Professor is applied research driven to help students and cannabis industry

Niagara College’s Bill MacDonald has jokingly referred to cannabis as “God’s gift to teaching.” By this, he means it’s the surest way to evoke attention from greenhouse technology students who found a topic too snooze-worthy – at the mere mention of how it also applies to the cannabis plant, all eyes were on him.

“Everybody would wake up and pay attention as soon as I mention cannabis … it’s very funny.”

Since the College launched its one-of-a-kind Commercial Cannabis Production (CCP) graduate program in 2018, catalyzing a flurry of global media attention, MacDonald has been the poster-child of sorts for anything cannabis-related.

That’s because the idea for Canada’s first commercial cannabis credential program can be traced back to him. Press as far away as BBC, Discovery Channel Poland and TV Tokyo carried the same images of MacDonald: bedecked in his lab coat and hairnet, outside the high-security academic production lab, dubbed by the college as the ‘cannabunker.’

As a professor and CCP program coordinator, and faculty research lead with NC’s Research & Innovation division, MacDonald leads a team to support Canada’s cannabis producers and supporting industries, innovating and performing research in production technologies and crop management, while training new workers in the cannabis field.

He’s been called one of Canada’s “coolest” professors and given the moniker “professor of pot.”

“I could not have predicted the worldwide press attention … it sure was crazy,” he says with a laugh. “My wife has said, ‘No more new ideas.’”

That idea – to prepare students to work in the cannabis industry – germinated while he was providing expert growing advice to licensed medical marijuana producers through his own part-time business, Achene Consulting, in 2013. He kept hearing about the ever-increasing demand for highly skilled and expertly trained professionals.

MacDonald, who holds a BSc (Agr) in Soil Science and an MSc in Plant Nutrition, both from the University of Guelph, has spent his entire adult life working or teaching in a greenhouse. He arrived at NC in 2007 and was a professor and coordinator in the Greenhouse Technician program before his foray into teaching and research in cannabis production.

His notoriety hasn’t waned much these past few years, and he’s still receiving requests from around the world to help consult with licensed cannabis providers, the latest from as far away as Ecuador. Unfortunately, all travel has been put on hold, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, at the heart of everything, MacDonald’s dedication to providing hands-on teaching of the science of growing cannabis crops to future cannabis experts has him fired up. That and carrying out essential applied research to help the cannabis industry and its suppliers.

He’s emphatic that any research he carries out with industry partners is entirely with the students. “I don’t do anything without the students,” he insists. “I’m not here to publish papers; we’re not a university. This is to provide students with the experience of learning through real-world problems while providing a much-needed service to the cannabis industry.”

A current research project with Northern Hemp Specialists, a course-based project managed by R&I’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), has students from the Cannabis Production Science 2 class overseeing and analyzing the growth of cannabis plants grown in soil amended with a silica-based product from the industry partner, as compared to control plants.

The patent-pending product is an organic silica-based pesticide that also acts as a biostimulant for the cannabis and hemp plants to enhance nutrient uptake. This is crucial research, since cannabis growers must follow Health Canada regulations and grow and maintain their products as organic.

While current academic cannabunker facilities at the Daniel J. Patterson campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake limit the number of applied research projects to a handful of short-term course-based trials, there is a waiting list of industry partners eager for help as soon as the new research cannabunker get operational.

The AETIC team is in the process of getting the equipment and cannabunker needed for cannabis research thanks to a significant grant to NC last year through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) from the Applied Research Tools and Instruments Grants (ARTI) program.

The ARTI funding will cover the purchase and outfitting of a 40-foot, segregated container, and will enable testing and utilization of sensors, unique lighting arrays, biocontrols and other innovative concepts that require applied research work to support cannabis production.

The Research & Innovation space will help improve and maintain cannabis quality, prevent and reduce crop losses, through such methods as integrated pest management.

The latter is a popular request from industry, says MacDonald. “Pest control is a huge challenge – cannabis aphid, root aphid and powdery mildew – those are the big three. It’s a very major problem.”

While other colleges and universities now offer cannabis programs, NC is still the only post-secondary institution in North America to incorporate the academic curriculum with growing cannabis.

And applied research is a natural extension to that.

“During research, we take the theory and then apply it hands on,” he says. “Students learn observational skills, research skills and statistical analysis.”

This applied knowledge makes students more employable, he maintains. Indeed, some graduates hired by a licensed holder (LH) are currently doing R&D. “It’s quite common for the LHs to do R&D, so to know how to set up a research trial is such a good skill to have.”

MacDonald also shares his expertise as a member on the Cannabis Jobs Steering Committee with Niagara Workforce Planning Board, and the Strategic Advisory Board for the annual Grow Up Cannabis Conference and Expo.

He and his wife Linda, who also teaches at Niagara College, live in Fonthill and have two daughters in higher education: their oldest is completing a PhD in cancer research at the University of Toronto, and their youngest is doing her Master’s degree in Entomology at the University of Guelph.

In his limited spare time, he enjoys cooking and wine pairing, and taking care of his two cannabis tents at home – for scientific experimentation.

He has vowed to get back into running – 5Ks or 1,500 metres, after a recent break from spending a decade coaching with the Niagara Olympic Club.

“I have to get running again … I just have to!”

Read more stories in the March e-Newsletter