Rishi Masalia, a doctoral candidate in the department of plant biology, receives the 2018 Pillar of the Community Award

Rishi Masalia, a doctoral candidate in the department of plant biology

Highlighting his contributions to science outreach efforts both at the University and in Athens, Rishi Masalia has been awarded the 2018 Pillar of the Community Award at the 17th annual H. Gordon and Francis S. Davis Student Organization Achievement and Recognition Awards. The award is given to an individual within the UGA community who assists others above and beyond the call of duty. Masalia was recognized for his involvement with the Athens Science Cafe and the Athens Science Observer.

Masalia serves as co-founder of the Athens Science Café, whose goal is to facilitate a connection between the Athens scientific community and the community at large.

Masalia has also served as the co-founder and editor-in-chief to the Athens Science Café’s sister organization, the Science Observer. The Science Observer is a volunteer, student run science communication community dedicated to public engagement in scientific research and education through articles, blogs, podcasts, and videos.

Additionally, Masalia was recently named one of seven 2018 K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders by the American Association of College and Universities.

Honoring the work of K. Patricia Cross, Professor Emerita of Higher Education at the University of California-Berkeley, the award recognizes graduate students who show “exemplary promise as future leaders of higher education; who demonstrate a commitment to developing academic and civic responsibility in themselves and others; and whose work reflects a strong emphasis on teaching and learning.”

The fifth University of Georgia student to receive the honor, Masalia was awarded for his commitment to teaching and learning, as well as his involvement in science outreach in the Athens community.

A biologist and bioinformatician, Masalia identifies candidate genes using the cultivated sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.) as a model.

The Arizona native believes water availability will be one of the biggest challenges science and society will face in the coming decades.

His goal is to understand the genetic mechanisms governing crop-water relations, specifically identifying candidate genes conveying an increase in drought resistance while minimizing growth or yield penalties.

While passionate about his research, Masalia is also interested in promoting public awareness and understanding of science.

“Science outreach and education are my passions, and while I enjoy my time teaching at UGA, it’s encouraging to see that the large organizations such as the AACU are recognizing that education can happen both in and outside of the classroom,” Masalia said.

Masalia serves as co-founder of the Athens Science Café, whose goal is to facilitate a connection between the Athens scientific community and the community at large.

Masalia has also served as the co-founder and editor-in-chief to the Athens Science Café’s sister organization, the Science Observer. The Science Observer is a volunteer, student run science communication community dedicated to public engagement in scientific research and education through articles, blogs, podcasts, and videos.

In 2016 Masalia was a finalist in the UGA Graduate School sponsored Three Minute Thesis (3MT ™) competition, which supports the development of students’ capacities to effectively explain their research in language appropriate to an intelligent but non-specialist audience.

He was also one of two students invited to present his 3MT talk to the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.

Additionally, he serves as one of 10 graduate student ambassadors for the American Society of Plant Biologists, is the co-founder of UGA SPEAR and Science Athens, and serves as a member of the UGA Plant Center.

“As a scientist, science communicator, and educator, I believe it’s my responsibility to share knowledge, not only with my scientific colleagues and students, but also the public.”

“To that end, I helped start organizations like the Athens Science Café and Science Observer as a way to share knowledge and facilitate a dialogue with the community.”

According to his doctoral advisor, professor of Plant Biology John Burke, “Rishi has gone far beyond the expectations of a typical graduate student with these extra education and outreach activities. He effectively balances these endeavors alongside his research and teaching commitments. I can’t think of a more deserving recipient of this award.”

After graduation, Masalia plans to pursue a career in science communication and outreach.

“Ultimately,” he says, “I want to help facilitate a dialogue between scientists and the community and work to not only increase the public awareness of scientific topics, but also build a sense of enthusiasm within non-scientific communities toward science and technology.”