Scientists from all over the world–Taiwan, Italy, Great Britain, China, Brazil–do research at N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute in Kannapolis. Their research helps people around the world produce and eat foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, that provide greater health benefits.
Many of the support personnel that execute many of the day-to-day research tasks didn’t have to travel quite so far, however. These internationally renowned scientists partner with people who live in and near Kannapolis, some who were even born here. The Institute, now 12 years old, is a cutting-edge facility where DNA and phytochemicals are the threads of knowledge weaving a new tapestry of career opportunities. The textile industry was once the heartbeat of Kannapolis, supporting generations of local citizens. The nature of scientific research does not demand the labor pool required of manufacturing and that has been a difficult workforce transition for the town. With the mill closure and the vision of the NC Research Campus rooted, however, some, like these three women, have forged a new path as part of the scientific community. These three, and others, exemplify the success of the biotechnology program offered directly on the campus through Rowan Cabarrus Community College.
Lorie Beale grew up in this area, spending much of her childhood in Concord and moving to Kannapolis as an adult. She worked in the trucking industry for more than 20 years and then decided to try a new field. As a student at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College (RCCC), Beale discovered a new interest—biotechnology—and launched a new career as a lab technician at the Plants for Human Health Institute. Breeding broccoli using hand pollination was one of her first lab responsibilities, along with grinding freeze-dried broccoli tissue for genetic analysis and hand harvesting blueberry trial plots. Currently, Beale’s benchwork is mostly looking at anthocyanin levels in blueberries. Anthocyanins are phytochemicals that have health protective properties and give fruits a red, purple or blue color.
Her grandfather worked on this very land, back when it was Cannon Mill. The textile mill was Cabarrus County’s biggest employer and taxpayer for decades, and for much of Kannapolis’s history, life in the town centered around the mill. By the 1970s, half of the country’s towels were made right here. But automation slashed employment in the textile industry, operations slowed, and then the mill closed in 2003.
Now, another industry hopes to rise from this land. New buildings on the site of the old mill are dedicated to health science and nutrition, with scientists working to improve our understanding of what we eat and how it may help us. While the number of local residents who work here pales in comparison to the number who used to work in the mill, the hope is that these buildings become a new source of local jobs and pride.
“I hope people in the area know that the things that we’re researching here will improve people’s health through food,” says Beale. “This work will benefit everyone – it helps us know what we need to be eating, and what we shouldn’t be.”
When Joyce Edwards moved to Kannapolis in 2008, the Plants for Human Health Institute was just preparing to open. She had worked in a grocery store for nearly 25 years, but she was also ready for a new venture. She looked at degrees at RCCC, and the biotechnology degree caught her eye.
“The college had an introductory class in biotechnology, and I loved it,” Edwards says. “I began an internship [at the Plants for Human Health Institute] when I was still in the program.”
After obtaining a two-year associates degree, Edwards accepted a position as a lab technician in the postharvest physiology lab at the Institute. The lab where she works looks at how the nutritional value of produce is maintained (or diminished or increased) after harvest, during storage, or as it’s processed. The lab handles a lot of fresh, seasonal produce, including watermelons, tomatoes, muscadines, blackberries, pumpkins, butternut squash, and more.
Jessica Everhart, a lifelong Kannapolis resident, always wanted to work in a scientific field. After working in retail for seven years, she learned of RCCC’s biotechnology degree. Today, she’s a lab technician at PHHI in a lab where the focus is establishing the metabolism of dietary phytochemicals and the potential impact this has on their biological activity. In the past year, she’s become part of the behind the scenes team supporting a clinical trial looking at blueberry absorption metabolism.
“This is the career that I always wanted to have,” Everhart says. “I just didn’t know that I could do this and only go to school for two years.”
The research that they are a part of at PHHI has the power to change how millions of people eat and live. It identifies which nutrients are most helpful combatting illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and how we can grow and process produce that contains more of these essential nutrients. In addition, this research helps extend the storage life of produce, allowing more people to access healthier foods.
One of Edwards’s favorite parts of working at PHHI is that she’s able to encourage local students to consider scientific fields. PHHI’s Scientist for a Day program partners with Kannapolis schools, inviting small groups of students to see the labs and participate in hands-on experiments related to the actual research happening at PHHI.
Many of the high schoolers who visit PHHI were born after the last employee left Cannon Mills. Today, they’re entering a building that not only may be the site of a future career, but it may also be a place where they can help write the next chapter in Kannapolis’s story.