Simon Ellis, a wood science professor and director of the Wood Products Processing program at the University of British Columbia, is a 3M National Teaching Fellowship recipient for 2013. Maclean’s On Campus is profiling all 10 recipients.
Simon Ellis says the esoteric discipline of wood science “chose him.” As a teenager in England, he liked the idea of predicting the world through science, so he planned to be a meteorologist. That was, of course, until he learned about forensic sciences. When he realized he couldn’t stomach handling dead bodies, he turned to horticulture. That morphed to forestry after he realized that trees are the biggest plants of all.
With his mind made up, he applied to Bangor University in Wales. “I went for an interview and a lot of people up there said, ‘they’re going to try and get you to do this wood science course. Not enough people are on that course.’” The interviewer did just that and Ellis discovered his passion.
Wood science is “a range of sciences applied to one beautiful material,” he says. Now, as a professor and administrator of the Wood Products Processing program, he passes down his appreciation for wood. The program, a fusion of science, engineering and business, is about marketing wood products, which he believes is best done by those who truly appreciate trees.
Getting people excited about wood isn’t easy, but it’s something Ellis enjoys. “I’m very energetic,” he says. “I think most students would agree that enthusiasm is contagious,” he adds. “When I give some of the examples of the wonderful structures of wood, students get engaged.”
One way he achieves this is with visual aids. They include a bunch of drinking straws wrapped together with tape, which illustrates the basic structure of wood. He also brings in little pieces of wood that appear identical to students until they perform an experiment. They’re asked to try and break both pieces with a hammer. One is regular wood and the other is compression wood, a material the tree quickly produces to push itself back up straight when it’s leaning.
“What’s surprising to [students] is that the regular wood usually doesn’t break,” he says, “but the compression wood fails easily.” The demonstration helps students see compression wood is too brittle for building and that wood is “very good for doing what the tree wants it to do,” but is not always great for human purposes.
To Ellis, it’s beautiful to behold. “If you look at some of this intricate cell wall architecture with an electron microscope, they’re just works of art as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “I have a couple textbooks on my shelf that are really just photographs of wood and they’re as good a coffee table book as anyone could have.”