Chats with Kat: An Interview with Ionization Labs' CSO Shawn Helmeuller
This is part 2 of a series we are creating called "Chats with Kat" . Shawn Helmueller is commonly known as a ‘Craftsman’. Ionization Labs utilizes a culture index which surveys each member of the team and identifies their feelings, opinions, and attitudes about different aspects of their job and job responsibilities. The "craftsman" is identified in the culture index as being a calming and stable force on the team. Craftsmen thrive in organizations that require a culture of precision which is exactly why Shawn is our first team member to be interviewed in our "Chats with Kat" series. Shawn’s unique perspective gives us insight into the world of High-Pressure Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) potency testing, and where the field is heading. His background in chemistry and technology gives him a platform to educate the world about relevant information in the realm of hemp/cannabis testing. Within this biographical interview, we will peel back the curtain, and explore the professional and personal sides of today's lead chemistry analysts. Read along as we dive into "Chats with Kat", a new view into the people that make our research and development possible. Please read Part 1 of our interview by clicking here .
What are the economic stakes of potency testing from your perspective? Your employer’s or funder’s perspective? (i.e., whose profits/earnings might be harmed or helped by this study? Who is invested in it?
Before coming to Ionization Labs, I worked as a chief scientist at an industrial processing equipment manufacturer called Deutsche Process. They manufactured some of the largest cannabis processing technology available in the market. Believe me, the clients who are looking at large-scale processing operations know exactly how much revenue they are losing per processing hour if they experience even a modest decrease in processing efficiency. For many of these processors, it is in the tens of thousands of dollars per hour for even minor processing inefficiencies. Without continuous detailed and accurate insights into these processing inefficiencies, clients could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars per week without ever realizing that there was an issue.
This point highlights why having scientists focused on research and development is critical to the success of all economic operations in the cannabis field. The profit is undeniably there, and it’s up to us as the individuals who work in this field to push toward the most efficient means of operation. Many people enter this workspace without this mindset, but collaborating with chemical/scientific research is what places many large cannabis companies at the cutting edge of production.
What surprised you the most about your studies?
There’s a common observation people have as they study a topic in-depth. They start out and they realize they know nothing, and they see very clearly how much they have to learn; this lights a fire and gets them going. Then something amazing happens. They learn a little bit about a topic that not many other people know about, and they think that they know everything. Some people stop there. They graduate from university and go on with their lives thinking that they are the smartest people in the world. I’m joking now, but only a little.. Other people continue studying their topic and start to realize that everything they thought they knew was lies or maybe oversimplifications and their eyes are opened to a whole world of things that they didn’t know they didn’t know. Understanding something better only seems to raise more complicated questions. I’m continually surprised by how humbling science is. Work is never actually "done", we just seem to get to a point where our narrow perspective is no longer able to make any more progress. I’m not there yet, don’t worry. That’s one of the reasons analytical science coupled with cannabis science is so interesting. We don’t even know what we don't know yet.
Understanding the timelessness of our research is incredibly humbling. Comprehending that there is so much unknown and yet to be learned is exciting. Cannabis research is still in its infancy due to prohibition, and life science gains complexity the more we begin to understand it. The pursuit of knowledge is generational, and the fact that lab analysts and field surveyors alike are laying the groundwork for further research and discovery is virtuous because it brings purpose and perspective to the work we do. It's shocking and thought-provoking.
Where do you see yourself in a decade? How does the work you do now impact the future of the field?
I’m hopeful that in a decade, chemical information and technology will be as ubiquitous and simple to use as computers or cell phones have become. I think decreasing barriers to entry for sophisticated technology will open doors that narrow-minded analytical chemists like myself have missed. It takes a new perspective sometimes to make the most impactful discoveries. I’m excited to see how these types of improvements in software and technology will enable future users to take that technology and do amazing things that benefit people.
Collaborative work produces the highest quality result for the whole. The seeds we sow now will enable technology utilization in the future to open up to a wider array of critical thinkers. Analytical chemists hone in and focus on the task at hand, but having partners that can view the big picture and help guide that extreme focus is quintessential synergism. Again, we stress that ease of access will overall encourage progression in our field for the years to come.
If you could leave a message for any aspiring young scientist that is interested in chemistry/analytical testing what would it be?
I’m torn here because, on the one hand, cannabinomics or the detailed identification and quantification of compounds in cannabis, is already getting a lot of attention. But it is so important in helping us understand the therapeutic potential of the plant. On the exact flip side, I would love to see more research put into the biosynthesis of cannabinoids through fermentation processes. Once we expand our knowledge of cannabinomics and what combinations of active compounds produce the desired therapeutic effect, we are going to need a more scalable way to produce the active ingredients. Funding fermentation research might be a good way to do it, and it also helps to keep supporting our agriculture schools, which have been pivotal in helping establish the cannabis industry as we know it today.
For those who may not be familiar with cannabinomics, it entails the identification of chemical constituents in cannabis and hemp. This is a profitable and important tool used to ensure that consumable products are tested for safety and efficacy. Fermentation is the process in which microbes alongside plant enzymes break down complex chemicals into simpler ones. This process may be a viable alternative to identifying active compounds in plant material. Continued support funneled toward the agricultural backbone of this industry is especially important as we continue to research and invest our time and effort into identifying the chemical composition and possible therapeutic properties of the cannabis plant.
If you could leave a message for any aspiring young scientist that are interested in chemistry/analytical testing what would it be?
Trust, but verify. Trust that you are being given information in good faith, but also trust your skills as an analytical thinker; be skeptical and verify that the information you’re given is correct. It’s easy to do one or the other. Always trust without verifying and risk propagating misinformation, or always be skeptical and you might be right sometimes, but people won’t like you and you won’t change any minds. It’s hard, but you need to be able to trust people. Also, it’s okay to double-check their work when they are not looking!
Checking and replicating scientific work is the foundation of the scientific method. It is a skill that can be controversial in some instances, though. With this advice in mind, it is so important to allow future scientists to have the courage to be skeptical or to speak out, and question possible misinformation. Reminding aspiring chemists and scholars alike that it is OK to double-check work is crucial. It is our duty as scientists to have inquisitive minds, and questioning data doesn’t equivalate to assuming the data is wrong, but rather ensuring that it is thoroughly analyzed.
Any last words? A parting message? Anything you would like to bring up?
Thank you, Kat, for putting this together. I’m looking forward to these Chats with Kat becoming a regular thing. Nice work!
Thank you, Shawn, I truly appreciate your input. I am eager to continue exploring the viewpoint of various members of the Ionization Labs team. I would also like to expand the scope of this project and include interviews with people involved in other roles in the hemp economy outside of the laboratory testing field. It has been a pleasure to work with you, and I found your responses to be meaningful and well thought out. I hope to do a follow-up with you in the future to see how your outlook develops as we continue to grow in the industry. We also would like to thank our readers for their support. It has been a pleasure.
Thank you for your continued support of Ionization Lab's blog content. Email us at [email protected] to submit any recommendations you have for topics you'd like us to include in our blog , or people you would like us to interview in the future. We thank you for reading our content, and we hope you enjoy this deep-dive into the thoughts, and perspective of Shawn Helmueller our Chief Science Officer at Ionization Labs.