Five Catawba College students spent their summer interning at the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis helping to gather and organize data in a project that will ultimately result in a knowledge database to help improve human nutrition. The NCRC is a collaborative of 18 corporate, academic healthcare partners working to improve human health and nutrition.
The five were part of the $1.5 million Plant Pathways Elucidation Project (P2EP), a program that brought together university scientists, industry professionals and students from a variety of North Carolina colleges and universities, in a new collaborative research model. Catawba was well-represented in this effort with the largest number of undergraduate students involved in the research.
“It’s part art and part science,” explained Dr. Robert Reid from UNC Charlotte’s Department of Bioinformatics and Genomics, one of the supervising scientists in the computer lab where genomic sequencing and annotation occurs. “It’s difficult to find someone who knows about sequencing and now these students do. They were extremely engaged in generating linkage maps so we can see the genome sequence for four plant species — broccoli, strawberry, blueberry and oats.”
Reid explained that the students were divided into six teams. Each team extracted genetic material from their particular species in a laboratory and then used a computer program to create a library of the genes for each plant extraction.
“Thanks to this knowledge database, breeders will be able to choose parent plants that possess certain desired attributes and breed them,” Reid said, adding, “This work will help farmers directly.”
Reid noted that the students were involved in “annotation jamborees,” as they honed their sequencing skills. “A lot of techniques are right down to recipes; the more you do it, the better you are at it. You get a sense of why it doesn’t work. You get exposure to the technique and see how mistakes get made.”
The Bioinformatics Services Division at UNC Charlotte, of which Reid is a part, is one of the academic partners for the P2EP project and ultimately, this institution will host and curate the database. Others include N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute and UNC General Administration. Industry leaders partnering on the program include the David H. Murdock Research Institute, Dole Nutrition Research Laboratory, General Mills and the N.C. Research Campus.
The primary goal of P2EP is to identify and map plant pathways in food crops and better understand how they function with an eye on the prize of better crops and better nutrition.
Better students are also an intended consequence of the program, and that is a benefit that the interns from Catawba have realized.
“The first week, I was overwhelmed because I had never had a genetics class,” Amber Williamson, a junior chemistry major from Lexington, said. “Now, I think I could easily ace a genetics class. It’s been good to see the other parts of the science that you don’t normally see; the computer lab, the sequencing, mapping and computational part that has to go along with the lab work.
“The program supervisors have been very supportive and willing to explain things so no one gets left behind. And I’ve had a chance to see the chemistry and biology integrated.”
Amber added that although she had wanted to go to pharmacy school, this summer internship had changed those plans. “Now, the more I’m in the lab the more I want to go to graduate school.”
The summer internship also caused biology major Kathryn Heidt of Salisbury to reconsider her future plans. “I was pre-med, but I’m leaning away from that now and nutrition is what I want to go into. I didn’t know there was a research and science side to that.”
Mary Podgorak-Lagro, a biology major from Salisbury, explained, “We’ve built off of each other’s weaknesses and strengths and everyone was very supportive. I’m planning to go to med school and my interest is in bridging patient care with new technologies.”
Christian Krzykwa of Wilmington, a junior chemistry major, said his summer internship was about “making contacts that I need.” It also changed his career focus. “Having talked to all of these people, I’m looking at graduate school.”
Senior Elizabeth “Lizzie” White of Salisbury, a chemistry major, was also among the Catawba students involved in the P2EP summer internship. Lizzie worked on Team Blueberry, and divided her time between the genomic work at the N.C. Research Campus and work in the laboratories at UNC Charlotte.
“In the sciences at Catawba College, we strongly encourage all of our students to engage in internships. An internship is one of the most important and valuable experiences that a student can have during his or her college career. They can learn the theories and concepts in class, but they get to see and experience the practice of our art, and the culture of the professional setting, during the internship, explained Dr. Connie Lowery, chair and associate professor of biology at Catawba. “Additionally, the students build their network of peers and contacts, which can be valuable when applying for graduate or professional school or even a job after graduation. It is often transformative. I am so very proud of these students and what they have accomplished.”
For more information on P2EP, visit www.P2EP.org.