Derek Schulze: Cultivating a scientist

It may seem to the casual observer a big leap between human cardiac research and molecular screening of plant cell cultures. But like every other living organism, the cell is the basic building block – and the study of both comes down to basic science for Derek Schulze.

The biologist carried out research in both fields before arriving at Niagara College in 2016 to teach for the School of Environment and Horticulture Studies. For the last year, he’s also been the coordinator for the Greenhouse Technician program and has served as Faculty Research Lead for several course-based projects for NC’s Research & Innovation division.

The molecular study of human blood cells is, in fact, much easier than plant study as plants have so many other chemicals that get in the way, explains Schulze. “Other than that, it’s really the same thing in terms of applying science.”

He has gathered the evidence, tested and analyzed in both disciplines, first in the medical domain and then in the plant world.

Interestingly, while he and his family owned and operated a commercial greenhouse for more than a decade prior to his role as educator, he did not possess a life-long passion for the floriculture world (although he did specialize in botany during his undergraduate Biology degree.)

In fact, growing up and before earning a Master’s degree in Biophysics and Molecular Biology from the University of Guelph (1996), Schulze was undecided about which field of science to pursue.

 “I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I just loved everything about science.”

Yet he was curious and had the creativity to take on the enigmatic mysteries of the natural world. In university, he developed his critical and pragmatic way of thinking. He then spent his career applying these principles to various realms of science.

Schulze started his field of work researching plant tissue culture and molecular screening using flow cytometry (FCM) – laser-based technology used to analyze cells. From studying plant cells, he aptly transitioned into a medical laboratory studying human cells for the Cancer Research Institute at Queen’s University. He has also worked in electrophysiology – the study of the electrical properties of cells –conducting cardiac research.

No matter the discipline, it’s all science, he explains.

“When you’re trained as a scientist, you’re given skills on different levels. So there are specific skills like how to operate certain lab machinery,” he says.  “But the broader skills are learning how to ask questions, determining what questions are good, which ones are not and discerning what’s good information in order to formulate your plan to tackle the next question.”

This type of knowledge is universal and can be applied to any context – and something he now imparts on his students.

“That’s because the same principles exist, and a scientist needs to be able to understand how data collection works, how to mix chemicals and build a study and then implement and execute it.”

While at Queen’s and immersed in embryonic stem cells, Schulze used his free time to build a small greenhouse where he grew and sold bedding plants. This without any prior knowledge about growing plants on a scale larger than a window sill.

“I didn’t know anything about it … I just learned it.”

Schulze and his wife Karleen, who was a biostatistician for the radiation oncology unit at the University, eventually decided to leave Kingston, put their academic research careers on hold and head to Vineland to purchase and operate TJ Greenhouses.

“[Working for Research & Innovation] is a big thing on their resume and it really does carry some weight. Greenhouses are always doing miniature trials; they’re always tweaking things, so if they have someone who’s done that, it’s awesome.”

The business supplied 156 major grocery stores throughout Ontario with high-end bedding plants. The couple also operated their own hydroponic lettuce business.

After 13 years, the family sold the business when Schulze accepted a full-time position at Niagara College, and his wife went on to McMaster University’s Population Health Research Institute.

Soon after arriving at NC, Schulze assisted his colleague Bill MacDonald in creating the Commercial Cannabis Production program, the first post-secondary credential of its kind in Canada. He also taught a number of courses including Cannabis Crop Methods, Cannabis Production Science and Technical Analysis of Cannabis.

Executing a cannabis program had certainly never entered his radar.

“I didn’t know anything about the stuff … never used it, never grown it on my own,” he says, adding he just viewed it as another crop and learned everything he could and applied basic science principles.

He has since left the cannabis program and returned to the NC greenhouse teaching a full schedule of courses to Greenhouse Technician students. Forever the scientist, Schulze has made a point to include applied research learning into his greenhouse classroom.

During one course-based project, Schulze’s students trialed a Jiffy® pre-manufactured propagation pellet and used different recipes of organic fertilizer, premixed, compressed and dried. The class grew tomatoes, peppers and lettuce in various pellets, measuring fresh weight, dry weight and then sent a final report to the company.

That report turned out to be very useful for Jiffy®. Says Schulze: “Three months after we finished the trial, I got a call from a lettuce grower wanting clarification on something because Jiffy® had used our report to sell their product to that company.”

As for the students, it gave them a chance to learn about organic methods, a medium that proves challenging to teach hands-on in class, given the complications with growing and lack of control over the nutrients.

Most recently, Schulze’s class has undertaken a project with Walker Industries to help determine alternatives to the waste issue of rockwool, a mineral wool product that is typically used as a growing medium for hydroponic vegetables and is not biodegradable.

Students are conducting a growing trial to test the quality of different finished rockwool (Grodan/compost) blends to provide a better understanding of the quality of blends and how they can be used in growing.

“It’s interesting and the students like it because they are very conscious about being environmentally responsible,” he says. “The Walker project is all about trying to do something constructive with the waste product from the greenhouse industry.”

In working on these types of applied research through the College’s Research & Innovation division, Schulze says students who are involved with these projects definitely have a leg up when starting their careers.

“[Working for Research & Innovation] is a big thing on their resume and it really does carry some weight,” he notes. “Greenhouses are always doing miniature trials; they’re always tweaking things, so if they have someone who’s done that, it’s awesome.”

When he’s not at the College greenhouse or teaching, Schulze “gets his thrills” flying radio-controlled airplanes – a hobby since he was 10 years old. He also restores vintage cars and during nicer weather, can be found on the water in his sailboat.

He and his wife live in Vineland with their two children and dog.