Vicki Schlegel ’84 is passionate about food—but she’s not looking for the next secret sauce featured on the Food Network or 13 exquisite ways cook a potato. As an associate professor at the University of Nebraska Food Science and Technology Department, she heads a research team working to uncover the hidden healing powers of food—a journey that began in Jorgensen Hall more than 30 years ago.
“I developed a love for chemistry from my dad, a high school teacher. He taught chemistry and math for 40 years,” she recalled. As a child, when Schlegel and her two sisters asked questions about nature and life, he always opened his response with, “according to the laws of chemistry and physics.”
“I began to see the world from a chemical perspective,” said Schlegel. “I took all the high school chemistry classes I could.” But it was the people in Jorgensen Hall whot helped her bond to a clear vision for her lifework. The close-knit group of students and professors created a spirit of camaraderie, and also pushed her to be her best.
As teaching assistant for new (at the time) chemistry professor Charles Freidline, Schlegel developed a love for teaching new concepts to the students in her labs. She also became interested in nutrition at Union, because the Adventist view of diet made her curious about the chemical makeup of food.
When graduation loomed and Schlegel weighed her options, Dr. David Duran, a chemistry professor at Union who was finishing a doctorate at the time, encouraged her to attend graduate school to find a teaching career that could help satisfy her desire to do research and teach. Schlegel then earned a master’s in Analytical Chemistry from University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from Iowa State University. “I just really enjoy working with students,” she said. “Graduate school allowed me to combine my passion for chemistry with both teaching and research.” A passion for food
Schlegel then found an outlet for her interests on the faculty of the University of Nebraska Food Science and Technology Department when she began studying nutraceuticals—the ingredients and chemicals in food that either prevent or cure a disease. “At this point we don’t understand how nutraceuticals work,” explained Schlegel. The complex makeup of food creates all sorts of chemical reactions within the body, and she hopes to ultimately understand how the nutraceuticals in food can be used to prevent disease. Focusing primarily on commodities grown in Nebraska, such as dry edible beans, corn, wheat and soybeans, she believes her work will give back to Nebraskans and provide information to people throughout the world on what foods best prevent or fight certain diseases.
“As Adventists, we have a health message so we already know this,” Schlegel pointed out. “A lot of people don’t understand how diet affects health, but now on a national level we are realizing that diet is linked to disease or the prevention of disease. This is one of those things I think Adventists need to refocus on.”
Schlegel hopes this research will provide scientific evidence for people to use food and diet as an alternative to pharmaceuticals and help raise their quality of life. She also seeks to better understand how to customize diets based a person’s genetic makeup. “If you’re predisposed to diabetes, you can customize a diet to fight that,” explained Schlegel. “But we have a long way to go because it’s a very complex problem. Foods in themselves are complex and so is our body.”
A passion for science
Her passion for science reaches far beyond the walls of her research lab and classroom. While in graduate school, she met and married Brad Plantz, a microbiologist who recently started working for Cargill. “He is also a scientist,” she said. “I can talk to him about my research and he understands it.” These similar interests also lead to shared interests like watching science documentaries, exploring Nebraska state parks and counting fireflies in the backyard to report on a tracking website. “That may not sound like fun to everyone, but it’s fun for us to do together because not a lot of people want to talk about those things with us.”
A passion for Union’s promising future
Schlegel believes it was her experience at Union that led her to a promising future, and now she wants Union students to have that same experience. “Jorgensen Hall was old when I was there, and I graduated in 1984,” said Schlegel. “But Union has made such an impact on my life. If it wasn’t for my time at Union, I wouldn’t be in a career that I absolutely love.”
Schlegel knows that every science department needs to update to keep up with technology and research, and she is excited to see Union is building a new science and mathematics complex to better meet the needs of students planning to attend medical school or other graduate schools. “The only way we can do that is through newer facilities and newer instrumentation,” explained Schlegel. “Although it will be sad to let Jorgensen go, it is time to let it go.”
Union has raised $12.5 million of the $14.5 million for the Our Promising Future campaign to help fund construction for the new building. If you want to be a part of Union’s promising future, please visit: http://www.ucollege.edu/ourpromisingfuture
Watch this video to hear Schlegel and other science alumni talk about their work, how Union inspired them, and why a new science and math facility is crucial to Union's future.