Women’s History Month: FPL Remembers the Statisticians

Statistics is commonly viewed as the collection, collation, and presentation of numerical data. FPL has long recognized that the field of statistics is critical for testing research hypotheses and making inferences to untested populations. Statistics has provided extensive and powerful tools for designing studies, analyzing data, summarizing or modeling data, and interpreting results for many research studies at FPL.Final Statistics labs

Statistics has allowed for more accurate and precise estimations in completing meaningful research experiments. This has resulted in more efficient and cost-effective research programs and more reliable results. John W. Koning, Jr.’s comprehensive book, Forest Products Laboratory, 1910–2010: Celebrating a Century of Accomplishments provides history tidbits of how this field evolved over the years.

In 1958, the section was named “Statistics and Computing.” Prior to that, statistical design was handled in the research projects. The staff of the new section consisted of nine women, to which one man transferred in 1959. As equipment became more powerful, more of this important work could be accomplished. And the punch cards went away.New More recentDo you find it surprising that so many of these statisticians are women? FPL thanks the teams of workers who have done this precise work for a century: all for the sake of scientific accuracy.

Women’s History Month: FPL Remembers Marguerite Sykes

Is paper one of the first things that comes to mind when you think about forest products? FPL has been at the forefront of developing innovative and environmentally friendly methods for producing this ubiquitous product. Chemist Marguerite Sykes, who worked in FPL’s pilot plant from 1971 until her retirement in 2002, was a key player in paper pulping research and development.

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Marguerite Sykes makes handsheets of paper for evaluation in the paper test laboratory by using experimental pulps. (1980s)

The challenge for FPL scientists has been to economically and sustainably increase the yield of pulp from wood. FPL developed a pulping process that significantly increased pulp yield and allowed use of many underutilized hardwoods. Research at FPL also improved the sulfate (kraft) pulping process so that many softwoods could be used in paper making. These practices have extended timber supply and enhanced forest management.

During her tenure at FPL, Sykes worked on many interdisciplinary teams and co-authored nearly 60 papers. In an interview with the University of Wisconsin U.S. Forest Products Lab Centennial Oral History Project, Sykes speaks with passion for that work: “I think everything I worked on the last fifteen years [was] extraordinarily exciting and I think they were kind of breakthrough topics [such as how] to replace the chemicals for pulping and bleaching and recycling with more environmentally sound methods like enzymes or hydrogen peroxide for bleaching. And so everything was new, and although some people had been doing it, none of these techniques were being used commercially. So it was just kind of ground work on some of these things that made it very exciting.”

Sykes speaks more about how this work came to be. From the mid-1980s through the 1990s, “recycling became big just because landfills were being filled so rapidly,” and people threw out an enormous amount of paper. In addition to recycling work, Sykes felt that existing recycling processes used an excess of chemicals that were “very harmful to the [effluent] waters that came out of the mill.” These chemicals, she says, were defeating any environmental benefits. For this reason, Sykes and others “started using enzymes for de-inking, and that too is an innovative idea.”

Sykes also talks about making handsheets, where in the test lab, “you slurry the pulp and there is a special instrument of sheet mold that you make a hand sheet and all the tests are brightness, how white it is, how strong it is, how easy it tears go back to the basic hand sheet.”

Paper. It’s all around us. FPL thanks this innovative and enthusiastic scientist for her work in improving paper production.

 

 

 

Women’s History Month: FPL Remembers Catherine Duncan

Lab Notes remembers another pioneering woman scientist: Catherine Gross Duncan. Duncan received her A.B. Degree in botany from the Depauw University in 1931. She went on to earn her M.S. and her P.h.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1933 and 1935, respectively.

In December 1942, she joined the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin. Originally, she was recruited by the Lab to aid in the war effort. Duncan stayed after the war for the remainder of her career. She eventually rose to the rank of principal pathologist at the FPL in the Wood Fungi and Insects Research, where she served until her death in 1968.

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Ralph Lindgren and Catherine Duncan inspecting the growth of a fungus that is part of the fungi collection.

During her career, Duncan published over 40 papers examining various aspects of wood decay fungi. A majority of her work surrounded the quality and improvement of wood preservatives. Duncan was also involved with the dissertations of 30 students while she worked at FPL. Students noted that “It was always a challenge to meet her standards for rigor and proof in research”.

Early in her career, one of the first projects she completed for FPL was to examine the natural resistance of decay from different species of trees. In studying these differences, she helped develop the soil-block technique, which allows for wood decay to be studied at an accelerated rate. This technique became especially important when evaluating wood preservatives and their longevity, and is still in use today.

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Soil-block tests showing the effects of fungi on a specimen: (A) fungus growing on
untreated wood specimen; (B) fungus fruiting on untreated wood specimen; (C) preservative-treated wood specimen.

Women’s History Month: FPL Remembers Frances Lombard

In honor of Women’s History Month, Lab Notes remembers Frances F. Lombard. At a time when few women worked in science, Lombard received a M.A. degree in mycology (the study of mushrooms and other fungi) from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Lombard joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1941 and served in the Agricultural Research and Forest Services as a mycologist, specializing in the identification of wood-decaying and wood-inhabiting Homobasidiomycetes in pure culture. She was stationed at the Center for Forest Mycology Research at FPL and published over 20 papers during her tenure.

Frances Lombard studying a fungus using a light microscope.

Frances Lombard studying a fungus using a light microscope.

FPL has a long history of mycology research. The Center for Forest Mycology Research  houses the largest wood fungus collection in the world, with over 5,000 species of fungi. Whereas the mycology research has numerous goals, many of these fungi are used in research to determine the effectiveness of wood preservatives.

Thanks to a pioneering woman scientist and her work for the Lab.