By Frank Vinluan
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. — Allan Brown likens his blueberry research to trying to put together one big jigsaw puzzle.
Brown, an applied molecular geneticist with N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis, has spent several years working on the genomic sequence of the blueberry. Blueberries have shown correlation with reduction in disease, diabetes and age-related cognitive decline. Brown is trying to identify which parts of the blueberry genome are key to these beneficial effects.
Some of the pieces the blueberry genome are 1 million base pairs long. Other pieces are smaller. Brown says there are 12,000 pieces of this jigsaw puzzle. Helping Brown with this puzzle this summer is a team of students – interns. But don’t mistake the intern efforts for busywork. Students are taking on the tasks and responsibilities expected of scientists in N.C. Research Campus labs.
“This is real work,” Brown said.
The future of food research is taking root in some very fertile ground – the minds of students working on the N.C. Research Campus. These students are participating in the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project, or P2EP, an internship program that gives students exposure to research opportunities in plant science. Among the goals of the program is encouraging students to pursue careers in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
This P2EP internship experience is rare and probably would not be available to students interning in industry, Brown said. Most industry internships keep students in one particular area. P2EP tries to expose students to the bigger picture, working on various pieces of a project.
“We don’t just stick a student on one part of the project for the summer,” Brown said. “If they say I’m interested in the computational aspect of this and not so much on the lab, we can tailor that.”
David Murdock’s vision
The structure of the program is an extension of David Murdock’s vision for the Research Campus, said Clyde Higgs, vice president for business development at the Research Campus. Murdock, the billionaire Chairman and CEO of Dole Food Company, founded the 350-acre campus in Kannapolis in 2005 planning to make the campus a hub of food research and innovation for the region and for the state. But Murdock reasoned that innovation and discovery do not come from people working in isolation. Instead, big problems can be solved with multidisciplinary groups consisting of experts who each look approach a problem in different ways.
“If you look at many of the great discoveries, they come from multidisciplinary teams working together – that’s always been part of the promise of the North Carolina Research Campus,” Higgs said.
Besides the Research Campus, P2EP sponsors include the UNC system, Duke Energy Foundation and local businesses. The program has two industry partners, Dole and General Mills, both of which are N.C. Research Campus tenants. Industry partners are important because they will ultimately be the ones to bring N.C. Research Campus research to market. Higgs hopes to add more industry partners to the P2EP program in coming years.
P2EP sponsors have committed $1.9 million in funding for four years. The program is now in year two. The 2013 program had 29 students, graduate and undergraduate students, coming from 10 North Carolina colleges and universities. NCRC expanded the program this year to 40 students from 12 colleges and universities as well as two high schools. Some students who are interested in science are steered to medical school, Higgs said. The program aims to show students that there are other options in science.
One of those students is Richard Linchangco, a Ph.D. candidate in bioinformatics at UNC Charlotte. Linchangco studied biology as an undergraduate, which led to studies in genetics and later, graduate studies in bioinformatics.
“I’ve always had a strong curiosity on how different things work,” he said. “Every organism has its own level of complexity but it’s understood that all organisms share the basic building blocks of life and that’s the genetic code.”
One component of the P2EP program is knowledge-based bioinformatics, which fits with Linchangco’s research. The program has also helped Linchangco understand the work that a principal investigator does.
P2EP is driven by Research Campus scientists like Brown, principal investigators conducting research in various areas. Ph.D. students in the program report to the principal investigators; the Ph.D.s work with the undergraduate and high school students. The 40 students in the program come primarily from North Carolina universities including N.C. State University, UNC Chapel Hill and Winston-Salem State University. The program also includes students from liberal arts institutions that don’t have a large research infrastructure, like Catawba College.
“These students are getting exposure to projects they would not ordinarily get at their home institutions,” Brown said.
While the Research Campus is a supporter of STEM education, Higgs concedes that the program’s goals aren’t entirely altruistic. The Research Campus is trying to recruit companies in science, technology, agriculture and medicine to relocate or open up new operations in North Carolina, perhaps on the Research Campus. In order to do that, North Carolina needs to show industry that the state has talented and qualified workers.
“Part of that value proposition is to make sure you have a really strong workforce,” Higgs said. “Part of the reason companies locate somewhere is they know that the talent is there.”
Linchangco could be one of those future workers. Beyond completing his Ph.D, Linchangco says his goal is to pursue research in health and nutrition for a company in the food industry. For now, he enjoys his Research Campus responsibilities, which include supporting undergraduate students who are interested in pursuing science but need guidance. The P2EP program offers experiences that Linchangco did not have when he was an undergraduate.
“It’s very enriching,” he said. “It’s a great learning experience, not just for the students but also myself. I’m very appreciative of that.”