Blueberries, bananas and sweet potatoes: The cornerstones of summer internships

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 17, 2017

KANNAPOLIS — Blueberries, bananas and sweet potatoes. These may sound like items on a produce list, but actually these were the cornerstones of 11-week summer internships for four Catawba College students at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis.

Four Catawba students, including Karina Noyola-Alonso of Winston-Salem, Viridiana Mandujano of Asheville, Alexa Marcy of Fort Collins, Colo., and Accola Hudson of Asheboro, consider themselves lucky to have been selected as interns in the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project (P2EP). The four lauded the project, which seeks to expand the knowledge-base for researchers regarding genomics and bioinformatics in crops of interest with an ultimate goal of helping improve human nutrition.

Blueberries were the focus of Marcy and Hudson’s summer research. During their internships, they worked with 224 blueberry extractions and found some unknown compounds. With North Carolina ranked sixth in the nation for blueberry production, their internship contributions may eventually benefit growers in the Tar Heel State as they cultivate berries with improved nutrition, higher yields and better consumer presentation.

“I didn’t know plants could be that interesting,” Accola Hudson shared, noting that it was amazing to see “how all the different scientific fields could overlap to produce results.”

Hudson, a biochemistry major with a math minor, wants to attend graduate school.

“It’s so much more than I thought it would be and I learned way more than I thought I would,” Alexa Marcy said. “You just have to keep your mind open and get ready to work.”

Marcy, also a biochemistry major and a volleyball player, says medical school is in her future – where she is interested in studying ophthalmology, oncology or orthopedics.

Noyola-Alonso, a biology major pursuing minors in business administration and chemistry, said she “learned about the program and a variety of software that are used for statistical analysis,” during her internship. She focused her research on sweet potatoes, part of an ultimate project goal of developing salt-tolerant sweet potatoes.

For Mandujano, who is triple majoring in biology, chemistry and psychology, bananas were the focus. She learned that there were over 250 different varieties of bananas, all with varying metabolites that accumulate in the pulp and the peel. She learned that natural maturation of bananas resulted in higher sugar content but in a significantly lower amount of vitamin C, and that the banana peel has a much higher content of phenol than the pulp.

“It was a great experience with lots of hands-on opportunities. You learn to be independent in your research and you learn a lot that you can apply later in other settings and other laboratories,” Mandujano said.

The Catawba students’ summer internships concluded in early August when their various teams presented findings during a concluding Summer Research Symposium.

The Plant Pathways Elucidation Project summer internship program accepts 25 to 30 students each year, ranging from high school to graduate-level. N.C. State University and UNC Charlotte facilitate this joint academic-industry supported program. Students receive the opportunity to work side-by-side at the lab bench with graduate mentors, experiencing the real-world research process and establishing lasting connections with research faculty at the NCRC. To learn more about this program, visit