Pioneering Spirits: Three Women Leaders in Cannabis Science Share Their Trials, Tribulations, Successes, and Advice

June 20, 2018
Joshua Crossney

Volume 1, Issue 2

In this month’s “Cannabis Crossroads,” I would like to share inspiring stories of passion and persistence by highlighting the amazing efforts of some truly pioneering souls: Shannon Hoffman, the Regional Director of Operations and Certifying Chemist for Steep Hill Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.; Dr. Jacklyn R. Green, Chief Executive Officer of Agate Biosciences; and Dr. Sue Sisley, M.D., President of Scottsdale Research Institute, on faculty at Colorado State University and Humboldt State University, and Senior Fellow at Thomas Jefferson University Lambert Center. These three women, each with a diverse background, are true leaders in cannabis science.

Please explain how long you have been working in the cannabis industry and what first got you interested in cannabis science.

Shannon Hoffman: I’ve been working in cannabis for close to a year. I started off doing some consulting last summer before joining Steep Hill in December 2017. I’ve been casually interested in cannabis science for some time. A merger at my previous employer led to my decision to resign at just the time when the industry was on the brink of opening in Maryland; it seemed fated for me to make the jump into cannabis.

Dr. Jacklyn R. Green: I was first introduced to cannabis science by my best friend, Dr. Claudia Jensen, in 1996, when the California laws changed. She was one of the very first cannabis doctors in California. I was supportive of cannabis, although I did not partake. Through my conversations with Claudia, I became much more attuned with the role of cannabis in helping people with a wide variety of conditions. At that time, I was working full time as a planetary scientist at The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory. My husband, Dr. Roger Kern, a plant microbiologist, and I developed a concept for a small, autonomous greenhouse for the surface of Mars to test technologies that we would need for larger greenhouses for future astronauts exploring the Red Planet. This project gave us our first steps in developing controlled environment agriculture (CEA) systems. As the years flew by, we continued our work in CEA-and as cannabis laws changed across the country, we found ourselves in an environment that allowed us to bring our scientific knowledge, systems engineering approach, and project management experience from NASA to the cannabis industry to help solve some of the most challenging problems facing us to ensure safe and consistent products for people across the country.

Dr. Sue Sisley: It’s been almost 10 years since I began studying cannabis as a medicine and fighting for public policy reform. Military veterans prompted my interest in studying cannabis. They claimed they were benefiting, but I was highly skeptical. I’m a lifelong Republican and had been brainwashed by big pharma and the medical profession to view cannabis as a dangerous addictive drug. I first began paying attention because of the social justice issues. We launched a charity called Doctors for Cannabis Regulation to try to create a safe harbor for physicians to speak openly about their views on ending cannabis prohibition. We’ve also created a veterans charity called the Battlefield Foundation, which recently received its 501(c)(3). We are busy trying to raise money for rigorous controlled trials as well as to create jobs in the cannabis industry for veterans. So we do a matchmaking service and it’s been very gratifying to create meaningful employment for veterans within the cannabis space.

What is one lesson that you had to learn the hard way, or a major obstacle that you had to overcome in cannabis science?

Green: Explaining the role of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects to long-term cannabis industry participants is an ongoing challenge. Cannabis is coming out of the shadows into the bright light of scientific investigation, well-implemented systems engineering, and expert project management. The challenge is that people, in general, believe they know how to grow plants and specialists know how to grow cannabis in high-tech environments indoors. However, most cannabis insiders perform their work by the seat of their pants, by the look and feel of things. We must have rigorous procedures, exactness in standards, and intelligent planning for projects of all sizes that allow optimization, at the systems level, to create a safe and reliable supply chain and a consistent, regulated distribution chain for legal cannabis products.

Sisley: I learned that public universities are terrified of the word cannabis. Cannabis has become so politically radioactive that many universities are still convinced they will lose their federal funding if they do even U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved research.

Can you please share with me your biggest achievement or favorite memory from working in the cannabis industry?

Hoffman: My biggest achievement was leading our laboratories in Maryland and Pennsylvania through ISO 17025 accreditation. I’ve worked in the regulated industry with demanding quality systems, but ISO is quite rigorous. It required our entire team to come together and work tirelessly to meet tight timings. You really see what people are made of when you face challenges and I couldn’t ask for a more talented or dedicated team at Steep Hill.

Green: I am a competitive person, so I find it intensely gratifying to win licenses and permits for our clients. I love to start with them in our brainstorming workshops in which we use design thinking and creative problem-solving techniques to identify and tackle their most challenging problems. We go through an intense phase of concept development and then dig deep into the systems engineering for requirements and risk analysis. Finally, we go into the hard-core project management to get the full concept finalized and written up into a compliant, compelling, and beautiful application. I find that delivering a set of documents to our clients to be my favorite moment. I love to see their faces as they thumb through the documents. Then, of course, hearing that they have won through the official governing bodies is a moment of great satisfaction.

Sisley: The biggest achievement is perseverance in the face of constant government blockades. Over the course of the past 10 years we have managed to overcome some really onerous hurdles to get efficacy research started. The U.S. government has systematically impeded cannabis efficacy trials for so many decades. But we are slowly learning how to navigate these waters and teaching other young scientists how to pick up the baton!

What excites you most about the future of cannabis science?

