Expansion sought for Medicinal Plant Chemistry Program

Lee Roecker, associate professor of chemistry at Northern Michigan University, leads a tour of an NMU laboratory as part of a Northern Center for Lifelong Learning class on the Medicinal Plant Chemistry Program Thursday. The relatively new program at NMU is expected to expand quickly. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — A science-based program at Northern Michigan University has grown from having no students three semesters ago to 230 students this fall.

And more are expected.

The Medicinal Plant Chemistry Program, which has gained national and international attention, was the subject of a Thursday Northern Center for Lifelong Learning tour at NMU.

“The program has grown dramatically, and it’s growing even more,” said Mark Paulsen, professor and department head of the NMU Department of Chemistry.

That parallels the trajectory of medicinal plants in general, with the herbal supplement and cannabis industries being multi-billion operations. Because of the expected demand for qualified technical personnel and the opportunities for the entrepreneurs in the cannabis, herbal extract and natural product industries, the NMU Medicinal Plant Chemistry Program is the only four-year undergraduate degree program of its kind designed to prepare students for success in those emerging industries relating to medicinal plant production, analysis and distribution.

“We knew that the herbal supplement industry has grown over the last few decades,” Paulsen said. “We know that lots and lots of people use plant-based medicines as part of their health regimen, and that’s been growing. We also knew even three years ago that medicinal cannabis use in Michigan — and how it was regulated and how it was going to be done — was changing dramatically.”

He called the medicinal plant chemistry curriculum essentially a science degree, or rather a blend of chemistry and biology that allows students to choose either an entrepreneurial or a bioanalytical track.

Students must take a seminar course in which they hear from people like patient-advocacy groups and entrepreneurs, he said.

“That way we can keep the program very current with what’s actually happening in Michigan this year and next year and two years from now,” Paulsen said.

As seniors, they will finish a capstone research project that involves growing, extracting and analyzing plant samples.

For example, he said a project could answer research questions such as: If I change the growing conditions a little bit, how does that affect the product I make? If I do two different methods of extraction, how does that affect the product I’m making?

Although Paulsen acknowledged some students are interested in cannabis, many students are interested in other types of plant-based medicine.

“That’s why we’re saying, ‘The senior project — pick the plants that are of interest to you, and find a research project that’s of interest to you,” he said.

Because the program is relatively new, Paulsen said there have been no senior capstone projects yet, but possible research plants include echinacea or gingko.

“Clearly they have to pick a plant where it will get to a stage of maturity where they can harvest it before the end of the semester,” Paulsen said. “So, you can’t plant a tree and come back in five years for your project.”

They also can’t grow cannabis because federal law prohibits it, he said.

“If federal regulations change, we’ll revisit that question,” Paulsen said.

However, he pointed out students will learn about various plants’ phytochemicals, which are defined by as “non-nutritive plant chemicals that have protective or disease-preventive properties.”

NMU is working with nonprofits and companies to provide internship-like experiences, probably mostly in the summer, he said.

Students also will undergo training in modern instrumentation to perform trace metal analysis, quantify bioactive compounds and identify drugs.

For instance, he said students in the bioanalytical track will use an ICPOES — an inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectrometer — to detect low levels of metals.

The first graduates in the program are expected to be produced in May 2020.

The expected growth of the Medicinal Plant Chemistry Program might require some rethinking.

“We are following NMU’s general guidelines of fairly open enrollment,” Paulsen said. “There are some issues, eventually and particularly when you get to that capstone course. What’s the absolute maximum number of students we can handle? So, in the next couple of years, we may need to modify the program a little bit to control numbers.”

A lot is on the horizon for the Medicinal Plant Chemistry Program.

Paulsen said that by the fall NMU hopes to hire probably three or four chemists and increase laboratory space for the junior- and senior-level courses. Also in the plans are an indoor greenhouse as well as more partnerships with businesses and nonprofits.

Helping with Thursday’s tour was Lee Roecker, an associate professor of chemistry at NMU, who talked about the increased laboratory area.

“Picture lots of equipment but bigger,” Roecker said as he was showing tour participants the current lab space. “There’s going to be an equipment room. There’s going to be an extraction facility, which will be more like an organic chemistry lab, and then there’s going to be a growing facility.”

The new space will be useful in several ways.

“Whoever our students are, if they’re not medicinal chemistry majors, they’re going to benefit because they’re going to have this great new facility,” Roecker said.

For more information on the program, visit medicinal-plant-chemistry.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is