Increasing enrollment and a continuing emphasis on a “hands-on, minds-on” approach to education have driven the hiring of three new faculty members in Virginia Tech’s Department of Sustainable Biomaterials.

With roughly 190 students and more than 20 faculty members, the department, housed in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, offers one of the largest programs of its kind in the United States.

Much of the growth in recent years has been within packaging systems and design. “Packaging is the third-largest industry in the world, and it is the largest use of wood fiber in the world,” said Robert (Bob) Smith, department head. “There are so many great opportunities within the field, and, as a result, we’ve drawn a lot of interest from students with many backgrounds and interests.”

The department provides students with multiple avenues for gaining hands-on experience, such as internships with industry partners and opportunities at the Wood Enterprise Institute, a two-semester program in which students design, manufacture, market, and distribute a real product.

“We firmly believe that you learn by doing,” Smith said. “We have a long history of students participating in undergraduate and graduate research, studying abroad, and completing internships and summer positions with companies that lead to jobs after graduation. Because of that, we’re constantly changing our program based on feedback from both students and industry representatives to make our students more competitive candidates.”

The department’s dedication to providing pathways for students to pursue their interests in sustainability and secure jobs has also created unique opportunities for the three new faculty members.

Assistant Professor Li Shuai is a biomass chemist who specializes in the conversion of lignocellulosic materials, such as wood and agricultural residue, into fuels and chemicals that could replace petroleum-derived products. Shuai is currently developing a new undergraduate course called Biomass and Biorefineries, and a graduate course called Lignin and Its Applications. In both courses, students will learn how everyday products can be produced from renewable biomass and will try designing their own biobased fuels, chemicals, and other materials.

“I’m excited to work at Virginia Tech,” Shuai said. “Even though the university has a lot of faculty working on polymer materials already, no one on campus works in my field. I think it’s a great opportunity to bring my new research program to the university and collaborate with colleagues within and outside the department.”

Wonjung Jung, a part-time instructor who also teaches art courses in Virginia Tech’s School of Visual Arts and at New River Community College, will teach courses in packaging design and advanced packaging design.

“When I was asked to teach Design Fundamentals for Packaging I and II, I felt confident because I have had plenty of experience teaching those who have no prior knowledge of design,” Jung said. “I’m looking forward to helping the students and sharing my knowledge and design experience with them.”

Instructor Eduardo Molina will teach courses in packaging, along with designing and building a new supply-chain management course. Molina, who completed a master’s in packaging science at Virginia Tech in 2017, began his career as an industrial engineer with the Kimberly-Clark Corp. in Costa Rica, where he planned products and coordinated their movement from one country to another.

“Working in that capacity made me realize how important sustainability is from a packaging standpoint,” Molina said. “I’m excited to help develop a program that can focus on designing nice packages that are also sustainable and efficient to produce and ship. A lot of students go into distribution, so this new course will help them develop valuable management tools, like planning inventory and forecasting materials.”

Smith hopes that the addition of new faculty members will help the department continue serving students in new and innovative ways that will set them up for success in the future.

“This generation of students is very sensitive to environmental issues and wants to make a difference in these areas,” he said. “This is a great profession for students to do that in a setting with just as much demand for jobs as engineering or business.”

The department’s efforts to serve its students have not gone unnoticed. In February, the department was awarded the 2017 University Exemplary Department or Program Award by Virginia Tech’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. The award recognizes efforts and achievement in maintaining exemplary teaching and learning environments for students and faculty.

“The award is a great honor,” Smith said. “We’re in a discipline where students have to get their hands dirty to do what we do. Our faculty and staff work extremely hard to make sure the students have experiential learning opportunities.”