Kellie Omori ’22 thought she would go to medical school after studying at Chapman University.
Then, Assistant Professor Cedric Owens, who teaches biochemistry, suggested that Omori join a lab and do research during her junior year. Owens encouraged her to apply for Chapman’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program and gave her advice for filling out the application.
SURF is an eight-week paid research and creative program in which students and newly minted alumni participate in a faculty member’s ongoing work, taking a particular role or making their own project. At the end of the program, they present their research work at Chapman’s Summer Research Conference.
This summer, Omori is researching how to engineer enzymes known as chlorogenic acid esterases – which break down chlorogenic acid – in sunflower meal so it is more usable in food.
“Certain foods have really high chlorogenic acid content, which can cause undesired effects such as changing its taste or color,” she says. “What we’re trying to do is break it down to prevent these undesired effects.”
Sunflower meal can be used like almond meal, but isn’t a common ingredient in human food because of the enzyme content. Engineering these enzymes will make them more usable in the food industry, Omori says.
She says that if that enzyme can be engineered, it opens the door for engineering of similar proteins. This could make sunflower meal more fit for human consumption – currently, it’s mainly used in low-value animal feed, even though it has a lot of protein and is more degradable than soybean or canola meal.
Back when she was planning on medical school, Omori volunteered at hospitals and shadowed doctors. During the pandemic, “I took more upper-division classes, took biochemistry,” she says.
As Omori got more involved in research during her junior year, she began considering fields outside of medicine and leaned towards graduate school.
She double majored in health sciences and biological sciences and decided to continue research.
One thing Omori appreciated about her time at Chapman was how the professors care about their students. She is grateful for the chance to participate in SURF under Owens’ mentorship.
“I feel like it was such a good experience that even if I don’t go into research, I learned to be more independent, to manage my time,” she says. “Everyone in the lab has taught me so much and helped me grow.”
Omori, who worked as a COVID-19 tester for a local school district while she attended Chapman, will start working as a full-time research assistant in Owens’ lab in fall.