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Burning Calories or Extracting Oil from Algae, Conversion is Key

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Concetta DiRusso 71F talks a lot about conversion—calories turning into fat, algae turning into oil, and the United States becoming energy independent.

DiRusso is a professor of nutritional biochemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She has spent much of her career researching fat and fat absorption.

Hampshire was DiRusso's first introduction to academic science. For her Division II, she worked as a teaching assistant for Professors Nancy Lowry and John Foster. She worked with an endocrinologist, Dr. June Aprille, at the Shriner's Burns Institute at Mass General Hospital for her Division III (senior) project. "We were doing studies on hormonal signaling leading to free fatty acid release from fat cells," she says.

DiRusso earned her doctoral degree from the University of Vermont and did postdoctoral work at the University of California, Irvine. She taught and conducted research at the University of Tennessee, Memphis, and Albany Medical College, before joining the UNL faculty two years ago.

In light of the obesity epidemic gripping the country, DiRusso's work has far-reaching implications for public health. "This is a billion dollar health care industry," she says. "We've outpaced our ability to process the high caloric foods that we're eating, and so we need to take a step back and eat healthier. The trouble is, defining 'healthy' is almost impossible."

"What we're trying to do is discern what are the correct combinations and amounts of fats that should make up a person's diet," she says. "Directives to limit the amount of fat in the diet were incorrect because the food processing industry just replaced fats with carbohydrates. This added calories that were turned into fat in our bodies for storage, hence the obesity epidemic."

DiRusso is also researching the extraction of oil from algae. "The oil we're harvesting now actually came from algae a million years ago," she says. Devising a means of creating oil in the United States would free the country from its dependence on foreign countries for oil.

"I really think we can do it. It might take us twenty years, but algal oil will be one of our main fuel sources," she says.

Her Hampshire education has proven advantageous in DiRusso's career: "Hampshire allowed me to continually question. It made me appreciate that most of the time there isn't just one answer," she says. "Hampshire nourishes intellectual curiosity. The educational process at Hampshire didn't have boundaries that limit creativity. I have found that is essential in research and teaching."


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