Colombian student finds relief in research


AGE: 30




FAVORITE CUSTOM: SOMBRERO VUELTIAO (Traditional hat from Colombia)

Even when she’s home alone, Lisbeth Vallecilla Yepez can always peer out her window to find people walking outside and socializing in her tightknit hometown of Chilloa, Colombia. But after moving to Nebraska, she discovered a new kind of solitude.

Yepez left her community-oriented town in August 2015 to pursue a graduate degree in food science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“Being alone feels more lonely,” she said. “I can look out the window and not see anyone here.” She suspects the cold weather confines people inside. Or maybe her demanding schedule as a graduate student keeps her inside.

Luckily, Yepez can use her heavy workload to keep the loneliness at bay and bring her closer to home. Her father owns a small business in Colombia making food products from a native tropical fruit called chontaduro, which is often used for animal feed. Yepez’s involvement with the family business is what led her to an interest in food science. It comforts her to learn more about something familiar despite being far from home.

Following in her father’s footsteps, Yepez’s graduate research project involves studying the health benefits of an often-overlooked fruit. In her case, she is working with something more familiar to Nebraskans – tomatoes. Many companies throw away tomato seeds and peels when producing ketchup or tomato paste even though those parts are very rich in carotenoids and antioxidants. Yepez’s goal is to take advantage of that waste by exploring technology that will extract and preserve the healthy parts of tomatoes.

“Discovering new things is good. I like to put the things that people don’t see in something you can use,” she said. “I don’t like waste and I like the environment so I love my research.”

Despite the loneliness she feels in Nebraska, Yepez finds solace in the opportunities at UNL to learn more about something she’s passionate about. She hopes to move back to Colombia to help her father expand the company.

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