This May, Jim Armstrong will retire after more than 30 years teaching wood science and technology at West Virginia University. He’s looking forward to spending time with his grandchildren and settling into a new home outside of Austin, Texas.
He’ll miss working with the students, faculty, and staff of the wood science and technology program and, he’ll miss being on the front lines of the rapidly evolving discipline and the profession it serves.
But there is compensation for any ambivalent feelings Armstrong may have toward ending a three-decade career. He’s received one of the highest honors in the field of wood science.
Armstrong will receive the Award for Distinguished Service to the Profession of Wood Science and Technology from the Society of Wood Science and Technology, the discipline’s premier, international professional organization, a turn of events that has left him, in his own words, “blown away.”
The selection process for the award is extremely rigorous, requiring letters of support and nomination from at least 10 members of the Society who recognize the recipient’s overall contributions to the wood science profession. Among the nomination letters, Armstrong received the support of eight past presidents of the Society, citing his distinguished career as an educator and researcher and his tireless service to SWST.
“It’s the best thing that’s happened to me in my career,” Armstrong says. “When I look at the list of past recipients and think of the people who have yet to receive it, I’m humbled.”
Joe McNeel, director of WVU’s Division of Forestry and Natural Resources and Armstrong’s colleague in its wood science program, understands the humbling aspect, but he isn’t surprised by Armstrong’s achievement.
“Jim’s record of continued service to the Society and the discipline is substantial,” McNeel said, citing Armstrong’s service as past president of the organization and work on its accreditation process. “This award is a wonderful gesture and a great capstone accomplishment for Jim’s impressive career.”
The milestones of retirement and the SWST honor have Armstrong reflecting on the evolution of wood science over the years and considering its future.
“Where WVU’s program is going is indicative of the profession as a whole,” Armstrong said. “We’re looking beyond wood and into a whole range of other plant-based materials as a raw material for composite materials and as potential biofuels.”
Internationalization is another defining development.
“We’re in a global economy, and products are coming to the United States from all over the world,” he said. “And we’re exporting wood products all around the world.”
Increased international markets also have created new opportunities for WVU’s wood science and technology students. Undergraduates are taking advantage of study abroad in places like South Africa and New Zealand. The program’s growing cohort of graduate students are just as likely to come to Morgantown from Asia and Africa as they are the United States. And their career opportunities are just as diverse.
“Imagine tracking a product from the forest to someone’s home,” Armstrong said. “Our graduates are everywhere along that chain. The job market has diversified in the past decade.”
That diversification is reflected in WVU’s academic offerings in the area. Faculty in the program, one of only 10 in the nation to be accredited by SWST, are in the midst of a significant curriculum revision, adding content and opportunities in wood products marketing, sustainable construction, and bioenergy.
“There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity for interdisciplinary teaching and research in wood science and technology,” Armstrong said, and he’s confident his colleagues will meet the challenge.
Examples already in play include a study of the potential of coal-wood hybrid fuel and the development of a course in biobased energy. There’s ongoing research into demand for sustainably produced building materials and the establishment of a Biomaterials and Wood Utilization Research Center.
“We’re taking the blinders off and looking at a much bigger world in terms of exchanging ideas,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong will receive the SWTS award, along with a life membership to the organization, at its June 2013 meeting in Austin.
CONTACT: David Welsh; Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design
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