NC Research Campus launches plant project for college students

June 27, 2013


Staff Writer- Charlotte Business Journal

Academic and industry partners at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis have launched a $1.5 million initiative to engage college students from across the state in education and research.

The program, called the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project, will center on how plants, including fruits and vegetables, benefit human health.

Plant pathways are chemical reactions in plants that help them adapt to environmental stresses such as disease and climate change. The reactions sometimes create compounds that can benefit human health when consumed.

“This is a golden opportunity; we’re tackling a series of questions that have been of great importance throughout the world since the beginning of plant sciences,” says Dr. Mary Ann Lila, Plants for Human Health Institute director and member of the program’s leadership team.

The effort will bring 24 undergraduate and graduate students from 10 N.C. colleges and universities to the Kannapolis campus.

That 350-acre biotech hub focuses on health, nutrition and agriculture. The public-private partnership is home to operations of eight N.C. universities and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, as well as private companies that include Dole Food Co. (NYSE:DOLE), General Mills Inc. (NYSE:GIS), Monsanto Co. (NYSE:MON) and LabCorp. (NYSE:LH)

“We’re cultivating the scientists of tomorrow,” says Clyde Higgs, vice president of business development for campus developer Castle & Cooke Inc. “We’re helping participants gain research experience in a multidisciplinary, collaborative environment — not just ordinary office life, but one-of-a-kind scientific research opportunities — which better prepares the students for successful careers.

The project will place Ph.D. candidates in charge of six lab teams, with undergraduates serving as researchers for eight weeks during the summer. Ph.D. candidates will be involved year-round.

Each lab will conduct pathway research for a specific food crop such as blueberries, broccoli, oats or strawberries. Some will mine data to generate a knowledge base.

“By answering the questions of how, why and what healthy compounds a plant produces, we’ll be able to advance scientific research, create opportunities for industry and consumers, and ultimately enhance human health,” Lila says.

Progress will be overseen by university scientists and industry partners.

Participants in the initiative include N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute, UNC Charlotte, UNC’s General Administration, the Dole Nutrition Research Laboratory, General Mills and the David H. Murdock Research Institute.

The program has an initial budget of $1.5 million from partner donations and in-kind contributions.

Funding was provided by UNC General Administration, Cabarrus Economic Development Corp., Duke Energy Foundation, Turner Construction and educational institutions including Catawba College and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.

N.C. State spokesman Justin Moore declined to share a further breakdown on the funding.

Plans call for the program to operate through fiscal 2017, with a goal of expanding and extending the initiative indefinitely.

Jennifer Thomas covers retail, health care and education for the Charlotte Business Journal.

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