Food for thought

Vision of a scraps-powered world energizes undergraduate’s research career

Cal State L.A. student research Oni Wilcots poses next to the microscope in the lab.

Cal State L.A. food science and nutritional science double-major Oni Wilcots is working with associate professor Harmit Singh to investigate processes for naturally breaking down plant cellulose into sugar units. In the lab they use a variety of liquids, as shown in the test tubes in hand, to compare which results in the least amount of byproduct and energy loss.

Oni Wilcots hungers to take the idea of food as fuel to the next level.

The undergraduate researcher dreams of a day when she can run her car or power a lawnmower with little more than a fruit peel or grass clippings.

“It’s running the world on food trash,” Wilcox explained, noting that her fuel inspiration comes in part from the futuristic cartoon, “The Jetsons,” which she watched as a child. “I want to get to the point where you eat a banana in the morning on your way out the door, and then you put it in your gas tank and go. What else are you going to do with it?”

A food science and nutritional science double-major, Wilcots has yet to realize her dream of a scraps-powered world, but inches her way closer through research to improve the efficiencies of renewable fuels.

As one of more than a dozen undergraduate and graduate research fellows exploring research topics in the University’s Center for Energy and Sustainability (CEaS), Wilcots works 20 hours a week in a lab overseen by Associate Professor of Nutritional Science Harmit Singh.

She is currently investigating processes for naturally breaking down plant cellulose into sugar units, with the least amount of byproduct and energy loss.  The netted sugar units will then be used in the production of bioethanol fuel—an increasingly popular alternative fuel produced from common crops such as sugar cane, corn and potato.

Wilcots, a proponent of caring for the planet, thinks about sustainable practices in her daily routines. She did not consider potential career opportunities in the field of energy and sustainability, though, until her center research project.

“It’s been a really amazing opportunity for me,” Wilcots said. “There is just this general feeling of this is where I am supposed to be. I am on the right track; I am getting research results. And together, we are doing really big things.”

Wilcots came to Cal State L.A. by way of Pasadena City College. She was pursuing a degree in nursing—building upon 11 years of experience working as a licensed vocational nurse in the Navy—when she took a nutritional science course that changed everything. Wilcots’ love of food and learning blended perfectly with research opportunities and hands-on applications that have the potential to impact larger communities, she said.

After completing her bachelor’s degree, Wilcots plans to pursue a master’s—and perhaps, a Ph.D.  Her end goal is to build a career in teaching or scientific research.

“There is always something new to discover,” Wilcots explained. “Knowing that what you do today, everyday, will impact what someone else will do later is exciting.  I would love for someone to look at my research and be inspired.”