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Minot State University student Zach Schuller (left) and assistant professor Chris Heth prepare hops flowers for extraction in the laboratory. IMAGE: Minot State University

A chemistry degree, not a ‘weed degree': A look at Minot State's new major in medicinal plant chemistry

Editor’s note: In the fall, Minot State University in Minot, N.D., will start offering one of only two four-year medicinal plant chemistry programs in the nation. Chemists who can extract compounds from plants and analyze them can earn up to $70,000 right out of college, thanks in part to the burgeoning medicinal cannabis industry, Minot State reports.

In this interview, Prairie Business talks with Christopher Heth, assistant professor of chemistry, and Zachary Schuller, one of the school’s first students to declare a major in medicinal plant chemistry.

Q. How did the program get started?

Christopher Heth: A little over a year ago, people on campus were exploring or brainstorming different ideas, looking for areas that we could expand our program offerings into. They were looking for things that our students might be interested in, that those students couldn’t get anywhere else and that would be useful for industries in the state and the region.

Those are the kinds of things that a state university, in particular, is doing all the time.

And with the significant uptick in medicinal cannabis across the country, including the legalization of medicinal cannabis in North Dakota, we wondered, is there something in that industry that we should be servicing?

So, a committee was set up, including me and a few other representatives from the sciences. Eventually, we all agreed that this was something we could do or even should do, especially in the area of the sciences.

Q. Why?

Heth: Because while the pipeline of medicinal cannabis begins where the plant is grown and ends at the consumer, there are middle steps that require particular expertise and training, especially in the sciences.

For example, some states (though not North Dakota) require that any medicinal cannabis products be in a processed or extracted form. We happened to be able to apply our expertise as chemists to train students to do that.

That's the direction we decided to go, so we developed it as an additional option in our existing chemistry program. It's got a little more math and a few more chemistry courses then our general chemistry option, but not quite to the same extreme as our professional chemistry option, which is designed for students who want to go to graduate school.

Q. Will graduates be able to work in industries other than medicinal cannabis?

Heth: Yes. Our graduates could work in any industry that wants to extract useful materials from plants. For example, hops farming is a growth industry in North Dakota, in part because of the growth in the field of craft brewing. And the skills we teach are similar to those needed for extracting things from hops.

Likewise, our students’ analytical skills are what people working in sectors of the pharmaceutical industry are using, so this would be a good launching point for people wanting to do that in their career as well.

Botanicals, health supplements, essential oils, the food-science industry – all of those are good fits. So, while most of the attention that the program will get is on medicinal cannabis, and rightly so, it does apply to other industries as well. Anything that has a plant in it.

Q. Were you worried about pushback, and has there been any because of the subject matter?  

Heth: Was there worry? Yes, actually. It was something we were concerned about; but we have been pleasantly surprised that we have not seen any negative reaction to it yet at all.

We were expecting at least some, and we were hoping it wouldn't be much. But it has been less than I dared hope for.

So far, in fact, all the feedback that we've gotten has been positive.

Q. Zach, where are you from, and how did you wind up at Minot State?

Zachary Schuller: My family lives in Pennsylvania now, and I’ve lived around cities for most of my life. So when the time came for me to choose a college, I knew that I wanted to move to a place that was more rural. I wanted to see what that sort of life looks like.

I also was interested in bioinformatics, because that field combines two areas – computer science and biological data, such as gene sequencing – that I had been interested in since high school.

So when I found that Minot State had both the degree and the college environment that I preferred, it was stellar.

Q. How did your interest in medicinal plant chemistry develop?

Schuller: I actually was at the airport and saw a news story that Minot State was getting a new medicinal plant major. At the time, there had been a lot of news around the country about medical cannabis and the fact that it was becoming a big alternative medicine for a lot of currently prescribed conditions.

Those include a lot of the conditions that opioids are prescribed for.

And because the opioid epidemic is so destructive and medicinal cannabis might prove to be a safer solution, it was almost like I felt a social call. I’m a person who is interested in science and data, and this seems like a field in which those skills could offer a lot of help to a lot of people.

Q. The opioid epidemic has hit North Dakota hard, but it has hit Pennsylvania even harder, I think. Was that part of your thinking?

Schuller. Yes. You can't be in a room these days without somebody in that room being affected by the opioid epidemic. It's a huge problem, so I’m very excited about directing my studies toward what might be a possible solution.

Q. What kinds of materials will the students in the program be working on?

Heth: Our plan from the get-go was not to use any whole-leaf cannabis of any kind. We are not set up to use cannabis without a significant investment in infrastructure, including security.

For example, if we had to guard wherever we had the stuff stored, or if we had to make sure that students wouldn’t pocket a little bit of the material and smuggle it out of class – we didn’t want to deal with any of that.

Luckily, the techniques and skills are similar regardless of whether we are talking about tea leaves, or hops, or the cannabis plant – and also industrial hemp. So, our task got much easier with the 2018 Farm Bill, which essentially legalized hemp.

With hemp, we don't need to go through all of those hoops, because we're not dealing with an illegal substance that we need to keep as close tabs on. That makes things much easier. We can extract the cannabidiols out of hemp and separate the various other compounds in there, many of which are identical or nearly identical to those we find in a cannabis plant.

Q. How do you extract those compounds? What's the basic technique?

Heth: If you make coffee or tea, you’ve already done some of those processes, just with different solvents. When we brew coffee, we take the plant material and we run a solvent – hot water – through it. While the solvent is in contact with the plant, some of the compounds in the plant dissolve and are carried away from the bulk fiber material.

The concept is literally identical here. The only thing that changes is what we use for solvents.

Q. Chris, do you expect the medicinal cannabis industry to come and recruit at Minot State one of these years?

Heth: We’re certainly hoping so. The industry is in an odd state currently, because the federal prohibition still is in place. That’s in direct contradiction to what the states are doing; I believe the number is 31 states plus the District of Columbia that have legalized medicinal cannabis now.

But because it is still federally prohibited, we have 31 cases of redundancy, because you can't transport it across state lines without breaking federal law.

In other words, each state needs to develop its own industry. And a lot of them have realized that having people who can understand the scientific basis behind the process is desirable.

So we think the need for trained scientists to perform the extraction and analysis tasks is going to keep growing.

Tom Dennis

Editor, Prairie Business