Forest Products Laboratory: A Legacy of Women Researchers

When the doors of the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) opened in 1910, Eloise Gerry shouldered her way through as the first female scientist employed by the Forest Service. Her tenacity, moxie, and remarkable talent produced a storied 44-year career with over 120 publications.

Eloise Gerry, first FPL & Forest Service woman scientist.

Every month of the year, and especially during Women’s History month, FPL celebrates the legacy and precedent Gerry set. This month we would like to showcase some of the incredible women scientists that have followed in her extraordinary footsteps.

Like nearly all remarkable stories, they are often most powerful when told straight from the woman herself.

Take a moment to meet the women who are positively changing the world through forest products research and making it a better place to inhabit:

Hongmei Gu, PhD

Research Forest Products Technologist – Statistics, Life Cycle Analysis, and Economics Research

Why did you decide to get into a STEM field?

I was raised in an Aerospace Academy in China. My parents were engineers who worked at the academy. My whole childhood I was surrounded by a community of researchers and engineers.

This made me consider only one future for myself—Aerospace engineer.

However, when you’re not paying attention to the details, life can make dramatic changes. After I graduated from high school in 1987, (unwilling and disappointed) I was chosen to study Timber Engineering at Beijing Forestry University. Even though I was unhappy about it, I accepted this path.

But when I received financial support to continue my graduate study at Virginia Tech in 1996, I felt hopeful and optimistic about my career future. I was really excited to study in the U.S. and continue my career here.  

Who or what inspired your career? And what keeps you inspired?

Several people inspired me in continuing my career, but the two most important people are from the U.S. Forest Service.  

Dr. Robert Youngs, former FPL Director and also my PhD advisor at Virginia Tech. He guided me in both my research and life when I was still young and looking for direction with my future.

Mr. John Hunt, retired FPL mechanical engineer, hired me in 2003. While I assisted him with his 3D Engineered Board development, I gained a couple of U.S. patents. He inspired me! He showed me fundamental research can produce endless, exciting inventions. Because of this experience, I decided to stay at FPL for my entire research career.

What is the best part of your research?

That I can use my engineering skills and knowledge in the forest products industry and create life cycle impacts that will help mitigate climate change for future generations. 

Do you have a message for young women thinking of pursuing a STEM career?

Dedicate yourself to the dream you have. Prepare for challenges, nothing comes for free. Working hard is the key factor for any success. Like the famous Chinese Proverb says, “Failure is the mother of Success.”

Biljana Bujanovic, PhD

Project Leader and Supervisory Research General Engineer – Fiber and Chemical Sciences Research

Why did you decide to get into a STEM field?

My older sister was my role model when I was a student in Elementary and later in High School. She loved math. And I fell in love with chemistry during my first class in this subject.

Who or what inspired your career? And what keeps you inspired?

My College professor, Gordana Vunjak Novakovic, has been my role model ever since I attended her class in Equipment Design. Before I joined FPL in May of 2020, I was also a College Professor at SUNY-ESF, Syracuse, NY. I was teaching and studying various subjects, including Lignocellulosic Chemistry, and there, my students were my main motivation and inspiration.  For my work, I find inspiration in the unique nature and value of lignocellulosic biomass, wood, its structure, chemistry, and an enormous potential for use.

What is the best part of your research?

Starting from an idea or research question, making errors, correcting the errors, failing, trying again, finding the solution, asking a new question…

Do you have a message for young women thinking of pursuing a STEM career?

STEM is fun. Not boring. Just give it a chance!

Rachel Arango, PhD

Research Entomologist – Durability and Wood Protection Research

Why did you decide to get into a STEM field?

I have always been interested in science, even as a kid. I loved to watch ants move little pieces of dirt or plant material, and I was constantly looking under bark and rocks to see what was hiding below. My yard growing up had these bricks that my dad installed as landscape edging. I was constantly turning them over to look for insects. For the longest time my dad thought it was some type of rodent moving them around and was really annoyed when he found out it was me. So, going into science was sort of an obvious choice for me. I am still just flipping over metaphorical rocks, looking for answers.

Who or what inspired your career? And what keeps you inspired?

It was actually an undergraduate professor I had, Dr. Daniel Young, that inspired me to pursue a career in entomology. Before that I didn’t even realize you could devote your life to studying insects. What keeps me inspired is the idea that my work can help solve real-world problems today, and can contribute to research questions many years from now.

What is the best part of your research?

The best part of my research is the moment when I figure out an answer or part of an answer to whatever problem I am working on at the time. I feel like science is all about the little mysteries and it is really exciting when you solve even a small part of that mystery.

Do you have a message for young women thinking of pursuing a STEM career?

Not all STEM fields require you to be good at math. Everyone has weaknesses and it is easy to use them to hold you back. For me that was math. For women interested in STEM, the best advice I can give is to focus on your strengths and not lose confidence in yourself based on things you might not be good at.

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In the coming weeks, we’ll be telling more inspirational stories highlighting the extraordinary women who are helping to ensure forest products are part of a more sustainable future …

To find out more about the extraordinary contributions our researchers are making to the world of wood science, please visit the Forest Products Laboratory at https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/