Students get the flavor of bioresearch
By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLIS ó Two South Rowan High School students have an insider’s view of the N.C. Research Campus.
William Lambert and Jasmine Hollis, both 18, have been shadowing N.C. State University faculty and staff at the $1.5 billion biotechnology complex in Kannapolis.
Lambert and Hollis are enrolled in the Occupational Course of Study program at South Rowan, which offers academic, functional and vocational training.
For the past six weeks, they’ve learned what it takes to run an office and maintain N.C. State’s four-story building in Kannapolis.
Friday, they got their first taste of science.
Along with South Rowan job coach Leticia Earnhardt, the students ventured out to the Piedmont Research Station near Salisbury to learn about strawberry plant breeding and genetics.
“This is awesome,” Hollis said. “I’ve learned a lot of things that I didn’t know about strawberries.”
N.C. State, one of eight universities with a presence in Kannapolis, uses the Research Station in Rowan County as a living laboratory. Scientists have extended the strawberry growing season using high tunnels and are developing a strawberry plant specifically designed to grow in North Carolina’s soil and climate.
Lambert and Hollis learned that to pollinate the strawberry plants, the Research Station imported Russian bees because they are hardier than their Italian cousins, which are dying in large numbers across the world.
They learned that scientists cross varieties of plants to select for traits like size, yield and disease resistance.
And they learned that sometimes, bugs work better than pesticides.
Strawberries grown under high tunnels are more likely to have mites, a parasite that can destroy the plant. But instead of spraying chemicals, scientists released another type of mite into the tunnels.
The good mites ate the bad mites.
“It looks like it works really well,” said Dr. Jeremy Pattison, the new strawberry breeder with the N.C. State Plants for Human Health Institute in Kannapolis.
After Pattison’s tour of the strawberry fields, Lambert and Hollis helped pick berries.
“We’ll never eat strawberries again without thinking about this,” Earnhardt said.
The students have spent most of their time shadowing N.C. State bookkeeper Susan Stirewalt and facilities technician Randy Keller, learning problem-solving skills that they can use when they enter the work world.
When new shelving arrived at the N.C. State building, the screws were missing. Then, the replacement screws were too long.
Lambert had to help figure out what to do.
“Things don’t always go smoothly,” Stirewalt said. “That’s what we want to teach them.”
So far, Lambert’s favorite responsibility has been helping Dr. Allan Brown, the new molecular geneticist at N.C. State in Kannapolis, care for peas in a growth chamber.
Learning to do spreadsheets tops the list for Hollis, who wants to work in an office.
The internships have gone so well that South Rowan likely will send additional students to the Research Campus in the fall.
Stirewalt, who graduated from South Rowan in 1979, came up with the idea while talking to friends Melinda Fuller and Traci Anderson, South Rowan teachers in the Occupational Course of Study program.
Stirewalt wants the interns to learn how to find resources they will need to be successful at work.
“Midgie Dial was the office occupations teacher when I was in high school,” Stirewalt said. “She always said, ‘You don’t have to know everything, you simply need to know where to find it.’ ”
Pattison spent more than an hour with the students. N.C. State’s strong emphasis on outreach helped attract him to the job at the Research Campus, he said.
Scientists can get too wrapped up in their research, he said.
“It’s easy to forget about the other part of our mission,” he said. “It’s important to give back. This was time well-invested.”