Q&A with Dr. Mark Rudnicki

Dr. Mark Rudnicki

Dr. Mark Rudnicki is currently a Professor of Practice of Forest Biomaterials in the College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science at Michigan Technological University, where he conducts and coordinates research and teaching in sustainable bioproducts and, more holistically, the circular bioeconomy. Mark is an advisory board member for the 2021 World Bioeconomy Forum and a founding member of the Houghton-based FinnZone, a commercial launchpad for Finnish tech companies entering the United States. His diverse research interests include tree biomechanics, forest meteorology, circular bioeconomy, biomaterials, and mass timber. Dr. Rudnicki was also the Executive Director (2015-2019) of the Michigan Forest Biomaterials Institute since its establishment as a non-profit NGO dedicated to the facilitation of the forest bioeconomy in the State of Michigan.

Before Mark came to Michigan Tech in 2015, he held a tenured faculty position at the University of Connecticut where he taught forestry classes and led research in wind and trees and the establishment of the Stormwise program to reduce tree-related storm damage to power lines.

What inspired you to start HotForest?

HotForest was inspired by a new major in the College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science (CFRES): Sustainable Bioproducts– B.S. I wanted, as part of this new degree, for students to engage in experiential learning. Students who enroll in this major are required to be a part of Enterprise. In addition to our new degree program, we’re seeing a resurgence of interest in and for renewable, recycled, and repurposed materials—and the big picture of the circular and bioeconomies.  Students are not limited to HotForest, but do need to be a part of any Enterprise team for at least two years.

Describe how HotForest will attract students from different disciplines.

When we start looking at all the aspects of the circular economy, you realize pretty quickly how multiple perspectives and disciplines are required to understand its full potential, including business, forestry, environmental science, engineering, and computer science for example. Reusable products need to be well designed, both functionally and aesthetically. Therefore, the art/design community is also a key stakeholder in addition to STEM fields. It will be important to involve students from across campus to be a part of HotForest for its optimal success. 

In an effort to build relationships and interdisciplinary studies, I have reached out to the College of Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan. Both CFRES and the College of Creative Studies want to work together either through this new Enterprise team, or another potential collaboration. The College of Creative Studies is interested in pairing their industrial design prowess with Michigan Tech engineering and bioproducts students, and vice versa.  We’re both fairly specialized schools, so our students could bring complementary skills to each other’s work.

What type of projects would interest HotForest?

This semester, HotForest was fortunate enough to get our first sponsorship from one of the Tech Forward Initiatives: Advanced Materials and Manufacturing. The AM&M initiative is looking to establish Michigan Tech as a global leader in research and education associated with advanced materials and manufacturing and the circular economy fits very well within their scope. The new HotForest team is essentially in an establishment phase during its first semester of existence this fall, which includes scoping and deciding on project priorities. The next step, and one the team is very hungry for, is to put the plan into action and take on real world problems. For instance they are considering the problem of waste wood from the manufacturing of office furniture, which generates over 100 tons per day in Grand Rapids and desperately needs an added value solution. The team is also looking to enter an international competition in just a couple weeks, the Wege Prize 2021, that is focusing on circular economy solutions from transdisciplinary student teams from around the world.

What are the goals for HotForest during this first year? What do you hope to accomplish?

The students really want to educate themselves on what a circular economy really entails. Looking for the silver lining to COVID-19 crisis, I believe there are some good opportunities for students to attend world class conferences and meetings that otherwise would have been out of reach for them financially. HotForest will be able to engage online and interact with global experts in a cost effective way. And that’s what the team is doing now, researching which meetings they might attend and planning how they’re going to go about educating themselves about this circular economy, with the intent that next semester we can hit the ground running with projects and probably a competition. With strong student interest in what HotForest is doing, we expect the team to grow. Our current members are looking forward to the challenge of growing and juggling multiple projects and, in the end, more progress toward the circular economy.

Are there any teams HotForest would like to work with?

I think there are probably several others that might also have a sustainability orientation, like Consumer Products Manufacturing for example, but also some that might not be an intuitive match, like Advanced Metalworks. There are lots of possibilities. Once HotForest gains its footing, I believe the team will be able to dig deeper into other teams’ individual projects and see if there are connections to what we hope to do. 

What inspired the name HotForest?

In full disclosure, I put a bunch of keywords into an online name and logo generator and after sifting through many hundreds and several websites that do this, I hit on HotForest with a logo that inspired what you see now.  Not terribly inspiring origin story, but the name did resonate with me as I wanted something off the wall—something that would make people wonder how it makes any sense and dig a little deeper.  The current team secretary (and safety officer) Katelyn Hacker tells me this is the same approach used by Post Malone of the Wu Tang Clan, so it seems a good way to go.

What would be your advice to a student interested in joining Enterprise, and more specifically HotForest?

As a student, if you’re interested in Enterprise, you should do it! Hands on learning is what Enterprise is all about—and Enterprise is a signature program at Michigan Tech. Before coming to Michigan Tech, I had never seen a program like this. Students are able to work over multiple years on student-led, and importantly, student-driven projects. That’s why I really wanted Enterprise to be a part of this new major, and ultimately create and advise the new HotForest team. Being a part of this Enterprise allows students to drill down into what we can do right now to start making positive changes in the world. We’re seeing companies who realize that we can’t just proceed with business as usual. I think it behooves students to be prepared for that future. This is what HotForest is really about! 

What’s something fun, impressive, or unique about yourself that might surprise people?

Before I went to grad school, I took some time off and worked as a carpenter for about 3 years. I wandered a lot and worked in Alaska, including in the towns of Wassila (where Sarah Palin was my mayor), and a month in Kotzebue inside the arctic circle, which was very eye-opening to say the least. 


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