Keegan Chessum

Keegan Chessum

Doctor of Philosophy candidate
Bachelor of Science (Honours) with First-Class Honours
Bachelor of Science in Food Science

He enjoys being able to combine his love of food with this love of science, says Keegan Chessum who came to AUT to study a Bachelor of Science in Food Science and is now enrolled in a PhD.

“I’ve always enjoyed the practicality of the scientific process – developing hypotheses, carrying out experiments, analysing the data and forming conclusions – but as a high schooler, I didn’t see a way forward that excited me. Though I got good grades in physics and chemistry, I didn’t see a career in there for me. Fortunately, I also took food science.

“Our food science teacher entered us in the NZIFST CREST Student Product Development Challenge, and one of my classmates and I spent several months going through the process of food product development, with mentorship from the food industry. We ultimately ended up winning that challenge. While the win was great, through that process I found something better – a career in science that excited me.”

Once he knew that food science was going to be what he would study at university, Keegan then started looking into the different universities offering food science.

“I was always planning on studying in Auckland; having spent most of my life here. I applied to three different Auckland-based universities, and got offers from all three. I was leaning towards AUT as it has a reputation for being more hands-on and it was easy for me to get to. Going to the respective university open days confirmed my choice – AUT seemed like the kind of environment I’d enjoy studying and learning in, and I definitely don’t regret it.”

An enjoyable journey
The practical aspects are what he has enjoyed the most about his time at AUT, says Keegan who has received an AUT Bachelor of Science Scholarship as well as a Vice-Chancellor’s Doctoral Scholarship to support his studies.

“For the research project in the third year of my Bachelor of Science I used traditional Indian spices as alternatives to artificial preservatives in processed meats, and for my honours research I optimised the cold-pressed extraction of avocado oil by using selected enzymes. These kinds of projects confirmed that a career in food science was what I wanted going forward.

“I also enjoyed doing a summer studentship where I worked with Dr Jack Chen from AUT’s School of Science to synthesise novel cooperative organocatalysts using a micellar approach. That was my first opportunity to carry out research for a prolonged period of time and I learned a lot from it.”

He wouldn’t hesitate to recommend AUT’s science programmes to other students.

“It’s a great hands-on course that gives you the practical experience you need, in combination with a solid theoretical base provided by the lecturers. AUT is an environment where you can thrive if you put the effort in. Get to know your lecturers and ask them questions – after all, they’re here to help you learn.”

The road to doctoral study
After graduating with his Bachelor of Science at the end of 2018 and his Bachelor of Science (Honours) in 2020, Keegan decided there was still more he wanted to learn. A PhD was the obvious next step for him.

“Even when I had graduated with honours, I didn’t feel that my time at university was up. Other people I know who have done PhDs told me that it was harder coming back after a break, so I decided to jump right in and keep studying.

“My biggest challenge was definitely getting my PhD off the ground. I was trying to finalise my enrolment and get into the lab at the same time as our country was going in and out of COVID-19 lockdowns. My supervisor, Dr Rothman Kam, was particularly helpful, keeping in touch and making sure I was doing alright, assuring me that eventually things would get up and running. AUT was also understanding of the difficulties PhD students were facing at that time, and granted us extensions to help us finish our projects.”

For his PhD research, he is focusing on a novel food product called yacon concentrate, which has a high concentration of natural fructooligosaccharides; sugar molecules which impart sweetness in taste but can’t be digested, making them excellent low-calorie alternative sweeteners.

“As yacon is relatively new to the Western market, relatively little information is available, so my first contribution is to provide a comprehensive chemical profile of yacon concentrate, helping us better understand its potential health benefits. I’ll also be helping to add value to the yacon market by incorporating yacon concentrate into other novel food products like prebiotic drinks. Finally, I’ll be investigating the potential inhibitory effects of yacon concentrate on the formation of acrylamide, a probable carcinogen of growing concern.”