Mary Ann Lila knew she loved plants when she worked in a greenhouse in her home state of Illinois. Starting at the University of Illinois with this passion, she took every plant science class she could find. When she found out that plants make chemicals that improve the health of plants and animals alike, she found her career path. She is now the director of an institute focused on the discovery and delivery of innovative plant-based solutions to advance human health.
Food Science: a combination of engineering, biology, and chemistry that studies the nature of foods, the causes of deterioration, the principles underlying food processing, and the improvement of foods for the public.
When did you discover you wanted to study food science?
I grew up in Chicago and worked in a greenhouse. I loved working with plants. I went to college at the University of Illinois in plant sciences, with the hope of learning to be a retail florist. I took every plant science class I could find.
What did you study in school?
Horticulture. Botany. Ethnobotany—that’s the study of how native people have used plants as foods and medicines for thousands of years. I left that course wondering why these plants were so protective to animal membranes, organs, and blood. There was too much to discover. I wanted to know more. I got a master’s degree at Illinois and got a PhD from the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Wisconsin is cranberry country so I grew tissue-cultured cranberries (in test tubes and petri dishes). Turns out that the red pigment in a cranberry—anthocyanin—protects the plant from ultraviolet radiation and cold. It amazed me to discover that plants have to shut down many of their growth and developmental processes to refocus on making these compounds. They can’t do two things at once. So I figured out a way to grow the cells that make the bright red color from callus tissue in a petri dish. Then I used a high-pressure liquid chromatograph to separate the molecules and mass spectroscopy to identify them. I found out not only how to isolate the interesting molecules but that this pigment, when eaten by people also protects us from pathogens, bacteria and cancer cells. I wanted to study more about how fruits and vegetables can benefit human health. So I took a job back the University of Illinois.
Where did you career take you?
I essentially stayed near home for the first 25 years of my career, teaching and then administrating at the University of Illinois. I continued my research on the cranberry. But I got to travel all over the world looking for plants that can survive inhospitable climates. I did research in Egypt, Central Asia, Oceania, Mexico and sub-Saharan Africa. In 1999, I won a Fulbright Senior Scholarship to do research in New Zealand.
Then one day, I was giving a talk about the chemicals in kudzu. It turns out kudzu produces the same bone health-promoting chemical, isoflavones, as soy beans do. But in kudzu, the molecules are more available to humans. The Chinese have known that for centuries. So I was explaining this to an audience in Charlotte, NC, and I noticed a gentleman in the first row pointing at me and talking to his neighbors. At the end of my talk, he introduced himself. He was the owner of Dole Foods who was funding a brand new health and nutrition research campus (the North Carolina Research Campus) in Kannapolis, NC. He invited me to join this new campus initiative. It was a couple of years before I accepted the job, but I thought why not reinvent myself in middle age? So I moved to North Carolina to be the founding director of North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute.
What do you like about your job today?
As Director of the Plants for Human Health Institute, I have limitless opportunity. I can follow any line of research that I think is promising, if I make a good case to funders, I can pursue it. I love my work with the international community. I just returned from a meeting in Portugal with researchers interested in the red pigment in cranberries. There is still much to be learned about that tart little fruit.
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