A Chemist in the Lab and the Kitchen


Posted Tue, Apr 9, 2013

CULINARY SCIENTIST: Dr. Jessica Thrall poses after receiving her Ph.D. Photo by Ashley Hattle

BOULDER, Colo. — Dr. Jessica Thrall is not your average test tube biochemist. Like most scientists, Thrall not only values the unknown possibilities of science, she also brings science out of the lab and into the kitchen.

Thrall has taken culinary classes here and there, but it’s the possibility of a thousand different tastes and dishes that really keep her en-thralled.

“Cooking, like science, is hypotheses driven,” Thrall explains. “If I add spice X, I predict it will make the dish taste like Y. And it’s great because I get to taste the result.”

Thrall received her Bachelor’s of Science in Biochemistry from the University of Kansas. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she traded the Jayhawks for the Buffs, and earned her Ph.D. from the Department of Biochemistry and Chemistry at the University of Colorado in Boulder. In order to get her Ph.D., Thrall had to write a thesis, which is a several month long process.

The Ph.D. Process

Thrall’s thesis centered around noncoding RNAs in Eukaryotic Transcription.

In laymen’s terms?

Thrall worked on nontraditional RNAs – ones that act to control gene expression and not the coding RNA role of playing messenger, which is traditionally used to copy DNA as a coded message that can be transcribed into proteins. DNA is the code in which our body’s cells store our genetic information.

After finishing her thesis Thrall graduated and started working for a local Boulder company on CO2 spray drying technique. She is currently working on creating stable inhalable dry powder pharmaceuticals. Right now Thrall’s company has an ongoing clinical trial in India where they are testing an inhalable measles vaccine in human participants.

Thrall says her favorite part of an experiment is results. “You can ask any researcher, especially graduate student, there’s nothing like a good result.”

From the Lab to the Kitchen

Being a biochemist can be very rewarding. Thrall is helping to create a better way of life for millions of people everyday. The vaccines and medicines she works on may someday save many lives and prevent illnesses. However, when the stresses of the lab catch up to her she goes home to her own “lab,” her kitchen.

Unlike her experiments in the lab, cooking gives Thrall free expression and the freedom to mix and try as many combinations that she can imagine. In the lab if the wrong chemicals are mixed things can create toxic gases or explode, the consequences of experimenting in the kitchen are less extreme, and less flammable. Like the experiments many of us did in high school science classes, some chemicals shouldn’t be mixed, but with cooking, spices can be mixed and matched to suit any taste.

Growing up, Thrall was considered kind of a strange child by her parents. Like many children she asked the “why” question to everything in her early years, but that “why” question never left her mind. That drive to discover the make-up and reasoning behind all things, intrigued her mind at a young age.

A Growing Scientist

“My version of playing was playing school with my father’s college textbooks. I’m not sure what the titles of the books were, but I can remember just copying lines from them and that was fun.” Thrall says. “I think my favorite part about science and research is that we are always encouraged to ask questions and I seem to have a lot of them.”

While Thrall is fascinated with the research process, experiments can require a lot of detail checking. Making sure all of the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted is a big part of being a scientist. Theories must be proven and when that becomes overwhelming, Thrall goes to the cooking process where everything is possible and no paperwork is required.

Thrall has taken several cooking classes to grow her cooking craft. From spice classes to pizza making classes, she has perfected many dishes and created many of her own. Thrall research skills transfer into her experiments in the kitchen.

Thrall’s exceptional math skills allow her to do quick conversions while cooking, and her ability to eyeball it is very much based on her knack for knowing measurements.
“I enjoy the freedom of cooking, I don’t adhere to recipes, but I do generally start with a general recipe and then experiment with it,” Thrall says.

In her career Jessica Thrall has worked with tuberculosis vaccinations, measles, DNA, RNA, and now inhalable vaccines and pharmaceutical drugs. Her drive to ask all questions and absorb all answers has turned her into a great scientist, who values the structure of science and the freedom of cooking.

Thrall’s research cells and cooking spices may be stored in test tubes, but her knack for discovery in the lab and in the kitchen will never be capped.

“I try not to be strict with my cooking,” Thrall says. “I don’t think I’ve ever made the same meal twice. I like to try new ingredients, sometimes it works out sometimes it doesn’t just like with research. And just like research, I always learn something.”

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About Ashley Hattle

Ashley Hattle is a senior at Metropolitan State University (MSU). In high school, Hattle worked for the school newspaper, The Blazer, as the Executive Photo Editor and Lifestyles Editor. After high school she pursued a career in photography and attended the Art Institute of Colorado. After the Art Institute she quickly began working for a photography company in Denver. Through working as a photographer in Denver she re-found her love of journalism and has been a magazine journalism major at MSU since 2010. Hattle hopes to work as a journalist and photographer after graduation in May 2014.

View all posts by Ashley Hattle

One Response to “A Chemist in the Lab and the Kitchen”

  1. S.L. Alderton Says:

    She sounds like a fascinating person. Thanks for writing this article!


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