Perspectives Online

$1 million grant funds Kannapolis Scholars

At the North Carolina Research Campus, Dr. Roger Beachy (left) and Dr. Etta Saltos of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture assist as Dr. Jack Odle (right) reveals a ceremonial check to support the Kannapolis Scholars.
Photo by Becky Kirkland

An effort led by N.C. State University effort and funded with a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will bring students from as many as eight state universities to the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis to study food science and nutrition.

The grant will be used to expose graduate students to what is known as a transdisciplinary approach to problem-solving said Dr. Jack Odle, William Neal Reynolds Professor of nutritional biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at N.C. State. Odle led the effort to apply for the grant and will direct the program.

Transdisciplinary education is a relatively new concept in academic circles that refers to the idea that many of today’s scientific questions are so complex they cannot be adequately addressed by scientists or experts with expertise in only one area. Rather, scientists are likely to be more effective if their training stretches across disciplines.

The grant will allow students at N.C. State and the other seven universities to structure their training to address research questions that are transdisciplinary in nature.

Odle said students accepted into the program will be known as Kannapolis Scholars. The grant will provide Kannapolis Scholars with roughly $38,000 over a 15-month period for tuition, housing and other expenses. A key element of the program is what Odle called a 10-week “rotation” each summer at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis. Students will spend the 10 weeks working at a lab on the campus.

N.C. State has a presence on the campus in the form of the Plants for Human Health Institute and a North Carolina Cooperative Extension program called N.C. MarketReady. While several faculty members from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are located on the Research Campus, Odle is not among them. Indeed, until the grant was approved, he had no official involvement with the Research Campus.

Odle, who is a bit of a transdisciplinary scholar himself – he’s a member of the CALS Department of Animal Science, and his research involves baby pigs used as models of human infant nutrition – said he was looking at USDA requests for grant proposals and noticed one that sought student training that combined food science and human nutrition. He immediately thought of the transdisciplinary mission of the N.C. Research Campus, and with the help of the N.C. State Proposal Development Office, prepared a proposal.

“Kannapolis (the N.C. Research Campus) has a transdisciplinary nature as part of its mission,” says Odle. “It’s woven into the Research Campus fabric.”

The grant is being provided through a relatively new USDA competitive grants program called the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, or AFRI, which was created in 2008 to replace the former National Research Initiative (NRI).

Odle said students from all eight universities involved in the Research Campus will be eligible to apply for Kannapolis Scholars fellowships. Funding will go to students who are just beginning their graduate school careers, in the first or second year of their studies.

Thirty faculty members from the eight universities have agreed to mentor students. Odle said students must design programs of study that involve mentors from at least two of the eight universities. In addition, each student will also have a mentor based at the Research Campus.

The eight N.C. universities with a presence on the N.C. Research Campus are Appalachian State University (Human Performance Laboratory), Duke University (Translational Medicine Institute), N.C. A&T State University (Center of Excellence for Post Harvest Technologies), N.C. Central University (Nutrition Research Program), N.C. State University (Plants for Human Health Institute and N.C. MarketReady), UNC-Charlotte (Bioinformatics Research Center), UNC-Chapel Hill (Nutrition Research Institute) and UNC-Greensboro (Center for Research Excellence in Bioactive Food Components).

USDA will provide funding for four years, and Odle anticipates that during that time approximately 20 students, including at least two from each university, will take advantage of the program. The program will begin in the spring of 2010 with the selection of the first six Kannapolis Scholars. Seven more students will be selected in the second and third years of the program.

— Dave Caldwell