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Spotlight on Students – Jillian Otto

Nutrition & Exercise Physiology

Jillian OttoJillian Otto’s passion for wellness has driven her experience at Mizzou from day one. As a student in the Department of Nutrition & Exercise Physiology (NEP), she hit the ground running by getting involved in first-hand research, which laid the groundwork for long-term success.

Jillian is a senior from Festus, MO studying Human Physiology & Translational Sciences, a multidisciplinary program that studies the influence of nutrition and physical activity on human health. It involves rigorous coursework in the sciences, but Jillian got an early introduction to the field by applying to the Discovery Fellows program through the Honors College at Mizzou.

The Discovery Fellows program matches students with a faculty mentor to give them hands-on experience in the scholarly work of their chosen field. As a fellow, Jillian chose to work in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Parks and stayed with the lab for all four years of college. By working there as a freshman, Jillian gained a valuable early introduction to the field. “I learned a lot about the field before I was even in the classes that were teaching me about it,” Jillian said.

Jillian at workJillian started out by entering nutritional data for research subjects, but soon began working independently on more complex tasks. By her junior year, she was ready for her own project. With the support of Dr. Parks, Jillian developed a research plan to study sweet taste change after bariatric surgery.

“Everyone has different taste receptors, so some people like bitter things, some people like only sweet things,” Jillian explained. “I realized there were links between BMI and taste perception, so I thought, well what about bariatric surgery? Is there a change in taste perception [afterwards]”?

Previous studies found that bariatric surgery leads to a heightened sensitivity to sweet foods, but in these studies, subjects were tested three months after surgery, when they had already lost a significant amount of weight – supporting a connection between BMI and taste perception. Jillian therefore decided to test them sooner, before they lost a significant amount of weight, to see if there was any correlation between the surgery itself and a change in taste sensitivity.

Jillian tested the taste sensitivity of her subjects one month before they underwent gastric bypass surgery and one month afterward, and her results supported her hypothesis – even one month after surgery, subjects reported a decreased preference for sweet tastes. This change in preference may therefore be one factor that drives weight loss after surgery.

Jillian plans to apply for medical school after graduation while taking a well-earned gap year. She encourages other students not to shy away from opportunity, even if it seems intimidating. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” she said. “Go right into it and take chances and make mistakes . . . That’s how you show that you’re ready for different and better things.”