Hoffman: There is so much yet to learn about how this amazing plant can benefit our health. Having more and more access to research is going to enable us to target therapy in ways we couldn’t imagine. I’m excited to be a part of Steep Hill because we can help to ensure that patients are getting safe, efficacious medicine now and in the future as we learn more about what this plant can do.

Green: Cannabis science-it is a subject just waiting for exploration! As an astronomer, I love to explore and see what is new in the universe, or closer to home, in our own solar system. Who would imagine that there is a plant with special medicinal properties that any hobbyist could grow but that has been forbidden to us to explore and learn about? It defies logic that we would not explore and advance our knowledge for the good of humanity. There is a wide variety of potential studies, across the many disciplines of STEM, that would provide fundamental knowledge about cannabis. Unfortunately, we are not able to tackle those scientific studies at this time! We need federal funding for robust research programs, university research programs, and grants for private companies to conduct unbiased, zero conflict-of-interest studies. For that to happen, the laws will need to change at the federal level.

Sisley: I think it’s the opportunity to possibly work with other growers besides the University of Mississippi. Since 1968 the University of Mississippi has enjoyed a government-enforced monopoly on the only federally legal supply of cannabis for research. But thanks to relentless lobbying efforts from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and other good charities, we are finally seeing the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) entertain the idea of licensing other schedule one bulk manufacturers. 

Suddenly scientists will have access to unique phenotypes of cannabis in a timely manner. If this happens it will create a renaissance of cannabis research in the U.S.

What advice do you have for readers interested in starting a career in cannabis science?

Hoffman: You have to love it. I think anyone who feels a sense of purpose about cannabis can find a place for themselves in the industry, but you will have to work hard and should be prepared for challenges along the way. It is a volatile industry in the sense that it is varied and evolving and we are all learning together the best way to do this. There is a need for a diverse skill set in cannabis, so there are opportunities for anyone who feels that drive to be involved to work to their strengths and contribute to building something amazing.

Green: I am very clear in my advice to readers interested in starting a career in cannabis science-get as much education as you possibly can. Think of every degree you obtain as a ticket-a ticket to a journey that will take you far in life and in knowledge. As a scientist you have an element of wonder in your life. You see and experience nature in ways that most people don’t ever contemplate. You can become a world expert in cannabis across many scientific disciplines-from biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, math, computer science, numerical modeling, medicine, plant science, microbiology, and more. I am grateful beyond words that I became a scientist. Whether I am an astronomer or a cannabis consultant, my skills as a thinker and explorer serve me well every single day. I know that no problem is too difficult to tackle. We may make small steps in progress, but each small step opens up a new horizon. With a life in science, I always want to see the next horizon.

Sisley: The first step is volunteering with the team and your local area. Try to identify scientists who are already doing this work and see if they will mentor you or let you apprentice there. Even if you’re an unpaid intern for a few months, they will likely recognize your skill and enthusiasm and probably hire you on!

About the Interviewees

Shannon Hoffman is the Regional Director of Operations and Certifying Chemist for Steep Hill Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. Steep Hill, a leading cannabis science and technology company, was the first commercial cannabis lab in the U.S. and has expanded its best practices in cannabis testing to the mid-atlantic with physician-led laboratories in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. Hoffman is an analytical chemist with 18 years of experience in research and development and manufacturing of consumer products, cosmetics, and over the counter pharmaceuticals. She has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a master’s degree in analytical chemistry from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Dr. Jacklyn R. Green is a project manager and systems engineer focused on commercial businesses in the cannabis industry. With her PhD from The University of Texas at Austin, she leads, manages, and delivers compliant, compelling, and selectable applications for city- and state-legal commercial cannabis businesses. She spent 27 years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a scientist and project manager, leading advanced technology development projects and proposal development in the complex government-regulated environment. Now, as the Chief Executive Officer of Agate Biosciences, a consulting firm for project management, systems engineering, and science for controlled environment agriculture, she brings the best practices of management and systems engineering to cannabis businesses, allowing them to be successful in a complex, government-regulated environment.

Dr. Sue Sisley, M.D., serves as President of Scottsdale Research Institute and Site Principal Investigator for the only FDA-approved randomized controlled trial in the world examining safety and efficacy of whole plant marijuana in combat veterans with treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Dr. Sisley is on the faculty at Colorado State University and Humboldt State University, and a Senior Fellow at Thomas Jefferson University Lambert Center, assisting their Institutes of Cannabis Research. Dr. Sisley has been a Member of Nevada ILAC Medical Cannabis Commission for the past three years, outlining regulations for laboratory testing including limits on pesticides, residual solvents, and other guidelines that are currently being used as a model for other states medical cannabis laws. Her other areas of current institutional review board (IRB)-approved research include supervising studies evaluating cannabis for pain management, cannabis as a substitution therapy for opioids, and also a safety study looking at cannabis. Dr. Sisley is also the Principal Investigator on a Colorado State University project to build a robust nationwide medical cannabis patient registry.

About the Columnist

Josh Crossney is the columnist and editor of “Cannabis Crossroads” and a contributing editor to Cannabis Science and Technology magazine. Crossney is also the president and CEO of CSC Events. Direct correspondence to: josh@jcanna.com

How to Cite This Article

J. Crossney, Cannabis Science and Technology1(2), 52-54 (2018).

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