Run, Research, Repeat — Until There’s Food for All
A microbiology major and Goldwater Scholar looks to use his skills in the lab to help feed a growing population sustainably.
Elias Kemna BSx’23 is on track in his college career, and in more ways than one. First, he’s a member of the Wisconsin Track Club, where he enjoys running and spending time with his fellow “cows,” as he calls his teammates due to their bovine mascot. But Kemna is also on course when it comes to his academic pursuits. He recently won a prestigious national scholarship, and he’s worked in three labs since high school, with research spanning topics from enzymes to soil microbes.
Kemna, a senior working toward a degree in microbiology and a certificate in global health, found his research interests early. While attending high school in McFarland, Wisconsin, he participated in the Dane County Youth Apprenticeship Program, which gave him the opportunity to conduct research in the lab of biochemistry professor Brian Fox.
“Eli was a highly valued member of our research team,” Fox says. “His consistent contributions while he was an intern offer a great example of how effort and engagement can lead to great steps forward.”
Those steps carried Kemna into his freshman year at UW, where he discovered his interest in promoting food security. Food security means having access, both physically and economically, to a sufficient amount of food for a healthy life.
“Starting in high school, I became fascinated with the hidden half of nature,” Kemna says. “During my first semester, I participated in a first-year interest group focusing on global food security, and I became interested in the role of microbes in food security and agriculture. Researchers are finding ways to use microbes to provide plants with nutrients and decrease the need for fertilizers. They’re also studying microbes that live symbiotically with plants that could increase plant yield and resilience.”
Always pushing to stay in the fast lane, Kemna joined the soil microbial ecology lab run by Thea Whitman, assistant professor of soil science, for his freshman and sophomore years. He studied the interactions of soil microbes and compounds called pyrogenic organic matter, which are created during wildfires. And in summer 2022, Kemna took on a new project in a functional genomics lab at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where he used CRISPR genome editing technology to study the genetics of algae commonly used in research.
“From my research, I have learned how much I don’t know. The vastness of nature is humbling — and inspiring,” Kemna says. “I have also learned the importance of failure. It’s to be expected, not dreaded, and it’s a necessary part of learning.”
In the midst of classes, research, and running, Kemna also found time to apply for and receive a Barry Goldwater Scholarship. The award is one of the most prestigious in the country for undergraduates studying the natural sciences and gives winners in their junior year up to $7,500 for their senior year of study.
“The amazing undergraduate academic awards staff at UW–Madison actually reached out to me to make me aware of this award,” explains Kemna. “It is an honor to be considered part of such a talented group of student researchers.”
The Goldwater Scholarship Program encourages students to pursue research careers in science, and that’s just what Kemna intends to do. After graduation in spring of 2023, he plans to take a gap year and then start graduate school.
“I hope to do research,” says Kemna, “and develop agricultural biotechnology that will help farmers be more sustainable, be better able to handle the challenges of climate change, and meet the demands of a growing population.”This article was posted in Basic Science, Changing Climate, Class Act, Fall 2022, Food Systems, Healthy Ecosystems and tagged Biochemistry, Brian Fox, Elias Kemna, Goldwater Scholarship Program, Soil science, Thea Whitman.