Bridge West Consulting had an opportunity to speak with Professor Dr. Gerald (Gerry) Berkowitz, Professor, Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture at UConn. Dr. Berkowitz has dedicated 40+ years focusing on plant biology research and teaching. Over the last five years, the focus of his work has turned to cannabis. In addition to contributing to the development of a cannabis teaching program at UConn, Dr. Berkowitz developed a cannabis research program, and he has an expertise in writing grants related to cannabis research.
Can you tell us about your grant and your cannabis research at UCONN?
In 2018, Dr. Berkowitz brought his undergraduate class to one of the four medical marijuana production facilities in Connecticut. He described that taking the students to visit these facilities was a big undertaking.
The Department of Consumer Protection repeatedly rejected the application, and to obtain approval for the trip, the students had to undergo a lengthy background check before they were allowed to visit the facilities.
While visiting the facility, the President of the company shared that very little academic or professional horticultural training comes with experienced cannabis growers. When the Professor heard this, it was clear that a good connection between the industry and the university was needed to show that research is necessary for the cannabis industry. To create this connection, Professor Berkowitz had to go to the highest levels of the university – lawyers and provosts – to establish a cannabis teaching and research program. In addition, everyone had to be educated about the University’s research. The University even proposed that the cannabis ‘company’ located in the university become a separate LLC so the university could receive grant funding from a sort of venture capital entity.
Professor Berkowitz had to go through the laborious process of getting the Department of Consumer Protection to issue them a license to study cannabis. This involved coordinating with the DEA, having the lab inspected, and installing safes to keep the cannabis safe and secure. Connecticut has a research program run through the Department of Consumer Protection called the Medical Marijuana Research Program. Through this program, a license can be obtained to work with a medical cannabis company to perform cannabis research.
During this process, Dr. Berkowitz received a cease-and-desist order. Therefore, he was unable to research cannabis at the University, even though he had received numerous clearances to operate from the state of Connecticut. Realizing the significant importance of cannabis research, the Professor knew that he needed to pivot to enable the cannabis research to continue. At this time, the Farm Bill allowed researchers to work on hemp with low THC. Professor Berkowitz went through that program and received a new type of license that enabled him to begin hemp research.
After the University obtained a hemp license and new clearances in 2020, licenses were granted for hemp to be grown in Connecticut. The state was an excellent place to grow hemp because the value of the crop is very high, and it was attractive to many Connecticut farmers. In order for research to begin at the University, the Department of Agriculture stated that only certified growers were allowed to grow hemp.
Professor Berkowitz explained, “That’s how it all started, and it was a lot of heavy lifting. Three or four years later, it’s still tremendous heavy lifting. So, I secured grant funding from the Medical Marijuana Company and hired a Ph.D. student and undergraduate students at the University of Connecticut. Horticulture education is applied, and many students work in the industry for credit and internships. Therefore, there are many hands-on components to our academic offerings.” He said, “The University is excited about cannabis and the process has been worth all of the heavy lifting!”
Can you tell us more about the grant?
In 2019, Professor Berkowitz submitted a grant to the CT Agricultural Experiment Station within the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources at UConn. The grant allowed them to perform work that might benefit the state or society. The Professor said, “There are other non-competitive and competitive grants which have significant differences. For example, the government gives money to each state to support research and help consumers and the state, which is called non-competitive research.”
The Federal government supports research on the cannabis industry. For many years, Professor Berkowitz has received funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the United States Department of Agriculture. However, it was only last year that the Professor saw the first cannabis grant get funded from a federal agency. This grant may have been the first full Federal competitive research grant awarded to a university scientist to study cannabis molecular biology.
What is the process of researching cannabis within the university?
Professor Berkowitz said, “There are many things we don’t currently know about cannabis, which is why the research is so important.” He reflected on the recent work coming out of his lab that has been published in peer reviewed journals. It focused on the factors that limit the production of cannabinoids in the plant.
The Professor explained, “The work we do is taking cannabis genes, and we try to prove that it’s causing trichome development in the flowers. Since we can’t genetically engineer cannabis very easily, we took another plant with trichomes, such as tobacco. Tobacco has the same structures on its leaves that cannabis has. So, we expressed the cannabis gene in tobacco, and created monster trichomes. We’ve shown with medical marijuana that when we increase the expression of this gene, which is a signal to cells to become trichomes, it’ll increase THC levels. This is the kind of research that we are doing.”
Does your research change as you continue to gain more knowledge?
Professor Berkowitz stated that their research follows the same process as actual scientists. They attend lectures and try to generate models and hypotheses that tailor their work. An example that the Professor explained was a study on orchids. The study dives deep into the key enzyme in a gene that codes for the enzyme that is a key to generating terpenes in the orchids. When the expression of this gene was increased in this orchid variety, it led to an increase in their scent due to the production of terpenes. This can be related to cannabis and how to improve the terpenes in cannabis. The same gene may be critical to increasing terpene production in cannabis. Terpenes are thought to modulate the effect THC has on humans. By applying the knowledge that he learned from orchids, Professor Berkowitz believes that he may have a way to increase some of the terpenes in cannabis. The Professor also plans on looking at how hormones and signals regulate cannabinoid biosynthesis. This is research that no one is currently studying. It requires funding from the Federal government to support these types of research programs at universities.
Does finding new information support the growth of the cannabis industry?
Professor Berkowitz expressed that cannabis will be paving the way federally once enough research supports the benefits of the compounds found in cannabis. Right now, cannabis is a Schedule l drug on a federal level, even though research is abundant about THC and its benefits will all sorts of immune responses.
He said, “One thing that we haven’t taught yet is that the UConn students who take our cannabis courses work as interns with cannabis companies and perform testing of the flowers for cannabinoid and terpene content, extraction of the cannabinoids (to make CBD products for example), greenhouse production, and medical marijuana production.” He continued, “There are so many jobs, and they are only going to increase. Not just in Connecticut, but in New York, New Jersey, and other states that have legalized recreational cannabis, and the amount of testing will skyrocket. They need people with experience studying pesticides, heavy metals, and cannabinoid levels. Currently, the students taking this cannabis program have the experience to work for all different levels of cannabis companies.”
The Professor commented that many students receive job offers to work at these facilities even before they graduate. In Connecticut alone, there are four cannabis grow facilities, one of which has funded the cannabis research program at UConn. Many other facilities are being built and will need experienced workers to fill these positions.
He continued, “UConn is very proactive to have a program where students will obtain training in these industries which will help them get fantastic jobs where they’re interning. It’s all exhilarating and great for students, Connecticut, and the university. We’re generating knowledge and testing all sorts of data that wasn’t previously evaluated and marketed.”
The College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR) at the University of Connecticut is a national leader in cannabis research, education, and extension outreach, helping to advance knowledge and opportunities for cannabis horticulture in Connecticut and beyond. To learn more about the University of Connecticut’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, CAHNR Cannabis Programs, please visit the website.