If all goes as planned, by the year 2020 students at North Carolina State University will be working alongside leading researchers in the plant sciences in a first-of-its-kind facility on NC State’s Centennial Campus in Raleigh.
The North Carolina Plant Sciences Initiative is a brand new way of approaching the plant sciences because it will be interdisciplinary, where researchers across disciplines, from soil scientists to plant breeders to engineers to biochemists to economists, will work together in a collaborative way.
The goal, according to Richard Linton, dean of NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is to make North Carolina the worldwide leader in plant sciences.
Linton said the university reached out to stakeholders across the state and the same message kept coming back that North Carolina was in the ideal position to take the lead in this new and innovative initiative. Key drivers, according to Linton, were the great diversity of North Carolina agriculture as well as the state being the home of Research Triangle Park, which is located just a few miles away from the Centennial Campus.
“This puts us in a unique position. We also have this other capacity that I don’t think any other state in the country has and that’s the ability to do research with plant products with so many different types of climates and so many different types of soils,” Linton said.
NC State works in partnership with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture in research at 18 different research stations across the state where scientists can mimic plant growth almost anywhere in the entire East Coast, with the exception of some tropical regions of Florida, Linton explained. North Carolina is the nation’s third most diverse agricultural state, offering nearly all climatic and soil conditions.
“The primary goal is to be able to assemble all of the plant science disciplines together so that they can work together on the grand global challenges in plant sciences,” Linton said.
To bring people together in an interdisciplinary way, it is the hope that scientists and students will work together in the new Plant Science Research Complex at the heart of the NC State Centennial Campus on such issues as drought, disease and pest management, plant breeding and food security.
The goal of $177 million in funding for the initiative will support programming costs, laboratory suites, offices and seminar and classroom space. Linton said the state-of-the-art building will accommodate 65 plant sciences research faculty plus incubator and start-up project faculty. It will also include a rooftop glasshouse as well as an atrium.
“It truly is a first-of-its-kind facility. There is nothing quite like it anywhere,” Linton said.
Government, industry under one roof
Linton noted that the initiative and the building is unique because it strives to bring together academia from NC State as well as other land grant institutions and other universities to work with government and industry under one roof.
“With this initiative and a world class facility, we would be able to attract the best scientists in the world to North Carolina State. We could also attract industry to the state of North Carolina and we can be the go to place for where students want to be able to gain the most valuable experience around research in plant sciences,” Linton said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Steve Lommel, associate dean and director for the N.C. Agricultural Research Service in N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, emphasizes that the Plant Sciences Initiative and the new Plant Science Research Complex, will allow the university to do plant science in a different way.
“This will really allow us to move plant sciences forward,” he said.
Currently, NC State is working on a governance model to bring faculty, government and industry together. This is the first step in getting the building up and running.
“We’re working on that now and we contracted with a think tank, Battelle, out of Ohio to help us come up with some ideas for that so that we can form committees and groups in the state among our stakeholders and among the people who would be doing this research to come up with a model that fits best for us,” Lommel said. “We are also working with Battelle to do an economic development study because the state of North Carolina has given us $350,000 in the budget that started July 1 to do this study. That’s the first step in working towards a plant sciences complex.”
NC State hopes to work with the legislature and the private sector to work towards construction of a new building. “It is our hope to have the doors opening in 2019 or 2020,” Lommel said.
Both Linton and Lommel stress that support and excitement for the project across all sectors of agriculture in North Carolina has been strong. “Everyone we work with sees the strong need for this initiative,” Linton said.
Lommel points out that stakeholders see the benefits of the initiative for economic development in North Carolina.
“We want to solve the big problems, but we also want to address the ag economy in the state of North Carolina. We believe that there are a lot of opportunities available to increase the ag economy in the state by doing interdisciplinary research. We can make big leaps in developing new crops and new cropping systems and extending the cropping season. We will be able to have crops that are much less susceptible to drought or environmental changes on a big scale,” he said.
Students will be trained in an interdisciplinary way, which will be attractive to companies. “It’s a whole new way of thinking,” Lommel said.
The envisioned building will be designed where students, scientists and representatives from industry can work together in an open setting. “This interaction of students with industry will be unique. The students will be far more engaged and farm more ready to be leaders right out of the gate,” Linton said.
Lommel emphasizes that the design of the plant science complex is unique.
“This building would not be a standard building like you’ve walked in before. It’s a building that will drive interdisciplinary research. It will be open with high bays where engineers and mathematicians can work together with biologists and breeders. It won’t be designed with cubicles and isolated spaces,” he said.
Linton said the industry sees the need for a strong student pipeline to meet the challenges of plant sciences. “The biggest concern of industry and stakeholders is having a capable student to be able to meet their needs. They all agree that we should be the absolute leader in plant sciences, but they’re also very concerned about having the student pipeline to be able to fill their needs. This does both.”