project studies how this plant has evolved to grow in a phosphorus-poor environment to try to identify ways that we can improve how agricultural plants use nutrients.”

Brunkard said that agriculture relies heavily on fertilizers, including phosphorous, to supply food to the billions of people on Earth. But phosphorous is a finite resource that could begin to run out in the span of a lifetime, and there is currently no plan for growing crops on the same scale without fertilizers like it.

In addition, Brunkard added that fertilizers can cause huge damage to the environment and ecosystems, as well as contribute to climate change.

“Anyone who’s from this area of Wisconsin is familiar with that because we see those big algal blooms and the lakes turn bright green whenever farms are dowsing fields with fertilizer to make sure crops make huge yields,” Brunkard said. “We’re hoping that by understanding how plants sense and respond to nutrients, that we would be able to guide efforts to breed crops of the future for sustainable agriculture with less fertilizer.”

The plant Martinez studies, called Grevillea lanigera or Woolly Grevillea, is a good candidate for this project because it can absorb nutrients out of soils that aren’t considered suitable for agriculture.

A stem of a green shrubby plant shows off its pink and light orange flowers.
Woolly grevillea

“What makes this plant cool is that, even when compared to other related plants from the same environment, it’s better at using nutrients than they are,” Martinez said.

To study Woolly Grevillea, Martinez has also had to learn how to grow it in the lab.

“Ryan’s also doing a lot of horticulture because nobody knows how to grow these plants in lab settings,” Brunkard said. “So, there’s a lot of innovation and ingenuity there in trying to figure out how to start with a new plant.”

Martinez added that the opportunity to study something new was part of what drew him to this project and Brunkard’s lab.

“I wanted to do a project that no one else is really working on. I find it kind of exciting,” Martinez said.

As 2023 Gilliam fellows, Martinez and Brunkard will join a cohort engaged in outstanding scientific research and leadership. Student fellows attend the Gilliam Annual Meeting and participate in HHMI leadership training. Advisors named to the fellowship also participate in a year-long course on culturally aware mentorship.

Martinez said he is looking forward to meeting other fellows in his cohort.

“I was looking at the other Gilliam profiles and they all seem like they’re doing really cool science, so I’m really excited to network,” Martinez said.

Brunkard also said he is looking forward to meeting other HHMI Gilliam advisors, as well as participating in the monthly workshops. He often works with the Genetics graduate program and hopes to be able to bring back what he learns through the Gilliam Fellows program to the trainers and students at UW–Madison.

In particular, he plans to work with HHMI to rethink how genetics curricula can fully represent the complexity inherent in genetics and portray that information in ways that cannot be co-opted by eugenics or racial supremacist ideologies.

“I really appreciate the opportunity and emphasis to be thinking about diversity in all of its complexities in a structured format like this,” Brunkard said.

Learn more about the Gilliam Fellows program.