Geek of the Week: Jordan Zager uses plant science to make cannabis more environmentally efficient

Jordan Zager has a Ph.D. from Washington State University’s Institute of Biological Chemistry. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Zager)

Jordan Zager grew up on the eastern slope of the Sierras, admiring the work started by John Muir and Jeanne Carr and learning the importance of protecting nature’s scarce resources.

A conservationist and environmentalist at his core, Zager became a plant enthusiast at a young age, constantly asking questions about their “patient way of life,” their ability to shape our surroundings and provide countless products that we use in our daily lives.

“I distinctly remember the day I first learned about the possibilities of plant-derived biofuels and how we as humans can one day drive our industrial world by plant byproducts alone,” Zager said.

Our latest Geek of the Week studied plant biochemistry in college, tagging along on research projects that investigated using desert plant species as a sustainable feedstock and improving the oil content of seeds to yield higher quality biodiesel.

“At the same time I found myself increasingly interested in the cannabis plant and the various bioactive compounds it produces (as is common with many college students),” Zager said. “This newfound interest eventually led me to pursuing a doctoral degree at Washington State University studying medicinal plants and the specialized cell types they use to produce high-value natural products.”

Citing a 2018 report from New Frontier Data, Zager said it’s estimated that cannabis cultivation in the U.S. consumes 4.1 million megawatt hours of electricity annually — about the equivalent that is produced by the Hoover Dam in a year.

PREVIOUSLY: Washington State University spinout Dewey Scientific raises $1.25M to cultivate better cannabis buds

“As an environmentally conscious cannabis enthusiast and scientist, I quickly made it my goal to reduce the environmental footprint that cannabis production has on our surroundings in anyway I can,” he said.

With a Ph.D. from WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, Zager helped launch Dewey Scientific, an agritech company working to make cannabis (including hemp) cultivation more efficient from a genetic perspective. Through proper methods of breeding, the startup is are aiming to reduce the overall inputs required to grow high-yielding plants while maintaining high quality products that consumers have become accustomed to.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Jordan Zager:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I work to make recreational and medicinal cannabis along with hemp production more efficient from an environmental perspective through leveraging what we know about genetics and biochemistry and how they influence plant production. I do it because cannabis and hemp requires huge amounts of resources to produce and these resources often come at the expense of our environment, and of producing more critically important food crops that we need. While we are a ways from making this goal a reality we’ve taken some monumental steps in the last couple of years.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Despite all the hype surrounding both recreational and medicinal cannabis along with the hemp industries, there is a massive misconception that this industry is a goldmine, so to speak. Many producers are getting by on the slimmest of margins and many will do whatever it takes — until the cost-effective resources are developed and implemented — to grow those margins, even at the expense of our environment.

Where do you find your inspiration? I’m inspired by the notion that if nothing is done, and if it’s not done fast, we won’t have much to pass on to the next generation. That everything we do today has an effect tomorrow and how we drastically need to improve what we do today.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? Definitely my laptop. I use it to chat with my parents and sisters, use it to communicate with colleagues around the globe, I use it for field notes and jotting down various hypotheses and ideas, and use it to reflect on my best memories. It’s almost always with me, and when it isn’t it’s nearby (and its wayyy more functional than a smartphone).

(Photo courtesy of Jordan Zager)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? It’s pretty standard, always a notebook on my desk next to a monitor. Typically a dirty coffee mug can be found next to a repurposed scientific beaker filled with pens. I started using a standing desk last year that lowers at the click of a button, being able to decide to sit or stand anytime of the days has been great for staying alert through the long work days.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Keep an ongoing “to do” list in an actual, physical paper notebook (I know, I know). It allows you to consistently look back at what you’ve accomplished, and allows you to put your mind at ease at the end of the day knowing that when you get started the next day you have a list ready to go and can let your mind relax during the off hours.

Mac, Windows or Linux? I’m going to go with Unix here. I split my time between my MacBook for most tasks and a Linux workstation for genetic and heavy computational analyses.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? I know this a Star Trek reference and I’ve hardly ever watched the various iterations of it. I’m going with George Constanza.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter. If I had a dollar for every time I left something at home before work or vice versa.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … hire more scientists with a more diverse background from my own.

I once waited in line for … “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” just to read the last chapter and spoil it (I’m not proud of that one).

Your role models: I previously mentioned John Muir, he was truly ahead of his time and risked so much and worked so hard to move the conservationist movement forward during such a critical time in our history. Someone closer to home would be my dad, the dude didn’t finish high school yet managed to bootstrap his way to success. His story drives me daily

Greatest game in history: Baseball.

Best gadget ever: You ever cook asparagus with a sous vide? Perfectly crisp.

First computer: Standard Dell laptop ca. 2003, about as thin as today’s phonebooks.

Current phone: iPhone 10.

Favorite app: brain.fm

Favorite cause: The League to Save Lake Tahoe.

Most important technology of 2020: Rapid antibody testing for coronavirus.

Most important technology of 2022: Hybrid hemp and cannabis seeds that require less water and nutrient inputs than what is grown today

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Keep moving forward, if only by an inch on certain days you’re still moving toward a goal — whatever that may be.

Website: Dewey Scientific

Twitter: @deweyscientific

LinkedIn: Jordan Zager

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