In the beginning of the 2017 academic year, North Michigan University started a four-year medicinal plant chemistry program. “We designed the program with cannabis in mind, but more broadly speaking, it’s for medicinal plants of all sorts,” says Mark Paulsen, head of the chemistry department. “We’re trying to stress that we recognize cannabis as an important medicinal plant, but hardly the only one.” So, this degree program should appeal to many people interested in various traditional remedies or alternative treatments that are plant-based.
The students who just started this program will take classes in chemistry and plant biology. Beginning their first year, they will participate in a medicinal-plant seminar, where outside experts will introduce students to the state of the industry. In their final year, the students will also design and complete an undergraduate research project. “This might include growing a plant sample and extracting the active ingredients,” Paulsen explains. “Then, they could run the appropriate assays to determine the types and quantities of the compounds in the sample.” These samples could also be grown in various conditions to see if that impacts the components.
Students can take two general approaches to this degree. One is primarily a science and technology pathway, and the other focuses on entrepreneurship, finance and marketing. “Some students will start their own businesses,” Paulsen says.
For the students taking the scientific track, analytical chemistry will make up a crucial component. “We’ll be teaching and focusing on the same techniques that you’d use in other contexts,” Paulsen says. So, the techniques taught will include gas and liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry and various forms of spectroscopy, including infrared and ultraviolet-visible.
The students will also be taught to develop new analytical methods to measure specific compounds. Instead of just learning the theories behind the analytical techniques, they will also learn how to create methods of measurement that produce accurate and consistent results with plant samples. “So, there’s an important component in terms of methods development,” Paulsen notes.
This degree program grabbed the attention of students very quickly. “As soon as we got out the word,” Paulsen points out, “people started talking to us.” Some of the first students came to the program right out of high school, and others came from industry or other forms of training.
To put students from this program into real-world situations, the faculty members are setting up experiences outside of North Michigan University. “There have been lots of interactions with companies,” Paulsen says, “and we are partnering with some, setting up internships.” He adds, “We expect to place some interns next summer.”
To give the cannabis industry—as well as other industries based on medicinal plants—the necessary workforce to operate testing labs and run businesses, more programs like the one at North Michigan University must be developed. Likewise, these programs should take the broad perspective—from analysis and business to development and theory—that Paulsen and his colleagues created. Only then can students learn the breadth of skills required to excel in this field.