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Interview with Alexis Middleton, Microbiologist for Digipath Labs

Interview with Alexis Middleton, Microbiologist for Digipath Labs

In our continued leadership team interview series, I interviewed Alexis Middleton, one of the microbiologists for Digipath Labs. She talks about what it is like to work for a Las Vegas cannabis lab testing facility and the science behind testing cannabis. Alexis tests for fungi and other potentially toxic contaminants found on cannabis cultivars. She also shares her experience working in the new Las Vegas cannabis industry and offers some of her thoughts on what students may want to focus on if they have interest in joining the industry.

Jump to a Question

As a microbiologist at Digipath Labs, what are your daily duties and what specifically are you looking for when you examine a cannabis cultivar?

I am part of the microbiology team, which examines samples for microbes that are harmful to humans like gram-negative enterobacteria, coliforms, salmonella, e.coli, aspergillus and other fungi. As the lead mycotoxin analyst, I make sure that samples are free from toxic fungal byproducts like ochratoxin A and certain carcinogenic aflatoxins. I also examine moisture analysis and pH levels in certain matrices.

How long have you been with Digipath Labs?

About a year and a half now!

How often do you find fungi on cannabis and how much of it is harmful to consume?

We find some fungi on a couple of plant samples almost every day at passing levels (a few thousand cells per gram). Some fungi are not harmful and may benefit the plant, which is why total microbial impurities are set at a limit by the state rather than presence/absence. But at higher levels (10,000 or more), the likelihood of dangerous fungal presence increases and we have to fail the sample for the safety of the consumer.

What kind of fungi do you find?

The only mold species we specifically test for is Aspergillus, which can be native to cannabis and likes to host itself inside of body cavities like your lungs.

Do consumers really have to worry about fungi on untested cannabis with no certificate of analysis?

Healthy adults don’t have to worry as much about fungi in comparison to those with weakened immunity. However, anything that is inhaled has a level of risk that should always be considered. Aspergillus spores can survive very high temperatures and have even been present in concentrates. When your lungs are exposed to high temperatures and the byproducts of smoke, it may leave the fungus an opportunity to infect. The only cannabis-related deaths recorded are due to Aspergillosis!

What is the most rewarding part of working at Digipath Labs for you?

This place was the first time I was ever able to step into the realm of research in an industry. With cannabis research still minimal, any new science is a pretty big deal. And I’ve had the honor of being able to contribute to some of that so I’m very grateful! I also work with an amazing group of individuals.

You are a graduate of UNLV. Do you feel like they are offering enough curriculum concerning cannabis considering Las Vegas has become such a hotbed for the cannabis industry?

I know that they have started a few classes in cannabis science. I believe they are tailored around the foundations of the industry. I’ve also heard of an organization called UNLV Rebels Can that spreads awareness and activism on cannabis reform.

If a student is interested in getting into the cannabis lab testing business, do you have any recommendations on what they should focus their studies on? If so, what?

I think backgrounds in biology, plant biology, or biochemistry are great routes for someone that wants to step in the industry as a scientist!

What would you like to see change in the Las Vegas area in general having to do with cannabis?

I really hope to see more public outreach and education as our industry grows. There is value in the quality of product that you get and you should be demanding it! There are also a lot of myths and misinformation stapled into cannabis culture. I hope that as we continue to unravel new information, the culture and community will grow with it.

In your video you mention how important terpenes are for you when you look at cannabis cultivars. Can you expand on that?

Terpenes are those amazing (and sometimes unappealing) smells you get from all sorts of plants that can serve a purpose outside of fragrance. They’re utilized in various industries because of their varying effects on human health– like in aromatherapy, for example. In cannabis this is no different. People contribute their highs to cannabinoid content but forget that terpenes like caryophellene have anti-anxiety effects while myrcene can potentially enhance anxiety. Some might help target pain while others keep your brain active. When purchasing products I take this into consideration and I’ve slowly been able to create my own designer strains that work well with me, without even regarding THC content sometimes.

How important do you think medical marijuana will become for the medical community overtime and why do you think that?

I think it will improve because it has to. Anything that serves as a form of treatment should always have room for improvement! And I definitely think once it switches to a federal industry, regulations are going to increase significantly.

If a consumer new to the Vegas cannabis scene were to ask you for some advice, what would you tell them?

Educate yourself on the basics first, keep an open mind, start off slow and it’s not a heart attack I promise.

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