Dr Kai Xun Chan

2023 Westpac Research Fellow, Dr Kai Xun Chan, is among Australia’s leading young scientists stepping up to the challenge of how to feed the growing global population, a task that will require more food to be produced in the next thirty years than the entire history of human civilisation. 


“My research addresses the urgent need for transformative solutions to improve crop resilience,” says Dr Chan, a biology lecturer at Australian National University. 


Following his career breakthrough – the discovery of a stress sensor protein that controls the pores on leaves of drought-stressed plants – Dr Chan has been exploring ways to help crops, such as rice and wheat, to minimise damage caused by extreme drought and heat. 


“The plant’s sensor is able to sense when conditions become unfavourable,” Dr Chan explains, noting that plants are far more complex than many people give credit. 


“This sets off a ‘fire alarm’ in the plant, telling it to respond, but it can often occur too late and the plant will have suffered damage. If we can get the alarm to go off at the first signs of water deficit, we can help the plant survive.” 


To do so, Dr Chan’s team has worked on a first-of-its-kind prototype chemical tool used like a spray to activate the plant’s sensor earlier than it normally would. “There’s still a long road ahead, but we’re excited about how this can provide farmers with a new tool in our race against climate change.” 


The significance of Dr Chan’s research is reflected in a growing list of awards including an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) 2022 Fellowship, ACT Emerging Scientist of the Year Award and a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellowship from the European Commission. This year he added a Westpac Research Fellowship, which he sees as “transformational” at this point in his career, giving him the practical and financial support to boost his long-term contributions to the scientific community. 


“This is a high-risk, high-reward project which, if successful, could benefit not just Australia, but the world,” he says. “From a practical point of view, the ability to undertake such an ambitious project is made possible by the funding from Westpac Scholars Trust. But the fellowship is also giving me extremely important opportunities to develop as a leader.” 


In the traditional academic pathway, he says leadership skills are learnt “mainly by osmosis” in the absence of formal training. 


“What Westpac Scholars Trust offers is this opportunity to better understand myself and how best to tailor my leadership style to grow. I’m still quite junior in my career so building a team at this point is difficult, but vital to training up the next generation of scientists with a clear goal to help agriculture and society more broadly.”


Learn more about the impact of the Westpac Scholars Trust in our 2023 Impact Report.


Published 7 March 2024

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