Food Science alumna finds her way back to academia

Lia and her family on Memorial Stadium.

Junior year of high school, Lia sat in chemistry class, listening intently to Mr. Ahring describe the building blocks of proteins. A few hours later, she experienced this same lesson in her food science class. The connection between foods and chemistry? Amino acids. This epiphany and a sit-down pep talk with her chemistry teacher ignited a flame that would catalyze her journey to food science. 

Lia applied only to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She had no personal ties to the university except for a good word from a trusted uncle and the positive reputation of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition (FSHN) in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.  

After months of anticipation, Lia celebrated her acceptance as a Jonathan Baldwin Turner Scholar, an accolade once given to top-performing first-year students that has since been redesigned into an innovative leadership program. 

“Stepping onto campus for the first time, I knew this was where I was meant to be. I felt like I was home,” Lia said. 

Lia was active in clubs both on campus and within the food industry. She was a member of the Association of Food Technologists and the Institute of Food Technologists, where she made lasting memories with her fellow club members on their trips to Chicago for meetings. 

During her summers as a college student, Lia didn’t stop learning. She took on three incredible internships at Whitey’s Ice Cream, Tate & Lyle, and Pepsi

Whitey’s Ice Cream is a famous ice cream company based out of the Quad Cities, where Lia grew up. Their slogan reads: The Best in the Midwest, and Lia strongly backs this statement. Whitey’s had never had an intern before, but after much convincing, Lia became their very first. 

Lia worked as a Research and Development intern for Tate & Lyle, a global food and beverage supplier, and then in product development for PepsiCo the following summer. These three summer internships deepened her understanding of the food science industry. 

An important part of Lia’s undergraduate education was her research. Lia got her start by washing laboratory glassware for Professor Nicki Engeseth, now the department head of FSHN. 

Engeseth’s research focused on prevention of lipid oxidation using antioxidants, beneficial compounds in foods like honey, raisins, papaya, and mead, an alcoholic honey-based beverage. Lia soon learned laboratory techniques that allowed her to contribute to important new discoveries. 

Driven by her passion for research, Lia decided to further her education and invest more time in laboratory work. This led her to pursue a doctorate in food science at Illinois.

Under Engeseth’s mentorship, Lia researched the impact of storage conditions on chocolate’s texture, flavor, and antioxidant qualities. Lia and her colleagues published this research in multiple peer-reviewed articles.

In partnership with The Grainger College of Engineering, Lia used her chocolate research to teach kids about nanotechnology at summer camps on campus. Data gathered from attendees helped secure a USDA grant that Dr. Engeseth and Lia co-wrote, which was used to develop food science-specific educational materials for middle school teachers and students.  

Additionally, Lia was beginning to find another interest in the classroom: teaching. She served as a teaching assistant for Nutrition for Dietetics Majors (FSHN 201) for three years and enrolled in educational psychology courses. 

In May of 2006, Lia graduated, and soon after, she married Steve Nightingale, an ACES alumnus of crop sciences. The newlyweds moved back to Steve’s family farm in the couple’s hometown, Orion, Illinois. 

Lia found employment close by, teaching undergraduate chemistry, nutrition, and culinary nutrition at Scott Community College for one year. After a recommendation from a colleague, Lia transitioned to Palmer College of Chiropractic, where she has been for over 16 years. 

She has not forgotten her love for research. It just looks a little different. 

“My classroom is now my lab where I do research. Each year, I am trying to find the most creative ways to teach information and interact with students.” 

Lia has earned the title of professor in the Life Sciences and Foundations Division, teaching courses in biochemistry and nutrition and creating a new course in clinical nutrition. Lia also serves as the co-chair of a research committee that mentors younger faculty members. 

Lia has been awarded Faculty of the Year twice in addition to nine teaching innovation awards from Palmer over the years. 

While Lia values her career, she has found the most fulfillment in being a mom to her three children, Bella, Jovey, and Drake. She is active in her church, her community, and with the Girl Scouts. Steve and Lia greatly enjoy sharing their love of Illinois with their children by attending sporting events and ACES Family Academies.  

“I am grateful to Illinois for the mentorship and opportunities provided to us as students and continued alumni connections,” Lia says.