Science for good: Sweet Briar STEM grad finds her path at Grassroots Cannabis

Posted on June 18, 2019 by Janika Carey

Jessica Heiser-Aliquo works in the lab at Grassroots Cannabis Jessica Heiser-Aliquo works in the lab at Grassroots Cannabis.

As a recent graduate of Sweet Briar College, Jessica Heiser-Aliquo ’16 knows adversity. More importantly, though, she knows how to overcome it. When the bio major reached a dead end in her first job, Sweet Briar faculty and alumnae helped her switch careers. Last fall, Heiser-Aliquo landed an entry-level position in one of today’s hottest industries. At Grassroots Cannabis in Taneytown, Md., she quickly rose up the ranks and is now head of her department: lead tech of post processing. Her job? Making THC concentrates for use by medical cannabis patients in Maryland.

“I operate really fun machinery such as rotary evaporators, vacuum ovens, Buchner funnel and inline vacuum filtration systems — and my personal favorite, a wiped film molecular evaporator,” Heiser-Aliquo tells us. “Honestly, the most exciting part of my job is that I’m able to experiment and try new things to create the best possible product each day. There are always ways to improve and tweak my processes to increase my yields and therefore create a better product that will help people struggling with conventional medicine or terminal illnesses. I get to nerd out about the hard science of my job while making a positive impact on the Maryland medical cannabis community.”

Jessica Heiser and a co-worker in the lab at Grassroots Cannabis Jessica Heiser-Aliquo and a co-worker in the lab at Grassroots Cannabis

Of course, things don’t always go as planned. “Some days are tough, when you feel like you’re not hitting your goals or running into an unnecessary amount of hiccups,” she admits. “Overall though, I really can’t complain. I love the work I do, I love my team and I love making a difference locally.”

Just over a year ago, Heiser-Aliquo couldn’t have imagined a job like this. And of course it didn’t exist at all before Dec. 1, 2017, when Maryland’s state-regulated medical marijuana program became fully operational. The plant’s growing legalization has triggered an explosion of brand-new jobs in recent years and months — alongside, of course, the technology industry’s lightning-fast developments over the past decade. Sweet Briar’s academic overhaul in 2017 introduced a modern leadership core curriculum to address that precise trend. Courses like Design Thinking and STEM and Society are preparing graduates for the jobs of tomorrow.

When Heiser-Aliquo graduated in 2016, things happened really fast for her. Within that first week, she got engaged, moved to Maryland and was hired at Grey Goose Farm. “I wore a few different hats during my time at the nursery, including purchaser and assistant manager, but it soon got to the point where I missed school and science so much that I began looking to switch career fields,” she recalls.

However, full-time entry-level positions in field biology or ecology were scarce, so Heiser-Aliquo turned to her Sweet Briar mentor, Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Ecology Linda Fink.

Jessica Heiser with Linda Fink Jessica Heiser-Aliquo (right) with Prof. Linda Fink and Andrea Perez at Baccalaureate in 2016

“After spending over two years in the landscape industry and already hitting a dead end, Dr. Fink was really incredible for taking the time out of her busy life to help me with this frustration,” Heiser-Aliquo says. “I owe her and her late husband Lincoln [Brower] so much for helping me find opportunities and just keeping my morale up after graduation.”

Fink also put her in touch with fellow biology alumnae, who turned out to be life-savers.

Heiser-Aliquo was glad to be able to vent and brainstorm with someone in her field “until I had the courage to make a real change,” she says. The alumnae helped her spruce up her résumé and offered letters of recommendation, and eventually, all of the networking and hard work paid off. “It definitely wasn’t where I expected to end up, but it’s been a great opportunity for education and growth,” she says.

Heiser-Aliquo knew she wanted to practice science. She considered applying to veterinary schools when a lab assistant position at Grassroots came open last year. She applied on a whim. “There wasn’t a lot about my new industry to research at the time, but it was a foot in the door to an industry that was new and growing pretty rapidly,” Heiser-Aliquo explains. “I landed an interview in July, took the plunge and started at Grassroots around the beginning of September. Within my first six months, I advanced to head of my department and absolutely love what I do in the lab on a daily basis!”

Heiser-Aliquo may have taken a little detour on her career path, but she’s learned a lot in the process. It’s what makes her a great resource for recent grads and anyone looking to find their true calling.

