Institute Director Mentors Kenan Fellow

Jeff Walter, a high school teacher at Gray Stone Day School in Misenheimer, N.C., will spend much of his “summer vacation” working in Alaskan berry fields, dynamic university settings and state-of-the-art scientific laboratories. The eclectic environments aren’t part of his teaching curriculum yet, but he hopes that will change after his summer with Dr. Mary Ann Lila, director of N.C. State’s Plants for Human Health Institute at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis.

Walter was selected as a Class of 2012 Kenan Fellow by the Kenan Fellows Program, an initiative of the Kenan Institute for Engineering, Technology and Science at N.C. State University. As part of the fellowship, Walter began work in June with Dr. Lila, his Kenan Fellow mentor, who will introduce him to cutting-edge plant research and its potential importance to the human population.

The mission of the Kenan Fellows Program is “to enhance curriculum relevance for the benefit of all students.” Selected fellows must submit a project proposal and develop lessons for students. Walter’s project, “History Through a Scientific Lens,” is intended to bridge the gap between history and science. He wants students to understand how scientific and technological knowledge shape the progress of a society and how a society’s needs dictate scientific discovery.

“It is impossible to understand who we are and where we have been without a working knowledge of science and technology,” explained Walter. “Science and technology inform and explain periods of change in human history.”

His curriculum will allow students to analyze the impact of science in history and make predictions about how current research might impact the future. Walter, a world history teacher, thinks that working with Dr. Lila, an internationally known plant scientist, will provide the insight he needs to make that connection.

“Dr. Lila is a top-notch researcher who can make you a better instructor,” said Walter. “I’m here to learn a new language and there’s no better way to learn than to dive in head first.”

Dr. Mary Ann Lila (third from left), director of the Plants for Human Health Institute, leads a diverse research team that seeks to identify compounds in fruits and vegetables, like the blueberry, that convey human health benefits.

Dr. Lila leads diverse research teams that seek out and study plants with human health benefits, like several species of wild berries that thrive in Alaska’s harsh winters and growing conditions. Starting this summer, they will work with a wider range of wild plants in Alaska that have been traditional sources of native community subsistence as foods and medicines. Devil’s Claw, for example, is a wild weed with anti-inflammatory and wound-healing properties.

Walter will travel with Dr. Lila and her team to study how Alaskan aboriginal tribes use the native berries and plants. Specifically, they want to identify curative characteristics and potential medicinal applications of the plants.

Walter is also working with Dr. Lila’s research team at the N.C. Research Campus. He shadows the lab staff, assisting when needed, as they extract fluids from fruits, gaze into the plant compounds and ultimately strive to discover how fresh fruits and vegetables improve human health. “This is real science at work,” observed Walter.

Having been raised a stone’s throw away in Concord, Walter remembers when Kannapolis was a booming textiles town before Cannon Mills and eventually Pillowtex Corporation closed the doors. His father worked at the mill for years. Finding himself working on the site of the old textile mills, now home of the N.C. Research Campus, is a gratifying experience.

“It’s exciting for me to be here in [the Research Campus’] fledgling stages,” said Walter. “What a wonderful place.”

In addition to his scientific adventure in Alaska, Walter will spend a week at Western Carolina University engaged in introductory meetings and leadership development events. At the conclusion of his fellowship, he will present his lessons at state and national conferences. Walter holds a master’s degree in secondary social studies education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The National Science Foundation Research Experience for Teachers will help sponsor Walter’s fellowship. Public school teachers in every N.C. school district were eligible to apply to become Kenan Fellows, and teachers from all eight education regions were accepted into the program for 2012. Learn more about the Kenan Fellows Program.

N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute regularly involves local teachers in laboratory research at the N.C. Research Campus. Teachers glean ideas they incorporate into their classroom curricula. In addition to Walter, at least two other school teachers are working in researchers’ labs this summer.

Writer: Justin Moore