When identity intertwines with innovation

Graduating student’s culinary creativity combines sustainability and sabor

Tuesday, May 14, 2024
Daisy Lopez is photographed in a white dress and her SDSU cap and gown outside of the campus
Daisy Lopez is SDSU's 2024 Zahn Spirit of Innovation Award winner.

Tortilla chips made of blue corn flour and ground crickets. Guacamole packed with protein from microalgae. Cookies sprinkled with ants instead of nuts.

These are just some of the experimental eats that earned Daisy Lopez recognition as San Diego State University’s Zahn Spirit of Innovation Award winner. This award honors undergraduate entrepreneurial achievement and is given to one graduating student each year during their commencement ceremony.

“The goal of the award is to recognize people who are really acting boldly and taking risks and thinking out of the box, with whichever item they’re working on or passionate about,” said Peter Zahn, son of Irwin Zahn for whom the award is named.

Lopez, a Food and Nutritional Sciences graduate, dreams of one day operating her own baked goods business, potentially to be named ANTy Daisy’s, after her interest in insect-based foods and her love of her nephews and nieces.

“I want to represent my heritage and culture through food. That’s how I express myself,” Lopez said.

“Daisy is really passionate and throws herself into all sorts of activities. She grabs every chance to learn and grow. You can really see her innovative spirit in how she is always looking to improve and try new things,” said Lopez’s nominator, Changqi Liu, an associate professor in SDSU’s Exercise and Nutritional Sciences department.

A craving for more

After graduating from culinary school in Chicago, Lopez worked as a pastry chef and lead baker creating recipes for school lunches.

“I loved baking for my friends and seeing the joy it brought them,” Lopez said. But the stress of mass-producing food was stressful and less fulfilling than she had hoped.

“I didn’t think I could do a whole lot more, but I felt like I needed to do something worth doing,” she said.

When an opportunity arose to move to San Diego, she went back to school at Mesa College and then transferred to SDSU more than a decade after being in a traditional classroom.

“I’m so glad I came to SDSU. It feels like a place where, in my experience, innovation and curiosity have been very encouraged,” Lopez said.

Curiosity and the promise of free donuts led Lopez to attend an event hosted by the College of Health and Human Services, where she first learned about Liu’s research on edible insects.

She was initially hesitant about joining the entomophagy research team, but it was not the bugs that scared her. She knew insects were a common ingredient in Mexican culture and she had previously tasted and enjoyed lobster-like, crunchy scorpions in Cambodia, chapulines (grasshoppers) in Mexico City and lemon-flavored ants in Ecuador.

Rather, Lopez, as a Chicana, first-generation American and first-generation college student, said she did not see herself represented in science and had reservations. She opted to observe the team in action to start.

Daisy Lopez performing work for the entomophagy research team.Open the image full screen.
Daisy Lopez performing work for the entomophagy research team.

Thanks to the kindness and patience of her mentors, Liu and Jing Zhao, an assistant professor in Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, Lopez gradually started to believe in herself more.

“I owe so much to Dr. Liu,” Lopez said. “He has opened up so many opportunities for me.”

Chips and guacamole

Lopez quickly realized how well her baking skills translated to doing science. She could change one variable — the ratio of ingredients, cooking temperature, or freezing time — at a time to measure the effects on taste, texture and nutritional content.

She got comfortable using the lab’s smell analysis machines to differentiate flavor profiles of ant species and she played an important role in the product development process for SDSU's NASA-funded space guacamole project. Over two semesters, she has assisted in reducing bitter taste and improving the freeze-drying and re-hydrating processes. The team’s next steps are to balance incorporating more protein-rich microalgae into the guacamole while maintaining an appetizing flavor and color.

Inspired by the lab’s focus on introducing alternative, more sustainable protein sources into familiar foods, Lopez pitched an idea to her classmates for a food sciences product development course project: air-fried tortilla chips made from blue corn flour and ground crickets, dubbed Chipulines, a portmanteau of “chip” and the Spanish and Nahuatl words for grasshopper.

Through lots of trial and error — Lopez jokes it’s in her blood to never tire of eating tortilla chips — the team achieved a chip that was delicious, not too crumbly and not too brown from the cricket flour.

The Chipulines team was selected as the SDSU representative for the Southern California Institute of Food Technologists product development competition. Even after the class had ended, Lopez and her teammates dedicated hours to devising a business plan and how they could scale up chip production to pass extensive health and safety checks.

They placed third in the competition, and the experience validated Lopez’s vision for a future company making insect-based foods more palatable, with their potential as less resource-intensive livestock in mind.

“It’s about fun but it’s also about the impact,” Lopez said. “If people try Chipulines, hopefully, it sparks some curiosity within them to want to learn more about sustainable food sources and the environmental impact of what they eat.”

Daisy LopezOpen the image full screen.
Daisy Lopez
What the future holds

After graduation, Lopez will continue to explore the overlaps between sustainability and sustenance through internships she learned about from the Center for Better Food Futures.

Through a National Institute of Food and Agriculture-backed program, she will go to Baja California with SDSU biologist Lluvia Flores-Rentería to learn from local Kumeyaay people about the plants they use for medicine and food. Then, she will travel to Oaxaca with Ramona Pérez, anthropology professor and chair of the Aztec Identity Initiative at SDSU, to work alongside Indigenous farmers and chefs.

With the chefs’ permission and collaboration, Lopez and Pérez hope to co-publish a cookbook together with the chefs to preserve their traditional recipes for family members who cannot return to Mexico regularly.

“I feel more hopeful and more empowered that I can do more,” Lopez said. “I’m very proud of my accomplishments but it’s been very collaborative. I am fortunate to have worked with so many talented individuals.”

Lopez will receive the Zahn Spirit of Innovation Award onstage during the May 11 College of Health and Human Services commencement ceremony.

“We are super impressed by all that Daisy has accomplished. She’s off the charts really, in a really innovative way,” said Zahn.

The Zahn Spirit of Innovation Award is funded by Irwin Zahn and the Moxie Foundation. Zahn’s philanthropic giving goes beyond this annual scholarship. His donations also created the Zahn Innovation Platform (ZIP) Launchpad and the Zahn Professorship of Creativity and Innovation

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