Jessica Heiser and family Jessica Heiser-Aliquo with her husband, Anthony Aliquo II, and his parents

“Honestly, just don’t give up happiness for a job,” she says. “It might take some time to find your niche, but it’s worth the wait. Networking is so, so, so important because if you can introduce yourself to a company in a way that isn’t just another résumé submitted online, you’re so much more likely to at least score an interview. In my experience, that’s the biggest step; once you land the interview, let your charisma shine, your skills do the talking and you’re golden. That advice goes for so many industries too; don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone.”

Heiser-Aliquo says she was able to negotiate her trajectory at Grassroots by accepting the initial pay cut that came with the entry-level job. Her strong work ethic, regardless of the tasks she was asked to perform, paid off in the long run.

field hockey senior day Jessica Heiser-Aliquo with her parents (center) and coaches Tracy Stuart ’93 (left) and Hannah Lott (right) during field hockey’s Senior Day 2016

“For those looking for a way into the cannabis industry specifically, I would suggest researching companies that inspire you and have a good reputation, monitoring their open positions that feel like a good fit and applying,” she says. “Social media is another great resource to keep an eye on the industry; there are often events that are open to the public where industry professionals are looking for networking opportunities and new hires. If you lack experience for a position you’re aspiring to, it might be helpful to begin in a lower position first and work your way up if you find a company willing to invest in your education.”

Heiser-Aliquo loves sharing her insights and network with current students and fellow alumnae, and she comes back to campus whenever she can. It’s hard to imagine now that she almost did not attend Sweet Briar. “I remember being totally against the idea of Sweet Briar when I was in high school because our local pageant queen wanted to go there,” she says. “It was the last school on my list for Virginia Private College Week, but everything changed when I first drove onto campus. The overnight stay as a prospective student definitely changed my perspective, and by the next day I was in tears driving away, insisting I couldn’t go anywhere else.”

The campus beauty and the biology program catapulted Sweet Briar to the top of her list of small, private liberal arts colleges in Virginia. And, finally, “it was ultimately the sense of community and the amazing history and traditions that set SBC apart.”

Linda Fink butterfly garden Linda Fink’s insect biology class gathers at the butterfly garden on campus.

Heiser-Aliquo’s love of campus grew with her love of the College’s academics. “My first upper-level biology class is still my favorite class I’ve ever taken. I took Field Natural History as a sophomore with Dr. Fink during spring 2014. It was one of the best classes to take to really see campus and get to know the flora and fauna that make SBC so unique. It was also my first class with Dr. Fink, who intimidated the heck out of me at the time! Two weeks in, I knew I wanted this woman as my advisor and that I’d be taking every class with her I could. I ended up switching my concentration to ecology and fell even deeper in love with the campus over the next two and a half years. This was such a pivotal point in my undergrad career, and it defined my passion and identity as an advocate for the environment today.”

Jessica Heiser and her friends at Lantern Bearing, one of many Sweet Briar traditions Jessica Heiser-Aliquo (center) and friends Lydia Gullicksen ’17 (from left), Christina Seay ’17, Sarah Kosar ’16, Sakinah Bryant ’17 and Citlali Molina ’16 at Lantern Bearing, one of many Sweet Briar traditions

Choir with Marcia Thom-Kaley, now the dean of students, was another big part of her Sweet Briar experience. Heiser-Aliquo joined the choir her first semester on campus, having little experience in singing. “I could read music because I was a band geek previously, but nothing could stand in the way of a girl wanting to sing as far as Marcia was concerned. The atmosphere that she created for anyone regardless of major, ability or time constraints was addictive, uplifting and ultimately gave me a stronger connection to this institution.”

Thom-Kaley encouraged her to step out of her comfort zone, Heiser-Aliquo recalls, and she ended up joining both the Chamber Choir and Octavo. “I can’t think of a woman more dedicated to her students’ well-being and success than Marcia. She was the one who picked us all up after the school announced it was closing, and she was absolutely on the front lines when it came to saving our home. Her passion for music and guiding young women really showcased her as a role model for what it means to be a Sweet Briar woman. She certainly had a huge impact on my life.”

Heiser-Aliquo says Sweet Briar taught her to “really understand the meaning of adversity and what it means to stand in the face of it and win. … Don’t give up, explore your options and ultimately make the best decision for you and what you care most about.”

We love checking in with our recent grads to see what they’re up to! This is just one story in a series of profiles featuring Sweet Briar’s young alumnae across various disciplines and job fields.