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On the Origin of Scientists: Stavros Avramidis is UBC's resident wood scientist

Need inspiration? Heed the advice of Dr. Stavros Avramidis, UBC professor and head of the department of wood science. “You cannot lock yourself in a room — talk to your colleagues. Talk to whoever uses what you are doing. That’s the only way to get ideas,” he said.

Getting out of his office is precisely how Avramidis, a wood scientist, found himself working on his first research project at UBC with Dr. Alex MacKay, a medical physicist.

Their key insight — that the small tube-like structure of wood and lungs were almost identical, allowing wood to serve as a model for lung tissue — was a result of a random conversation over lunch. Avramidis and MacKay were strangers in completely different departments when they met at the Faculty Club with their trays of food, yet they ended up collaborating for six years.

Originally from Greece, Avramidis obtained his PhD from the State University of New York. He was offered a position at UBC before he was even finished defending his doctoral thesis — an opportunity he described as amazing and unforeseen, and one he was eager to jump on.

While the project with MacKay was in motion, Avramidis also kept in mind the second piece of the collaboration puzzle: talking to the end user. He realized the disconnect between consumers of wood-based products and the forest where the resource comes from. This in turn stands in the way of efficient foresting practices.

Avramidis decided to make predictions about what types of wood consumers would need, and to relay these predictions to change forestry. “I wanted to create a super model that allowed me to connect the silviculture — what we do in the forest when we grow the tree — to the type of wood that the tree produces. If I know that we want wood of this type 20 years from now, I can say to the foresters [that] this is what we need,” he said.

The goal is to protect and ensure the efficient growth of forests instead of haphazardly wasting a valuable resource.

“Wood is the only renewable material on this planet,” said Avramidis.

Predicting the future of foresting is very important, Avramidis believes, because nowadays one can make almost anything from wood, even plastics. “From little things — from forks and spoons, to nanocrystalline cellulose — to massive buildings, you can make all of these out of renewable materials, out of trees,” he said. More importantly, these products can replace petrochemicals and thus result in a carbon-neutral consumer environment.

Now, 30 years into his career at UBC, most of Avramidis’ time is spent on administrative tasks rather than research and teaching. Administration can be a dreaded, bureaucratic role, but Avramidis finds it to be a rewarding way to give back to the community.

“Administration can also be lots of fun if you don’t see it as a burden,” he said. “If you see it as, ‘Well, maybe I can contribute something to this university. Maybe I can make the student experience better, perhaps help students with challenges.’

“This is an exciting time for our profession and for humanity. It makes me excited that we are moving into green products, green raw materials, and renewable materials and products.”

He encourages young researchers to join wood science, and hopes the field will attract more students as the public realizes the value of renewable resources, especially wood.