Employee Q&A: Dr. Karen Lapsley, Chief Scientific Officer

Posted May 29th, 2018

In our ABC Q&A series, we bring you brief interviews with some of the minds driving innovation at the Almond Board of California. We speak to a wide variety of folks who work here at the Almond Board, exploring topics from research, to conservation, to favorite almond recipes.

Today we talk to Dr. Karen Lapsley, Chief Scientific Officer at the Almond Board of California about how she helps the almond community pave the path for scientific success.
 

What first interested you in joining the Almond Board? How has that changed over the years?

When I started at Almond Board of California in 1999, the opportunity to explore almond’s nutritional value intrigued me. 18 years later, I’m now Chief Scientific Officer, which allows me to dive deep into all the science surrounding almonds. I love the challenge, the unknown, and the opportunity to help lead the industry in innovation.

What is your day-to-day role at the Almond Board?

In my role, I oversee multiple teams and efforts, using my experience and background knowledge to help to fill in gaps. Recently, I have focused on farming topics like water efficiency and coproduct utilization – almond hulls, shells, and woody biomass.

In addition to my Chief Scientific Officer role, I participate in three Almond Board committees and groups. I am the staff representative for both the Nutrition Research Committee and the Scientific Advisory Panel, and the staff liaison for the Biomass Working Group.

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What is the role of the Biomass Working Group?

The Almond Board Biomass Working Group was formed in 2016 to find additional beneficial uses for almond coproducts – the hulls, shells, and woody biomass of the tree. This group is charged with the task of determining practical and sustainable short- and long-term solutions for these coproducts to preserve the almond orchard of the future. Currently, the group is developing a research program that fits both the needs of almond processors, as well as the broader almond community.

What accomplishment from your time at the Almond Board are you most proud of?

I’m heavily involved in research being conducted on almond’s nutritional value and quality. In recent years, we’ve placed a major focus on nutritional research dealing with healthful eating and healthy snacking. In fact, to date, we have 158 nutrition research peer-reviewed published papers. When I first arrived at Almond Board of California in 1999, only two almond nutrition research papers had been published.

We’re working to demonstrate how almonds are a tasty, nutritious way to feel full, whether that’s to help you feel full longer, so you don’t want to eat other things, or you are looking for a snack with no added sugar that will boost nutrient intake. In addition, we’re also evaluating the science behind plant-based proteins’ impact on the human diet and where almonds fall on that spectrum.2878_KarenLapsley_0144.jpg

Healthy eating is important to me, on both a personal and a professional level. In my experience, people eating healthier snacks tend to be happier.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned in your time working here?

There are always new challenges to take on. Looking five, ten years back and five, ten years down the road, I am surprised at how the almond community has changed and how much it is set to advance!

Coming up, I’m so excited about almond coproducts and their potential uses. We want to set a solid base and direction for greater utilization of these coproducts. It’s opportunities like these, for continued growth and the best interest of the almond farmers and processors, that really drive me in my work.

What is the most exciting part of your job from the recent past?

We’ve had some great research projects recently with almond coproduct utilization. To expand demand beyond the more traditional uses of dairy feed and livestock bedding, our group is considering three interesting options that run the gamut from simple, to savvy, to weird and wonderful.

A simple approach involves keeping coproducts in the orchard. This practice incorporates the hulls, shells and ground up woody biomass into the soil to improve soil health and increase the water-holding capacity of the soil.

The working group is contemplating out-of-the-box ideas, too. One involves feeding almond hulls to insects who act as tiny compost machines as they consume biomass and then grow into a high-protein source for animal feeds.

Another unique idea involves removing sugar from almonds hulls, which are 30 percent sugar, and using the remaining, absorbent hull material as a type of peat moss that can be used for growing mushrooms.

Learn more about these almond coproduct innovations in this video, featuring Karen!

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the food science industry?

You can’t have tunnel vision. You should focus and be an expert in a specific area, but you also should have a broad perspective of what’s happening around you. You have to be able to understand and see how different aspects of the science realm work together. Because of this, ‘bored’ has never been an appropriate adjective around here, or an appropriate state of mind, so get ready for an adventure.

What’s your favorite way to eat almonds?

Whole almonds for snacking – preferably dark cocoa-coated or tamari flavored.