Cannabis capstones

Senior Medicinal Plant Chemistry majors develop cutting edge capstone projects


Photo courtesy of Haylee Kuehl-Weiser

Senior medicinal plant chemistry major Haylee Kuehl-Weiser stands next to one of the hemp plants she analyzed in her senior capstone project. She is one of the students graduating this semester and entering into the growing field of medicinal plant chemistry.

Olivia Apa, Features Writer

The Medicinal Plant Chemistry program is entering its fifth year of existence and many of its seniors are now engaged in their capstone projects gaining extensive knowledge and experience to excel in the field of natural pharmaceuticals, specifically cannabis.

Seniors’ projects include researching topics such as how different growing conditions affect compounds found in hemp, creating natural fermented fertilizer to see how it affects the growth of Cannabis sativa, or testing drought conditions on hemp growth. 

The MPC degree covers coursework in plant biology, physical geography, organic chemistry, biochemistry and analytical chemistry providing students with interdisciplinary education. 

“[The program] is designed to give students the fundamental knowledge they will need for a career working with [products] made from medicinal plants,” Mark Paulsen, professor and head of the chemistry department, said. 

NMU chose to expand the chemistry department in 2017 to include medicinal plant chemistry in response to students’ high interest in nutritional supplements and plant-based medicines, as well as Michigan’s changing approach to cannabis-based medicines, Paulsen said. 

Paulsen anticipated the growth of the medicinal plant industry and the need for well-trained individuals in the industry. The MPC program has grown rapidly with continued interest among incoming freshmen and transfer students.  

Students can choose from two tracks — the bioanalytical track or the entrepreneurial track. In the bioanalytical track, students get more training in chemical analysis. In the entrepreneurial track, students receive a science core with courses in business and marketing. 

All seniors in the program are required to complete a year-long capstone course conducting research on their own projects resulting in hands-on experience with a medicinal plant that interests them. 

Students are trained in experimental design, ethical practices and best practices when directly testing samples derived from medicinal plants, and the capstone project is a way to integrate what they have been learning throughout the program. 

For her capstone project, Haylee Kuehl-Weiser used extraction techniques to create solvents from hemp plants. She then placed the solvents into three different environments: under LED light, in a dark drawer and in a fridge. She will periodically use professional instruments to test extractions and analyze the level of cannabinoids, such as THC, CBD and terpenes, to see how they are affected by different environments.

“I’m really interested in terpenes, the stuff that gives you the aroma, like lavender and pine,” Kuehl-Weiser said.  

Kuehl-Weiser also emphasized the importance of good ethics when creating medicinal drugs. Caring for the patient and user is her main goal. 

“I wanted to make sure that everyone who was buying or purchasing this cannabis-related product knows what they are getting,” Kuehl-Weiser said. 

J.J. Bloom is researching the effects of drought stress on the amount of terpene production in hemp. He placed three plants each into three different water dosage groups of 100, 500 and 1000 milliliters. 

Bloom harvested the hemp at the end of the fall semester, and he is going to extract the terpenes from the flower of the plant and analyze them using the advanced instruments available to students. 

“I have had employers ask if I could do my final semester remotely in order to start working sooner. One of them told me they have yet to meet someone with as much experience as I have on the instruments we use in the program,” Bloom said. 

The medicinal plant chemistry program is the only one of its kind in the country, preparing students for jobs in independent testing labs, quality assurance at a medicinal plant facility or formulating products. 

Edward Urbizu is researching the effects of fermented plant juice on the growth and development of secondary metabolites in Cannabis sativa. Secondary metabolites mediate ecological interaction in plants, such as defense and pollination attraction.

“My research is important because it has to do with sustainable agriculture,” Urbizu said. “The planet is only getting bigger as far as population, so it’s going to be important to feed our people more efficiently.”

Using fermented plant juices is a practice of sustainable agriculture that comes from Korea, known as Korean National Farming, where the use of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals are avoided.  

“This is more of a natural, recyclic agriculture method which actually improves the environment as time goes on,” Urbizu said. 

Urbizu is using a brown sugar fermentation process to ferment comfrey and he is applying it to one group of Cannabis sativa plants. He is applying commercial fertilizer to a separate group, and he will harvest both sets of plants to analyze differences in growth and production. 

“I’m trying to compare terpenes and cannabinoid content to see if [fermented plant juice] stands next to the commercial fertilizer, and if it does … it just goes to show that you can produce great quality crops without using synthetic stuff,” Urbizu said. 

The importance of medicinal plant chemistry is found directly in the cannabis industry, Bloom said. The quality of products must be maintained in order for cannabis to emerge as a legitimate medicine, and NMU is producing well-trained individuals to produce and test the products, both medicinally and recreationally, he said.  

“Consumers and patients deserve and expect safe products,” Paulsen said. “It is important if the industry is to mature that individuals can count on being sold products that have been subjected to rigorous testing to ensure correct dosage of bioactive ingredients and the absence of harmful contaminants.”