A Career in Cannabis: Alex Capano Explains the Science of CBD and Her Path to Becoming an Expert
January 10, 2019 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
In 2016, Alexandra Capano became the first person in the U.S. (and possibly the world) to receive her doctorate in medical cannabis science. She is also a nurse practitioner with a background in adolescent medicine. Now, she works as the chief science officer at Ecofibre Limited, a start-up that makes medical-grade cannabis products and researches new ways to use hemp. As a healthcare provider with an entrepreneurial streak, Alex has found her sweet spot—it’s her job to research the wide-ranging medical benefits of cannabis, which has been used to treat conditions ranging from epilepsy to endometriosis to opioid addiction (with very promising results). Here, Alex talks about breaking new ground in medicine and struggling to find a career that suits her inner “chameleon.”
EVERYONE ASSUMED THAT I WAS GOING TO BE A DOCTOR when I was growing up. I did well in school and played with a lot of science-related games and toys, so it seemed like a natural fit. But when I started college, I began to question that path. I took a class in business management in which we had to take a personality test that defined our learning styles. Mine was “chameleon,” which means that I am very adaptable. It’s a good thing, but it’s often associated with people who jump around in their careers because they have difficulty finding something that satisfies them. That resonated with me: I wound up sticking with a pre-med curriculum and majored in neuroscience, but I had three minors—chemistry, English, and business management.
WHEN I DECIDED NOT TO PURSUE THE DOCTOR ROUTE after college people would say, “This is a waste of talent. Why aren’t you becoming a neurosurgeon?” It was hard to disappoint people. But I graduated in 2008 when the recession hit, and I had scary conversations with family practitioners who hadn’t paid off their student debt after 20 years, even though they were working all the time. I said to myself, “You know what? I have one life and I don’t need to be a martyr.” So I decided to try something different.
AFTER I GRADUATED, I moved to Washington, D.C., and got a job at a consulting firm. In my first year, there were major layoffs. I saw people who had been with the company for 30 years lose their jobs, and it was terrifying. Then I got a sales job at a place that provided business development support to other companies. I was quite successful at it, which was confusing because I didn’t feel fulfilled. I couldn’t figure out how to integrate my skills into something that felt right, and I felt lost.
THE CONGRESSWOMAN DONNA SHALALA convinced me to become a nurse practitioner. She was a professor of political science and health policy at the University of Miami, where I went to college, and I took a class with her my senior year. After I graduated, she was very approachable and took meetings and phone calls with me when I was deciding what to do. She said, “Alex, everything you’re saying makes me think that being a nurse practitioner would be right for you. Don’t you know how important nurse practitioners are?” So I thought, Oh, maybe I should do that. I eventually got my nursing degree from Penn.
I REALLY ENJOYED SEEING PATIENTS as a nurse practitioner. However, I quickly felt that I wasn’t experiencing new challenges. It was frustrating to feel like I’d reached a plateau relatively early. That’s why I decided to pursue my doctoral degree. I wanted to do something that was cutting edge and offered upward mobility while also providing opportunities to help people.
IN MY DOCTORATE PROGRAM, every student had an assignment where you had to write a mission statement about your ideal career. I was a little embarrassed to be doing these personal, non-hard-science assignments. But ultimately it was a positive exercise. I had to put down on paper that I wanted to pursue a career that had plenty of business opportunities and also offered me room to grow and be creative.
I WAS WORKING FULL TIME AND ALSO IN SCHOOL full time for several years. I learned to be efficient. If a patient didn’t show for their appointment, I’d take those 20 minutes to read and study. I got good at multitasking. But it was exhausting and sometimes isolating, especially since a lot of my friends weren’t in the same position. I definitely got overwhelmed at times.
AT THE CLINIC WHERE I WORKED, I helped start a program to provide LARC, or long-acting reversible contraceptives like IUDs, to women who wanted them. I also created a program for transgender people who wanted medical treatment. I was lucky that my clinic was willing to support these new initiatives.
