Thursday, August 29, 2019

Women in Science: Sara Sekerak navigates new cannabis lab legislation

Sekerak leading a presentation about cannabis testing methods, protocols, and quality standards.

Sara Sekerak is working in uncharted territory. She is part of a new task force mandated by Washington’s Legislature to define scientific standards for our state’s cannabis laboratories. How does someone end up with such a high-pressure job? It takes a lot of lab experience, a keen eye for quality assurance, and a thorough background in ensuring products comply with regulatory standards. Sara shares more about what led her to this important new position on the task force in this month’s Women in Science interview.

Sara's job at Ecology

Sekerak performing size reduction of a study product in the Product Testing
Prep Room. Pre-processing of products is a necessary step in producing
samples for lab analysis.
Right now, I am the lead chemist for the Cannabis Science Task Force, but the road to my current position has been a winding one. Before I joined the Task Force, I was a Product Testing project manager. In that position, most of my work supported the Children’s Safe Product Act.

During the past two years, I managed a study of school supplies marketed to children ages 12 and under. We looked for lead and cadmium because those metals have both federal and state limits. School supplies are not explicitly covered in the Children’s Safe Product Act, so the Attorney General’s office took a special interest in this. We worked with the Attorney General’s Office and scoped a project to meet their needs.

In May 2019, the Attorney General’s Office finalized a settlement with Amazon that our study helped substantiate. The most important outcome of this settlement is that Amazon now requires all third-party sellers of school supplies and jewelry to produce a certificate confirming that their products meet the federal requirements for lead and cadmium.

Recent work

Authoring a Cannabis Laboratory Accreditation report led me to my current position as lead chemist for the Cannabis Science Task Force. The goal of the Task Force is to work with multiple agencies, as well as scientists from the cannabis industry. We have been asked by the Legislature to provide recommendations that would help cannabis testing labs apply science-based practices and other critical elements needed for a robust accreditation.
Because there is no federal oversight for cannabis (like there is for drinking water or agricultural products), there are currently no standard methods specifically for testing cannabis. So labs are creating their own procedures and processes. Right now, each lab defines their own level of quality; the problem with this is that there is variability from one lab to the next. Our task force will meet from now to Dec. 1, 2021, and this multidisciplinary group of agencies and scientists will try to close some gaps in the labs’ processes.

Advice for future women in science

I’ve often felt like my work has been challenged or questioned. But, wherever I have gone, these challenges and questions have always motivated me to work harder. So my first piece of advice would be to not let negative comments get you down. I have worked hard to build my name and reputation to prove that I am a valuable team member. If anyone questioned my work ethic, I just worked harder to prove that I could.
Sekerak working at Manchester Environmental Laboratory.
My second piece of advice would be to never stop learning and always ask questions. In 2000, I started my first job at a lab through an internship at Manchester Environmental Laboratory. I always wanted to learn new things, so I would offer to help and job shadow everywhere I could.
From there, I worked my way up to my current position as a lead chemist, and my experience communicating with labs gave me a leg up. My diverse experiences lined me up perfectly for my current position, which requires a broad scope of knowledge.

By: Ruth Froese, Environmental Assessment Program Communications

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