Jessica Kelz, a third-year M.S./Ph.D. student in chemistry, holds up a carnivorous plant called a Cape sundew, or Drosera capensis. Her lab group has sequenced its genome and is identifying and characterizing enzymes that could be used use in a variety of chemical biology and biotechnology applications. Steve Zylius / UCI

Jessica Kelz is not your typical UCI student. A first-generation graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, she’s a well-traveled veteran now seeking an M.S./Ph.D. in chemistry and conducting research with carnivorous plants.

Kelz grew up in a San Diego military family that encouraged her college aspirations. She excelled academically in high school and received a presidential nomination to one of the most selective institutions in the country: the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, which requires active duty after graduation.

She had always been drawn to biology and in high school became interested in the fundamentals of how its complicated systems work. A science teacher, Leroy Price Jr., proved to be pivotal. “He emphasized critical thinking,” Kelz says, “and made the subject matter understandable in a way that gave me the confidence to pursue chemistry as a degree.”

She spent 10 years in the service – the first four earning a B.S. in chemistry and the next six in the Navy. As a surface warfare officer, she completed three maritime deployments, with stints in Guam, Japan, Thailand, Jordan, Kenya and England. During this time, Kelz met her husband, and when she fulfilled her military commitment, the two settled in San Diego.

After working for two years as an aviation consultant, Kelz realized that she missed the laboratory environment and decided to attend graduate school. “The chemistry department and the feel of UCI really stood out to me,” she says. “The work seemed really interesting and competitive, but the people also felt very approachable.”

UCI also offers an interdisciplinary concentration in chemical and materials physics that unifies physical and chemical approaches to the study of matter. ChaMP is designed to prepare M.S. and Ph.D. scientists for modern careers in the physical sciences and engineering, where cross-disciplinary education with an emphasis on applications is in increasing demand.

Now a third-year ChaMP student, Kelz spent the first year primarily in the classroom, then joined the lab of chemistry professor Rachel Martin. She’s working on a project that utilizes a new instrument – known as a magnetic resonance probe – to discover novel enzymes in carnivorous plants that could aid in the development of nontoxic antimicrobials and pesticides.

Kelz employs a magnetic resonance probe developed by her lab group to discover novel enzymes in carnivorous plants that could aid in the development of nontoxic antimicrobials and pesticides. Steve Zylius / UCI

Martin explains: “Carnivorous plants are amazing biophysical chemists! They have to perform all their digestive functions using only enzymes – without any of the other tricks that animals use, such as chewing, having an enclosed digestive system or providing a very acidic environment. They require stable, highly active digestive enzymes capable of functioning in competition with bacterial and fungal growth.”

The first-of-its-kind probe lets researchers identify and characterize these enzymes, which will allow their use in a variety of chemical biology and biotechnology applications.

Apart from her studies and lab work, Kelz is active in UCI’s Veteran Services Center. “I wanted to be involved in that community,” she says, “because vets are important, and I like to feel connected in some way.”

Jane Killer, assistant director of the Veteran Services Center, says of Kelz: “Although she’s incredibly busy pursuing her Ph.D., she always finds the time to support UCI’s veteran-related initiatives. From programming to course content, she’s willing to provide quality feedback to help develop best practices to engage and support our student veterans.”

As she entered her second year of grad school, Kelz was awarded $1,500 from the Michael E. Gebel Scholarship Fund – established by the UCI Department of Chemistry in honor of a Ph.D. graduate who died at 36 after a fall at his home in 2006. Gebel’s organs helped save six lives, and his innovative research methods are still being used today.

“I was inspired by Michael’s story,” Kelz says. “He was someone who dedicated his life to research, contributing to our basic knowledge of how things work. Being recognized by the department meant a lot to me, and the funding has given me a little more financial flexibility.”

She also receives support from the highly selective National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

Kelz plans to go into education after graduate school. “So many teachers have profoundly impacted my life,” she explains. “I want to mentor in that same way one day and make chemistry understandable and approachable to more people.”