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Wood inspires researchers

Doctoral dissertations completed at the University of Eastern Finland over the years are contributing to a vast body of knowledge relating to wood, addressing the topic from different perspectives. Nearly 90 doctoral dissertations deal with the development of the wood industry in the 2000s, focusing on such phenomena as the effects of climate change on wood species, and the development of new bioactive compounds. This research continues, nowadays especially within the Master's Degree Programme in Wood Materials Science.

“The university’s former Academic Rector Kalervo Väänänen had a vision, ‘All about wood’, and in a way, that vision has become a reality. The quantity and quality of our research relating to wood is of a very high standard in Finland,” says Professor Henrik Heräjärvi from the School of Forest Sciences. He carried out a survey of doctoral dissertations addressing wood at UEF.

In the 2000s, 89 doctoral dissertations have been inspired by wood, 27 of them currently in progress. Furthermore, a number of Master’s and Bachelor’s theses have focused on wood.

“The majority of doctoral dissertations, 34 to be precise, have been or are being completed in the School of Forest Sciences, but we’ve also witnessed wood-related doctoral dissertations in the Departments of Biology, Environmental Science, Chemistry, and Applied physics.”

Doctoral dissertations focusing on the effects of climate change on wood characteristics and quality are something Heräjärvi remembers in particular. These studies were carried out especially at the turn of the millennium under the lead of Professor Seppo Kellomäki, now a Professor Emeritus, and Professor Heli Peltola.

“Our School of Forest Sciences was running a number of extensive projects back then, enabling efficient doctoral education.”

“Birch has also been an interesting topic of research, inspiring surprisingly many doctoral dissertations in wood science.”

“Among the Finnish wood species, birch has the most extensive use potential, but relatively few studies had focused on it before. In Finnish forests, birch amounts to only around 17 per cent of the growing stock volume. However, the unit price of products made of birch is high, and that’s why there is a real need for research knowledge.”

Topical topics of research

Currently, researchers are interested in the modification of wood and its characteristics, biorefinery processes, fuels, and industrial by-product flows.

“Moreover, bioactive compounds, chaga mushrooms, fungal metabolites, and fungi themselves are an interesting cherry on the cake. The goal is to discover and learn to produce, in a controlled manner, compounds that could be used in health-promoting products that have plenty of added value,” Heräjärvi says.

“This line of research isn’t wood science as such, although very closely and even literally related, as for example chaga mushrooms need wood to grow on.”

“Mushrooms and fungal metabolites are also a potential source for discovering new compounds that have antibacterial properties or that could provide novel solutions for HIV medication, for example.”

“Chaga tea is known to have certain cancer-preventing qualities and in Asia, the demand for it would be practically endless,” Heräjärvi says.

Plenty of work has been put in for the doctoral dissertations completed so far, and not only in laboratories: the acquisition of funding constitutes an essential part of a researcher’s life.

“We have a good situation here in natural sciences, as funders tend to be positive about our projects, and our researchers are likely to secure funding to cover their salary,” Heräjärvi says.

“Nevertheless, operational expenditure constitutes a bigger challenge, as experimental research requires money. In many cases, funding secured from foundations covers costs of living, but not costs related to laboratory equipment, laboratory works, travel or building of experimental settings. This is why it is important to collaborate increasingly closely not only within our university, but also with companies and funders.”

Master's Degree Programme in Wood Materials Science is inviting applications

According to Heräjärvi, the Master’s Degree Programme in Wood Materials Science is a good example of new type of collaboration. The programme was launched some five years ago, and the entire pool of resources available at the Faculty of Science and Forestry is involved in the programme’s delivery.

“We have nearly 20 professors from all our fields in natural sciences involved in the programme, along with a great number of experts from different academic departments. In other words, the programme is not confined to forest sciences; instead, it is a high-level programme that can be modified to suit various interests,” Heräjärvi explains.

The language of instruction in the Master’s Degree Programme in Wood Materials Science is English, but also domestic students with a Bachelor's degree from a university or a university of applied sciences are welcome to apply.

“In many Master's degree programmes, students with a Bachelor’s degree from a university of applied sciences are required to complete certain bridging studies before starting at the university, but in our programme, these studies are included in the degree. Our high-level courses are open to all students of the university, and that’s an opportunity definitely worth seizing,” Heräjärvi says.

“Our domestic students tend to avoid courses taught in English, causing them to miss out on many opportunities. For example, the courses in our Master’s Degree Programme in Wood Materials Science aren’t intended for international students exclusively, and domestic students should also take advantage of our offering.”

“It is beneficial for students to be taught by experts from different fields and to have access to a variety of tools. Specialisation can be beneficial when looking for a job, and multidisciplinarity expands our students’ knowledge base. Our graduates find employment well, and half of them continue their studies with an aim to write a doctoral dissertation.”

Text and photo: Marianne Mustonen

The university’s international Master's degree programmes are currently inviting applications (1 November 2017-31 January 2018) http://www.uef.fi/en/web/admissions

To learn more about the Master’s Degree Programme in Wood Materials Science, please see http://www.uef.fi/fi/web/wood-materials-science