By Lukas Johnson, Charlotte Observer
Camry Wagner’s family roots run deep throughout the former Cannon Mills Company’s 147-year textile manufacturing history.
So the Kannapolis native and 22-year-old biologist considers it an honor to be among some of the first scientists to establish new roots as leaders of agriculture research at the North Carolina Research Campus, where the textile company’s largest plant once stood.
The Plant Pathways Elucidation Project (P2EP) summer internship program started June 9 with 40 students representing 12 colleges and universities and two high schools in Cabarrus County.
The program’s mission is to team up university scientists, industry leaders and college students to explore plant health benefits and create a vast base of research.
Wagner and others will serve as research lab technicians in the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute, working on the $1.9 million P2EP program, now in its second year.
“Being able to return to Kannapolis and work on the same ground as my family once did means a great deal to me personally,” said Wagner, who just was graduated from UNC Wilmington with a bachelor’s degree in biology. “My great-grandfather passed away before I was even born, but being here allows me to build a connection with him that I never had before.”
She’s also proud to continue a family tradition of working for a local company that’s dedicated to helping the community.
“Cannon Mills provided people jobs, clean towels, sheets, and the research campus is providing answers on how to improve human health,” said Wagner. “I am excited that I can positively impact the city of Kannapolis, just like my family did.”
Much of the research conducted by interns will explore how such crops as blueberries, broccoli, oats and strawberries develop compounds that enhance human health. This year’s students will build on advances made by the first class students in the summer of 2013.
Wagner is analyzing strawberries and tomatoes to identify plant compounds such as anthocyanin and lycopene, two photochemicals scientist believe may help prevent some cancers, heart disease, loss of brain function and macular degeneration.
“The program analyzes the biological mechanisms in plants that produce certain bioactive compounds that can benefit human health,” said Wagner. “By investigating these compounds, we can understand how to use them to improve plant quality, nutrition and their applications to human diseases.”
Her passion for health and nutrition led her back home after she stumbled upon an application for the P2EP program.
“This project definitely makes me feel like a real scientist because I get to perform biological and chemical testing at a microscopic level,” said Wagner. “I was a little timid and nervous before coming to the campus, because I really did not know much about any of the research that was taking place.
“But this program has gone above and beyond to make every intern feel welcome. They all take their job and research really seriously, so I am excited to be part of a research team that is dedicated to program and to human health.”
The interns on June 17 toured Barbee Farms, a century-old family farm with 70 acres of vegetables and fruit trees. Though not certified organic, the family practices many organic methods.
Brent Barbee, the farm manager, said some of the students weren’t as passionate about the work as he would have liked, but temperatures in the high 90s could have played a role.
“But getting more people involved and passionate about where their food comes from and what’s being done to their food, that’s probably the silver lining of what we do: educating the public,” said Barbee.
During the tour, Barbee showed interns the family’s production facility, greenhouse and gave them an overview of their practices and challenges, money being the biggest.
“The point of the farm tour was to connect the dots between agricultural research and agricultural production, because too often we can get caught up in silos and stay in the fields and farm while researchers stay in the lab and research,” said Justin Moore, a communications specialist for N.C. State University. “The tour helped them see how their research ends up on the plate.”