Aspiring first-gen mentor helps find greener food future

Miguel Rosas with seedlings in a gel case.
An aspiring scientist and mentor, doctoral student Miguel Rosas studies genes and traits in plants, such as these mutant seedlings, that could help sustainably feed the world.

Mentorship changed Miguel Rosas’ life, putting him on a path to help feed the world through science.

The first-generation college graduate and Washington State University doctoral student is paying that inspiration forward by pursuing discoveries that could fuel more productive and sustainable agriculture.

“I’ve had amazing mentors in my life,” Rosas said. “I wouldn’t be here without them and would not have considered a career in science without their guidance.”

As a teen growing up in San Marcos, Calif., Rosas wasn’t a science nerd.

“The only thing I excelled in was math,” he said. “It wasn’t until my senior year that I developed a passion for science. I took a physics class where math and science came together in a nice blend, and my teacher, Amy Rosen, did a great job explaining things.”

As graduation approached, Rosas’ teacher announced an internship at the Salk Institute in nearby La Jolla, Calif.

“I didn’t have a job lined up after high school, and this sounded like a cool way to explore a potential career in science,” he said.

At age 18, Rosas found himself interning at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Working in scientist Joanne Chory’s lab, he investigated the role of a small signaling peptide called rapid alkalinization factor 1, or RALF1, in coordinating cell expansion, a basic process for plant development.

Such fundamental discoveries could benefit agriculture, improving yields and minimizing impacts to the environment. Making a more sustainable, food-secure world appeals to Rosas.

“That’s an important part of why I do this,” he said.

From the Salk Institute, Rosas’ curiosity took him to California State University-San Marcos in San Diego, where he joined research projects in plant molecular biology as an undergraduate. With his professor, Matthew Escobar, and experienced students, Nick Allen and Laura Walters, as inspiring mentors, Rosas investigated nitrate-induced genes involved in plant root development and saw his work published in scientific journals for the first time.

His experience at both institute and state university opened previously unimaginable pathways.

Miguel with brachipodium plants
In a WSU lab, Miguel Rosas studies model grasses whose mutant genes allow them to better scavenge for nutrients. “Aboveground they’re identical” to normal speciments. “It’s not until you look below the surface that you see the difference.”

“I was no longer just a consumer of knowledge, but a pioneer making progress in an uncharted frontier,” Rosas said.

Now, as a doctoral student in Associate Professor Karen Sanguinet’s lab, Rosas studies a mutant gene that controls structure and function in plant roots and their tiny root hairs.

Working with Brachypodium distachyon, a model grass species closely related to wheat and barley, he uses genetic and protein biochemical approaches to investigate how a defect in a root hair gene, known as BUZZ, affects root development under limited nutrient conditions.

The mutant, buzz, and the normal wildtype plant look similar.

“Aboveground they’re identical,” he said. “It’s not until you look below the surface that you see the difference.”

Plants with the mutation have abnormal root hairs—miniscule structures that help roots find water and nutrients— that form but fail to elongate. They also have longer roots. Plants that grow deeper roots can access more soil, increasing their uptake of nitrogen and other mobile nutrients.

“If we can take what we’ve learned in a model grass and apply it to food crops, we can grow them much more efficiently,” Rosas said. That includes using less nitrogen fertilizer, which can leach into water and cause environmental damage.

Rosas will graduate in late 2024 from WSU’s multidisciplinary Molecular Plant Sciences program. Sparked by his parents, Margarita and Vicente, his California State mentor Professor Escobar, and Sanguinet as well as friends and fellow students at WSU, he aspires to continue his science career and to help others along their journeys.

Karen Sanguinet
Karen Sanguinet, WSU Department of Crop and Soil Sciences

“Miguel has a bright future ahead,” Sanguinet said. “He is a tremendous mentor to undergraduate and graduate student researchers, and a wonderful role model as well. It has been a gift to see him grow and blossom as a scientist and a person over the past several years.”

Science can be challenging, and Rosas remembers moments when he felt like he had no fight left.

“That’s when I think of the reasons why I’m here, the love and support that others have given me, the sacrifices my parents have made” he said. “I can’t give up. I can do this to increase the trajectory of my family.”

Rosas advises fellow students to find people that support them academically and emotionally and fields they are passionate about.

“A lot of undergraduates may not be sure of what they want to do,” he said. “I want to show them that you can be a scientist. Your contributions can help progress the field.”