This article originally appeared in Carolina Public Health Magazine.

Just shy of two hours away from Chapel Hill, the former textile town of Kannapolis is home to a state-of-the-art research center where Gillings School faculty, along with colleagues from across UNC, are pushing the frontier of nutrition science.

At the UNC Nutrition Research Institute (NRI), researchers are developing and applying innovative methods to study disease risk factors and the role of nutrients in preventing disease, diet-related health behaviors, the effects of gene-nutrient interactions, and how genetics and the environment influence disease outcomes. Much of their work informs national nutritional recommendations and guidelines

Most of the NRI’s researchers are Gillings School faculty members, mainly in the Department of Nutrition; several hold appointments in the School of Social Work and the departments of psychology and neuroscience. The NRI’s research strengths include precision nutrition, environmental exposures, prenatal alcohol exposure, brain development, cancer metabolism, obesity prevention and treatment, and equity-based community research.

“The NRI has outstanding faculty who are doing a wide range of work — from basic sciences to interventions to environmental exposures — in a highly interdisciplinary manner,” said Saame “Raz” Shaikh, PhD, professor and chair of nutrition. “There is such a broad range of expertise there, from basic molecular science to dietary, clinical and behavioral interventions.”

The NRI’s interim director is Deborah F. Tate, PhD, professor of nutrition and health behavior and internationally recognized behavioral scientist who studies precision nutrition, obesity, diabetes prevention and digital health interventions. She is co-principal investigator of the National Institutes of Health’s Nutrition for Precision Health UNC Clinical Center and directs the Communication for Health Applications and Interventions Core.

Being located in Kannapolis gives the NRI access to diverse patient populations and provides an opportunity to engage in community-based research. To complement its leadership in basic science and laboratory research, the NRI is expanding its translational science work with large clinical studies and community trials.

These trials and studies use innovative tools and techniques, including a special chamber to measure 24-hour metabolism and a mobile nutrition research unit that takes researchers into the community, removing transportation or other barriers that may prevent people from participating in clinical research.

“The translational research potential at the NRI is huge. I hope to continue our expansion in this area so we are leading cutting-edge nutrition and metabolism research both in our labs and in our communities,” Tate said.

A core tenet at the NRI is precision nutrition, or studying why metabolism and nutrition requirements differ between people. Founding director Steven H. Zeisel, MD, PhD, now retired, is a renowned expert in precision nutrition and set out to make the NRI a global leader in the field, and his work informed choline intake recommendations for many populations. Zeisel founded SNP Therapeutics, a company built on his decades of research that enables new treatment options to improve human health.

Precision nutrition does not mean building customized diets for specific individuals. Rather, it examines population groups and subgroups that vary in genetics, microbiomes, age, gender and other factors to learn how different nutritional requirements and responses affect individual nutritional needs. The ultimate goal is improving human development and lessening the impacts of aging and diet-related disease.