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Making a Career Out of a Question

Honored Graduating Student Connor Littlefield (NDFS)

Connor Littlefield (’22) was raised in a family that was unafraid to ask questions and find answers. Two such questions led him to graduate with a degree in nutritional science: “What does it really mean to ‘burn’ a calorie? And what metabolic processes are keeping your body alive and healthy?”

Littlefield played sports like football and rugby in high school, and some of what his coaches said left him confused. “There’s honestly a lot of bad advice on nutrition,” he says. “About what you need to eat, what you need to do to make sure you’re at your peak physical performance. And more than just bad advice, there’s conflicting advice.”

It’s no surprise that some of Littlefield’s hardest classes ended up being the most transformative. His mentor, nutrition, dietetics, and food science professor Jeff Tessem, taught classes on nutritional biochemistry and nutrigenetics and nutrigenomics (how genes affect nutrient metabolism and how nutrients affect gene expression). It was in these classes that Littlefield discovered his passion for identifying and solving problems.

Picture of Connor Littlefield

“The research principles I learned in the lab helped me feel confident that I can find truth wherever I go,” he explains. Media literacy is important for Littlefield as he raises his own family—a three-year-old son and another on the way. “I figured I’d make a career out of it, so I can increase my own ability to find truth and teach those principles to my kids. With the world growing more confusing each day, it’s important to have the skills to discern truth,” he says.

Littlefield spent most of his time at BYU in a beta cell biology research group. Beta cells secrete insulin, and diabetics either don’t have enough beta cells, or their cells don’t secrete enough insulin. The lab focuses on two things: helping the cells better secrete insulin and helping the cells replicate to produce more insulin. The lab recently received multiple College Undergraduate Research Awards (CURA) that will provide funds for continued research.

“There’s honestly a lot we still don’t know,” Littlefield says. “I studied nutritional science to finally put to rest the conflicting dietary advice I had heard all my life, but more often than not, the answers to my questions were, ‘We still don’t know.’ I realized that if I wanted answers, I would need to join the researchers figuring it out.”

The biggest impact a BYU education had on Littlefield was working alongside professors with strong testimonies and seeing how they navigate science and religion. “Getting a gospel perspective on everything I learned is not typical in the sciences,” he says. “But the professors and faculty here understand how well they fit together.”

Reflecting on his overall college experience, Littlefield is glad he saved some of his general education classes for the end. “When you’re just beginning your time at BYU, you’re so focused on making the adjustment and it’s hard to internalize the stuff you’re learning,” he explains. “It’s important not to get too focused in your area of expertise. If you’re too focused on one piece, you’re going to miss the bigger picture.”

American Heritage and his literature class are two examples. “Taking those classes later on, already having some different perspectives, really helped me to realize that there’s more to being a successful researcher—or anything in the sciences—than knowing things about science. Being successful requires a broader view.”

Littlefield will be attending the University of Utah’s molecular biology graduate program in the fall. He is interested in continuing research on nutrient metabolism as it relates to diabetes and obesity, and finding more answers to his questions.