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Harnessing plants for health

Claire Thetford analyzed what happens when you treat colon cancer cells with broccoli extract. Doriane Taylor hunted for plant genes related to amino acid biosynthesis. And Bethany Latham and Emily Riffe helped map the production of caffeine in four plant species used by indigenous people of the Americas.

While their lab work was different, the four NC State University students shared a common goal this summer: to explore ways to harness plants’ benefits for human health.

Thetford, Taylor, Latham and Riffe were among 30 interns who came mainly from universities and colleges across the state to the North Carolina Research Campus to participate in the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project, or P2EP.

Though P2EP, the interns worked with NC State University faculty members and doctoral students on projects at the nexus of agriculture, nutrition and human health.

The NC State students all said they gained practical experience and knowledge that will help them along their way to scientific and medical careers. The interns were able to use cutting-edge bioinformatics and genome sequencing tools to characterize plant fibers, phytochemical metabolites and plant pathways of a variety of plants, including strawberries, oats and blueberries.

Not only did they contribute to research that will ultimately be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, they also gained experience in public speaking and team work.

Dr. Mary Ann Lila, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at the research campus and food scientist with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at NC State, said such skills are vital. An important aspect of the program, she said, is having interns come to appreciate the value of diverse perspectives and complementary strengths that come from working with transdisciplinary teams.

“Industries of today are seeking these skill sets, and our interns will be better prepared for career opportunities,” she said.

And when it comes to careers and future studies, project-mates Riffe and Latham said that getting to work on plant genetics research was perfectly in line with their educational paths. Both plan to pursue Ph.D.s – Riffe in plant biology and Latham in genetics.

Latham, who also plans to get an M.D. and become a clinical geneticist, said she appreciated getting to learn how genetics research can be implemented, as she was “introduced to many procedures and protocols used by geneticists everywhere.”

Thetford, a human biology major who is working on a minor in nutrition at NC State, said, “I gained so much more experience with the cellular biology behind nutrition and was able to test broccoli extract on one of the most diagnosed chronic diseases in the world.”

That experience won the aspiring physician assistant and her research partner Holli Chandler from Catawba College first place in a poster competition held as part of a symposium that concluded this year’s internships. Thetford believes their research “can directly affect the health field of the future.”

While the students spent much of their time engaged in scientific research, they also had the chance to trade their lab coats for aprons. In partnership with the Cabarrus Health Alliance, the interns staged a cooking demonstration, showing participants how to make a fruit-based salsa using food ingredients directly related to their research. During the demo, students shared information about the nutritional value of each ingredient.

As intern Doriane Taylor pointed out, that knowledge is important at a time when so few people get in the recommended daily allowances of fruits and vegetables.

Taylor, who hopes to become a food chemist, said, “I think that by doing this research, we are making strides to educate the public about the benefits of not only broccoli but other fruits and vegetables, so that the future generations get all the necessary nutrients they need.”