AS A NURSE, YOU GET A LOT OF FEEDBACK FROM PATIENTS, and it can be negative. The criticism I received the most was that I had an “angry” expression on my face. I think that’s very gendered—I doubt that men get that sort of feedback. What the patients were referring to was my “thinking face,” when I’m doing math in my head. As a healthcare provider, you have to listen even when you want to be defensive, because in the end, you’re trying to create an environment where people trust you.
I GOT INTERESTED IN MEDICAL CANNABIS during my doctoral program when I started reading a lot about how cannabis produced successful results for patients trying to get off opioid medication. The opioid crisis is really bad in Philadelphia, as it is in many places. I’ve lost some patients to addiction. I realized that cannabis could be a much safer alternative, if only there were policy changes and more research.
I WAS SO EXCITED WHEN I GOT THE GREEN LIGHT to write my dissertation about medicinal cannabis. I knew it was a field where I could be a chameleon because the industry is evolving quickly. It offered the opportunity to help people in ways that they hadn’t been helped before.
I’M THE YOUNGEST OF FOUR SISTERS, and watching how they structured their careers was really interesting. One of them works in fashion, and that made me want to be more entrepreneurial. In my current job, I negotiated to take at least one day a week to work at a local clinic. I’m able to focus on underserved patients because I don’t have the financial pressure of needing to do more lucrative work. You can do good things and still make money—they shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.
I STARTED MY CURRENT ROLE AS CHIEF SCIENCE OFFICER at Ecofibre Limited last spring. I focus primarily on the medical aspects of cannabis—research, clinical trials, publications, and scientific support. I participate in talks and medical conferences around the country. I’m also working on product development, partnerships, and strategic planning across all our lines of business. We have four different companies that produce hemp-based products. One focuses on food, like hemp protein. The second is direct-to-consumer CBD oil. The third is pharmaceutical CBD for healthcare providers. And the fourth is textiles, which are produced using carbon-negative technology. The business marries my yearning for creativity and business development with my scientific background. I’m never bored.
THERE’S A LOT OF PSEUDOSCIENCE and false claims about cannabis, and CBD, particularly. Consumers become responsible for doing their due diligence to cut through the noise. I wish that weren’t the case. There should be more transparency. You see CBD being sold everywhere, but most of it is not regulated and actually has no active properties because it hasn’t been properly tested, handled, processed, or measured. For instance, a CBD smoothie at your local coffee shop probably won’t have any of the positive properties that properly regulated pharmaceutical-grade CBD oil does. Our products, meanwhile, are supported by extensive scientific research and manufactured in an FDA-approved lab.
I DEFINITELY STRUGGLE TO FIND TIME for myself outside of work. I’m mostly fine with that because I’m so engaged and excited about what I’m doing. I work from home, and initially, I thought, “Am I going to have trouble avoiding Netflix?” Instead, I have trouble not working. Sometimes I get to the end of the day and realize I didn’t shower or eat or take care of myself. I’m trying to be better about that. When I’m stressed, I definitely use CBD. It doesn’t make you high; it just helps you relax. I also do Pilates and read a lot of mystery novels.
IN TERMS OF MY CAREER, I FINALLY FEEL LIKE I’M IN THE RIGHT PLACE. I realize now that all of the choices I made in the last 15 years have led to this, even when I felt very discouraged and confused. I don’t worry about wasting my potential anymore. If I had tried to be a neurosurgeon, I wouldn’t be here now, and I would probably be bored. This is where I’m supposed to be and this was the only path that I could have taken to get here.
I CAN REALLY BE MYSELF AT MY CURRENT JOB, and that extends to the way I dress. I’ve always loved fashion, but I used to worry about how I looked sometimes—I have a nose ring, and my style is a little funky. Penn was very much a pumps-and-pearls kind of place, and I would occasionally get reprimanded for what I wore in professional settings. Now I think my unique style is an asset. It projects confidence. I’m dressing more creatively than ever, and it’s fun. Who cares if I have my nose pierced? I’ll earn respect, anyway, and then some—I’m not conforming to anybody’s expectations but my own.
Photographs by Christine Han. Styling by Shanna Engelhardt.