Dr. Stefanie Gangano’s deep knowledge of chemistry helps her bring a nuanced perspective to Oaksterdam’s Commercial Extraction and Manufacturing program. Here, the co-chair of our Commerical Extraction and Manufacturing Program talks about her career, how she entered the cannabis industry, and how she came to Oaksterdam University.
OU: Tell us about your background.
SG: I grew up in Florida and live in San Diego. I went to the University of Florida and got a Ph.D. in Chemistry there. Analytical Chemistry is the science of machines, instruments, methods, and quality control. It’s a background that is transferable to almost every industry, because every industry needs to do quality control, has test methods, and uses analytical or testing instruments.
Where have you worked throughout your career?
For the first 25 years after my doctorate, I worked in a lot of different industries. I worked at Kellogg’s doing food science, Monsanto making chemicals, Pfizer for pharmaceuticals. Then I moved out to San Francisco and worked in biotech. I worked for companies working on the human genome project. I helped to design and develop some of the high throughput genetic sequencers, the machines that do the work of analyzing genes. I am very lucky in that I make a lot of friends and contacts in different industries and disciplines. I have a good network and opportunities seem to just flow my way.
You have also worked in the public safety sector?
After working in biotech in the San Francisco Bay Area, I ended up at the San Francisco Crime Lab. I worked there for eight years basically using some of the technology I helped develop to do DNA cold cases and process the sexual assault backlog you hear about in the news. I was hired by a grant to clear the backlog. From there, I got involved in biotech startup companies where I helped develop portable DNA analyzers used by law enforcement, the military, and now getting into booking stations in the U.S. That’s how I got involved working with the science and technology division of the FBI, trying to get acceptance for new technology. And then we get to cannabis.
How did you get involved in cannabis?
In 2015, a former colleague I worked with in San Francisco said, ‘I have a really good friend, he’s had a dispensary for a really long time, the legal market is expanding and he needs someone to help him get through regulations. Are you interested?’ That’s when I jumped out of the private corporate world and decided to become a consultant.
At the same time, my wife has a rare condition called CRPS, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. It’s a disorder of the nervous system where your body sends out pain signals when it doesn’t need to. Hers started with a soccer injury that healed, but her body was still sending out pain signals. There is some help that traditional medicine can offer. She’s gone through the Stanford system in the Bay Area, but in the end, they said, ‘you might want to try cannabis.’ I started researching the medicinal properties of cannabis about two months before the call. I’m lucky. Things kind of happened in the right order.
How do you apply your background to the cannabis industry?
With my background, I can either go work for the state and be a regulator and inspector, or I can help actual business owners be compliant, set up things the right way, and do them the right way. What I found in the cannabis industry, there are a lot of good people out there doing this stuff in their own garages, backyards, and basements. They’ve been making products all along but they had no idea how to navigate licenses and regulations or keep batch records. Using the Metrc system was totally foreign to them. I decided to go the route of helping cannabis business owners.
Who are your clients?
My clients usually come from word of mouth, through my network. I’m pretty lucky that way too. I’ve worked a gamut from retail stores to manufacturing and production. That’s my sweet spot. I like that area of the industry the best. I’ve done some formulations and helped people set up in-house lab testing for their own quality control purposes. I settled into the whole licensing process. That’s something I can do remotely and help a lot of different people. I have a set of clients in the Bay Area and San Diego.
How did you come to Oaksterdam?
Natalie Darves, Oaksterdam’s Dean of Faculty, found me when I was giving a talk at a conference in Oakland, Calif. The Oakland Police Department was hosting the California Association of Criminalists. They meet twice a year, and some friends of mine in the Oakland PD were hosting it. They set up a seminar on cannabis for the whole day. People who work in law enforcement only see cannabis use from the illegal perspective, processing drug cases, prosecuting pot dealers. She wanted to set up a seminar from the other side, the advocate side, and Natalie was there from OU. I was teaching a class on the laboratory analysis of cannabis, what they test for and how they test for it. She talked to me afterward, invited me to come teach at OU, and the rest is history.
What have you taught?
I used to teach a lab class, part of the general business program. Now that we’ve gone more international online, Anthony DeMeo and I teach the Intro to Extraction class. Anthony wrote the Self-Paced Commercial Extraction and Manufacturing class.
I like that Oaksterdam is trying to help teach students and interested parties about cannabis from a grassroots perspective. They’re not in it just to put together some courses and make money. They’ve got a really positive attitude towards cannabis. They’re still interested in the medicinal side of it, not just business or adult use. I’ve been exposed to some of the other teaching outlets and I just like the attitude of everybody at Oaksterdam.
How do you apply your knowledge of chemistry to cannabis extraction?
My chemistry background gives me an opportunity to understand why different methods work and what their pros and cons are. It gives me a fundamental basis to understand exactly what’s happening through different extraction processes. People can learn the words and the processes of different kinds of extractions but having a chemistry background gives me nuanced insight.
Is the extraction process dangerous?
It can be, but doesn’t have to be. Hydrocarbon extraction can probably be the most dangerous of all. It’s not anything different than what pharmaceutical companies do, and it can be done safely. You just have to have the right setup and safety measures in place. Taking an OSHA class and having a consultant to build your facility properly and use equipment properly greatly lowers the danger risk. I definitely like to stress the safety aspect. In the past, places were blowing up, people were setting themselves on fire, it was really horrendous. We definitely like to emphasize how to be safe when doing these extractions.
Did cannabis end up helping your wife?
It did. I did all the research on what strains would work on different pains, and then I would go out and buy vapes or flower. There’s a tincture that I make for her and some edibles. We treat it like medicine. She’s on a schedule and uses it for different symptoms, muscle spasms, neurological pain, pins and needles, and then I’ll know what to give her based on her feedback. It’s been since 2015/16 we’ve been using cannabis, and it’s one of the only things that helps. I can’t imagine the kind of intractable pain she would be in constantly without cannabis.