Mary Ann Lila is the Director of N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI), l
Updated: Jan 12, 2019
What is the focus of your work at PHHI?
Our mission statement is “Leading the discovery and delivery of plant-based solutions to human health.” So briefly, we are looking at the phytoactive compounds (that is, the biologically active compounds or chemicals that accumulate in a plant or in a plant fruit) which specifically act to combat chronic human diseases (e.g. cancer, CVD, microbial infections, type 2 diabetes, neurodegeneration, etc.) and/or that stimulate human metabolism (aid in exercise performance, and in weight loss).
How did you first get into studying berries?
My graduate degrees were in Plant Sciences (Horticulture Science and Botany), and I was working with cell cultures of cranberries (I was at U Wisconsin Madison for my PhD, so, cranberries all around). The cranberry cells, growing in big bioreactor cultures, could be provoked (elicited) to accumulate the red pigments and other bioactive compounds that are health-protective. From this work, my studies shifted into the phytochemistry of what compounds a plant can produce that (after ingesting that plant) will interact with target receptors within the human body to counteract disease incidence or progression.
Did you move to Charlotte specifically for your work?
I was asked in April 2007 to give a conference talk in Charlotte, and Mr. David Murdock (billionaire owner of Dole Foods) was in the audience. He asked me to consider relocating to his new North Carolina Research Campus, which was under construction at the time, and we took a tour of the construction site. It was an exciting concept, to have eight universities co-located with industrial partners at a highly cooperative campus with state of the art instrumentation for analytics. So in 2008, I became the inaugural Director of the PHHI, which is North Carolina State’s footprint on this campus.
What makes the PHHI such an asset to the Charlotte region?
The PHHI is unique in the world as an institute that is 100% dedicated to plant-based solutions for human health, and we have a dozen faculty members from five different departments that all tackle research in this area, but from different vantage points. The PHHI is highly collaborative, so we can thoroughly investigate almost any plant-based question thrown our way!
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about berries?
We’ve learned that we can deliberately fuse (complex) and concentrate berry phytoactive compounds with edible proteins, to deliver functional ingredients that provide significant plant-based disease fighting properties along with healthy proteins as colloidal, stable aggregates. Not only that, but, when plant phytoactive compounds are fused with an edible protein that is an allergen (for example, peanut protein), the resulting ingredient can be hypoallergenic. This means that people who are allergic to milk proteins, or soy, or peanut may be in the future able to consume products containing these proteins, without an allergic reaction.
What do you wish people knew most about berries?
The most striking thing about berries (especially the wild lowbush blueberry, which is my favorite) is that when you eat them, their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits actually counteract an amazing range of different human disorders, all at once.
Most people don’t know that when you eat berries, they specifically travel down the gastrointestinal tract and provide benefits to the human gut microbiome (that is, the bacteria that reside inside the human body to help digestion). Berries favor the production and increase of ‘good’ bacteria that really help to aid in digestion and to resist diseases.
When you’re not busy doing complex scientific work, what do you like to do for fun?
I love to travel to places that I have never been before. Luckily, I get to do a lot of this through my work. I try to visit more countries than my age – so far I have visited 69 countries, so I have a good buffer before I reach that number in actual age.
What’s your favorite thing about living in Charlotte?
The people are so nice. Here, people wave at you when you drive by, whether you know them or not, and whether it is even your neighborhood or not. I grew up in Chicago where we’d park the car at expensive parking garages and walk through the snow to go to theater. Here, when we park in neighborhoods—the people wave from their porches.