Skip to main content

A Visit to an “Emerald City” of Science

Across the country, academic scientists are struggling with tight budgets for equipment and staff. In the North Carolina Piedmont town of Kannapolis, however, researchers affiliated with half a dozen universities and several corporations work in bright, modern laboratory buildings whose decor, equipment, and scientific resources verge on the lavish. Once the home of Cannon Towels, the former mill town demolished its textile plants in the early 2000s and has undergone a startling transformation into an imposing, even grandiose, city of science, thanks to the vision and dollars of billionaire industrialist, philanthropist and diet enthusiast David H. Murdock.

Born in 1923, Murdock never finished high school but proved an exceptionally adept student of business. Beginning at age 22, the young army veteran built up $1200 in loans into holdings that today include Dole Foods and extensive real estate, earning him a place among the Forbes 400 richest persons. As he nears his 90th birthday, he enjoys excellent health, for which he credits a diet high in fruits and vegetables. His conviction about the importance of eating the right foods inspired him to create in Kannapolis a unique scientific institution dedicated to studying the relationship between nutrition and health, the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC).

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the extraordinary institution, whose columned buildings resemble an idealized vision of historic academe. I went with a tour arranged by ScienceWriters 2012, the annual combined meeting of the National Association of Science Writers and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, held this year October 26 – 30 in Raleigh. In spacious buildings adorned with murals, domed atria, and marble walls, as well as impressive works of art from Murdock’s extensive international collection, our group met researchers from several of the seven North Carolina universities that have laboratories at NCRC. We also spoke with lab staff members who trained for their jobs in a retraining program for local residents run by Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, which has one of its campuses at NCRC.

Among other researchers, we met food scientist Mary Ann Lila, molecular geneticist Allan Brown, metabolic engineer Xu “Sirius” Li, and pharmacogeneticist Slavko Komarnytsky, all of whom hold faculty positions at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. As members of its Plants for Human Health Institute, they study the properties of broccoli, berries, and other foods that can contribute to human health. The fact that scientists who would ordinarily work in different buildings on a traditional university campus do their research in adjacent laboratories at NCRC encourages fertile, productive collaborations, Komarnytsky noted.

Other scientists we met included:
These projects represent only a sampling of the work going on at NCRC. Murdock has provided world-class facilities and some initial research funding, but the various university projects must obtain their main funding from a range of federal, philanthropic, and industrial sources. Funders currently include the Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, among others.    

As the vision of a single man, and one who “never had a boss in [his] whole life,” according to the New York Times, the Kannapolis campus feels a bit like a scientific Emerald City of Oz.   The single-minded (and some might say eccentric) focus of so extravagantly equipped a facility could also lead some to the impression that NCRC is a rich man’s expensive folly. But serious scientists are tackling serious questions, such as how to improve the nutrition of seriously deprived populations, how foods can play a greater role in preventing cancer, who is susceptible to dietary deficiencies related to birth defects, and what can be done to reduce disabling muscle-wasting.  

On the way back to Raleigh, many of the tour members snacked on succulent, vinegary Carolina pulled-pork barbecue washed down with local beer or Cheerwine, the state’s distinctive cherry-flavored soda pop. Probably none of these treats would rank highly among Murdock’s preferred nutriment, but his extraordinary experiment in focused science had given us a great deal of food for thought.