Opportunities Grow For Women in Science Startups in Cannabis Industry

For any small business this is an anomaly: 11 of the 15 employees in one lab at Front Range Biosciences, an agricultural biotech company specializing in tissue culture propagation, are female. For a company in the STEM field, this is almost unheard of.For Dr. Cecilia Zapata, vice president of the nursery and former director of production of marijuana and hemp for Front Range, a majority female team represents the best scientists available for the positions.Based in LaFayette, Colorado, Zapata says as Director of Tissue Culture Production, she does most of the hiring for lab positions. And it so happens that female scientists are best suited for the jobs.“They are detail-oriented, and in the lab they need to be methodical and patient,” she says.Founded in November 2015, Front Range Biosciences touts itself as bringing “the best of modern agriculture to high value crops to improve reliability, efficiency, and safety for cultivators and consumers. Scientific tools such as tissue culture and marker assisted breeding have revolutionized agriculture.”[bctt tweet=“For Dr. Cecilia Zapata, vice president of the nursery and former director of production of marijuana and hemp for Front Range Biosciences, a majority female team represents the best scientists available for the positions. #womeninSTEM” username=“takeleadwomen”]According to BizWest, “Front Range Biosciences Inc., a startup agricultural biotech firm based in Lafayette, raised nearly $5 million in private-equity this past year as it ramps up efforts to bring attention to its products and services.” The company “provides industrial-scale tissue-culture propagation and advanced breeding for plants that will be less susceptible to diseases and mold contamination, reducing the need to use pesticides.”Born in Venezuela, Zapata says she came to the U.S. 25 years ago to earn her masters of science in plant physiology and biotechnology at Teas A & M University. She continued on there to earn her PhD in plant physiology in 1997.After graduation, she went on to work in the research department for genetics at E & J Gallo Winery in California, before moving to Florida as a plant scientists for Yoder Brothers, Inc. in 2000.“I’m a female and a foreigner, so it was a double handicap,” says Zapata. “It was difficult as a woman to have power, but you can work hard to make a point,” she says.  At the same time, she had role models and mentors who helped her succeed.Nine years later she was a research scientist at University of Florida, where she stayed until 2012 before becoming lab manager for Driscolls Inc.,, producers of strawberries, blackberries and blueberries. In 2016, she worked for Ball Horticultural before going to the start up, Front Range in 2017.While Zapata works in tissue culture production overseeing all nursery operations, a key focus is the cannabis industry. According to the company website, “Given the recent growth of the cannabis industry and the significant unmet need for industrial-scale modern propagation methods, FRB is directing its efforts at this space. We are also developing a genomics-based breeding platform for the creation of new varietals with better traits. By utilizing premier genetics and using the powerful tools of modern agricultural science, we are paving the way for a new frontier in cannabis breeding and production.”According to the Washington Post. “A study published last year in the Marijuana Business Daily estimated the industry had between 165,000 and 230,000 full- and part-time workers. The industry could create more than 1 million jobs across the country if pot is legalized at the federal level, according to New Frontier Data, which supplies market analysis on the industry.”Zapata says Front Range is planning on expansion to another facility in California and also outside of the U.S., with great market potential for expansion in hemp and marijuana industries.Having spent her life as a scientist, Zapata offers advice for anyone in the field who wants to launch an idea or move into a startup connected to her research.Don’t be scared. “Take the risk, do the best you can. There is always someone who can help you. You are not going to be alone.”You will make mistakes. “But go ahead and do it. In terms of technical aspects, you can always go back and fix it.”Be more patient. “Take your time before you say something.”Zapata’s experience is encouraging in a broader field where many women scientists have experienced discrimination and discouragement.A recent study aimed at the gender gap on The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports a less than congenial environment for women in science, according to Marlene Cimons writing in  Popular Science.[bctt tweet=“A recent study aimed at the gender gap on The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports a less than congenial environment for #womeninscience” username=“takeleadwomen”]“The IPCC has been the authoritative scientific source on climate change since it began issuing reports in 1990. That’s where Gay-Antaki aimed her research lens, looking at the experiences of women who served on the panel. Her study, conducted with Diana Liverman, professor of geography at the University of Arizona, appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their research revealed a mixed picture — some good, some bad and some pretty ugly,” Cimons writes.According to Simons, “Climate scientist Sarah Myhre — who was not involved in the study — pointed out that women traditionally have had a tough time making inroads in science, but climate researchers have it much worse — they also have to grapple with the antipathy generated by climate deniers and the toxic anti-science views spouted by members of the current administration. ‘Science is hostile to women and feminism, and the ambient culture is hostile towards women,’ she said.”With more than a quarter of a century of experience as a scientist in this country doing active research and implementation, Zapata says there have been changes in the culture—but not that many. As earlier this month was International Day of Women and Girls in Science, it seems fitting to reflect on progress women have made.[bctt tweet=“There have been changes in the culture of scientific research—but not that many. #womenscientists” username=“takeleadwomen”]“With startups, I hope to have better treatment of women,” Zapata says. “The established companies are still set up for men.”