Meet graduate student Phil Estrin

Phil Estrin
Phil Estrin

Phil Estrin is a PhD student in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UConn in molecular and cellular biology, he began studying the growth of hemp for medicinal uses with aspirations to start his own gene consultation company. Here is what he said in an interview.

Where did you study as an undergraduate?

I studied at UConn and graduated in 2014.

What was your major?

My major was Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB).

Why did you decide to go to graduate school?

After I graduated, I was very afraid that I knew nothing and so, in an attempt to delay an introduction into the real world, I sought solace in academia. I started by earning my master’s degree in MCB at UConn as well. Then, I was still worried, so I decided to come back one more time.

I really decided my path when I was looking at internships as a master’s student. I saw the big pharma options, companies like Pfizer or Boehringer Ingelheim, and I wanted to go a different way. Since medical marijuana had recently been legalized, I sent my resume to the four producers in the state and got a job at one of them. Once I had the internship, I knew this was something I was interested in studying further.

Who is your advisor?

Dr. Gerald Berkowitz.

What is your field of research?

I’m working on two different projects. One experiment is to see if hemp can be grown with a large amount of cannabidiol oil (CBD), which is a very potent anti-inflammatory. CBD is non-psychedelic and helpful in treating epilepsy in children and adults. I’m growing the hemp in a greenhouse and supplementing some plants with ethylene, a plant hormone that promotes flowering and also speeds up the life cycle. If it takes three months to grow and you can make that happen in two, you’re saving lots of time and money. If you’re a grower, a lot of your overhead is devoted to keeping plants alive. I’m comparing these plants to ones that have been contained in growth chambers, where they grow undisturbed in a sterile environment.

My other project is working on tissue culture regeneration of plants as a means to do transgenic work with Cannabis. The work hopes to develop a Cannabis plant void of cannabinoids, like THC or CBD, so that other aspects and compounds from the plant can be identified and studied. In a tissue culture environment we are testing young seedlings and pathogens, seeing if there is a way to immunize or better prepare the Cannabis plant defenses against pathogens that a grower may encounter.

Name one aspect of your work that you like.

I really like the novelty. Cannabis has been around for millennia but the research has been so limited. We’re at a stage where online forums have as much valuable information as journal publications. It makes the research we do that much more important, because people want to know if what they read online is true or not and we have the means to verify or disprove a lot of the information out there.

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment so far?

It is the ability to create the infrastructure for hemp research. There is not a lot of research being completed on hemp and none that I’m aware of in Connecticut. Being able to start identifying the genes and monitoring them is my greatest accomplishment so far.

What do you hope to do once you get your degree?

I’d like to start a gene monitoring company. I’d like to be a service provider for marijuana industry, whether it’s in a recreational state or medicinal state, and do analysis for companies. They can send in their leaf samples and I can let them know information about the plants, such as which diseases they’re prone to.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?

I’m an avid gamer and I just got a new computer so I’m looking forward to that. I also play a lot of ultimate Frisbee. That seems to be very popular in this department.

By Jason M. Sheldon