N.C. Research Campus brings scientist’s family to Rowan County

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 17, 2009

About this series
This is the second in a three-part series about some of the N.C. State University scientists who work at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis.
Coming Thursday: Dr. Mary Ann Lila travels the world looking for plants that improve health. She plans to map the genome of the blueberry in Kannapolis, a project that could take years.

By Emily Ford
FAITH ó Happy and content on a 25-acre farm in Virginia, Dr. Jeremy Pattison had a tenure-track position at Virginia Tech and a life he loved.
Then he went to the N.C. Research Campus.
He’d been recruited for a job with N.C. State University, a job based at the fledgling biotechnology complex in downtown Kannapolis.
“I knew we were going as soon as I saw his face,” wife Heidi Pattison said. “He said it was like Disneyland for scientists.”
It’s becoming a common theme at the $1.5 billion, 350-acre hub: successful scientist lured to Kannapolis by state-of-the-art equipment, the promise of collaboration, the potential to change millions of lives with health and nutrition research.
Jeremy took the job directing the new strawberry breeding and genetics program at the NCSU Plants for Human Health Institute. Working with other scientists from N.C. State and universities at the Research Campus, he will create a designer strawberry plant developed to grow in North Carolina, one that packs an extra nutritional punch.
“The opportunity here is once in a lifetime,” he said.
Many new scientists attracted by the Research Campus have moved to Concord and Charlotte. But Jeremy and his wife bought a house in Faith, making him one of the few scientists who live in Rowan County.
With a new life, four children and a demanding job, he stays busy.
“I tell people that he sleeps with his laptop under his pillow,” Heidi said. “They think I’m kidding.”
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All four of Jeremy and Heidi’s sons ó Conlyn, Logan, Liam and Braedon ó are under age 11 and were born in February.
Each boy gets his own party and birthday cake. Throw in Valentine’s Day, and the family eats sweets for most of those 28 days.
“We’re glad to have some neighbors to help us eat all that cake,” Heidi said.
The Pattisons were more isolated when they lived on Blue Feather Farm in Virginia, where Heidi raised pigs, ducks, a calf, chickens and other livestock. She also sold eggs and ran a pick-your-own produce business.
They left the farm animals behind except for three Lilac rabbits, two dogs, one cat and one pig, who came along in the freezer.
“It was very bittersweet,” Jeremy said. “We lost a part of who we had become when we sold the farm.”
Heidi calls herself a “one-woman transition team,” switching the family from farm life to life in the Greystone subdivision in Faith. The kids attend Granite Quarry Elementary.
“We hunt playgrounds,” she said.
The boys pooled their birthday money last month to buy a Nintendo Wii video gaming system and have movie night with their new friends every Friday. But they spend most of their time outside.
Their backyard buzzes with activity, from jumping on the trampoline to riding battery-powered cars to flying down a zipline tied between two trees.
While the kids were learning to use the zipline, Heidi and Jeremy had to yell “Feet out! Feet out!” as they flew down the wire to avoid crashing into the tree at the other end.
Neighbors may see Jeremy or Heidi chasing Miles and Barack O’Puppy through yards, as young Braedon, 3, hasn’t quite figured out that he can’t just open the front door like he did on the farm.
Jeremy rescued Barack from a ditch shortly before the election, hence the name.
The rabbits used to run free on the farm. When they needed to catch them, a Pattison or two just gave chase and scooped them up with fishing nets.
Heidi didn’t think that process would work as well in a subdivision, so now the kids walk them on a leash.
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Jeremy and Heidi, both 34, met in high school but didn’t start dating until later. After graduation, they took several years off while Heidi worked as a nurse’s aide and Jeremy landscaped. He also made a fair amount of hoagies.
He worked alongside a trained horticulturalist and became interested in plant cultivation.
The couple attended East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania and worked at a winery.
The process of making wine, from the biology of the grapes to the science of the field to sales and marketing, also fueled Jeremy’s growing fascination with agriculture.
He entered Cornell University in 2000 and earned a Ph.D. in fruit science, joining a diverse research program at Virginia Tech in 2004. He researched blackberries, raspberries, grapes and more.
Now, he only studies strawberries. North Carolina is the third state to have a dedicated strawberry breeder, after California and Florida.
Last year, colleagues at N.C. State began telling Jeremy about the Research Campus and founder David Murdock’s mission to change the way people eat.
Jeremy checked it out.
He was impressed by the N.C. State campus in Raleigh and the “importance that they place on applied agriculture and supporting the ag industry.”
When he traveled to Kannapolis, the four-story N.C. State building and towering Core Laboratory were still under construction.
“I could see right past it. I saw the opportunity between Raleigh and this amazing thing happening here,” he said. “It was really unique and one-of-a-kind. That’s what made relocation possible.”
Considering the unprecedented and ambitious vision for the Research Campus, Jeremy did have a few doubts. He even wondered, “Is this going to work?”
Researchers at the campus consider themselves pioneers of sorts, morphing a former mill village into a biotech hub.
Jeremy discovered the pioneer spirit.
“I had a real strong feeling that I would have the opportunity here to make it work,” he said. “It was up to me to go ahead and take the ambition and direct the program, take it where we need to go.”