Audrey Zink-Sharp, professor of wood science and associate head of the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials, initially set her sights on forestry but soon discovered an even greater interest in how products from trees are created and used.

Recently, the Society of Wood Science and Technology (SWST) recognized her commitment to the field of wood science, naming her among 16 international Women Ambassadors Creating the Future of Wood Science.

An exhibition highlighting Zink-Sharp’s research encompassing wood anatomy and the impacts of ecological disturbance on wood properties and quality will be unveiled this summer during the society’s 2022 International Convention in Australia and then travel around the world. The exhibition is designed to encourage women and young girls to pursue careers in wood science and technology.

Zink-Sharp’s message to this targeted group is to “persevere, persist, and resist when you face obstacles.” She went on to say, “Wood and forest products — and those who study them — offer tremendous opportunities. By recognizing that bias and negative assumptions will be encountered, you have taken the first step in preventing yourself and others from succumbing to that negativity. Be creative and pioneer the positive changes needed in our world.”

Throughout her career, Zink-Sharp forged a few “firsts” of her own. She joined Virginia Tech in 1992 and was the first woman to be hired into a tenure-track position, achieve the rank of professor, and serve as department head in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

“Dr. Zink-Sharp is one of the best instructors in our department. She has a unique way of sharing her expertise with students, using hands-on demonstrations and laboratory exercises that help them tie theory into practice. She is also able to convey her passion for wood anatomy in a way that allows students to not only learn the subject matter, but to also recognize the importance of cell structure in the beauty they see in a finished piece of furniture or flooring," said Sustainable Biomaterials Department Head Ching-Hsun Huang. "Dr. Zink-Sharp is most deserving of the recognition she is receiving from SWST as a woman ambassador for the discipline."

In 2004, Zink-Sharp was elected the first woman president of the Society of Wood Science and Technology, having been a member of the organization since she was an undergraduate.

“SWST is a strong and effective advocate for the use of wood and forest products as the building blocks for sustainable materials, and I believe this approach is very important for our natural environment’s stability,” Zink-Sharp said. “Being recognized as an ambassador for this society and with this group of internationally recognized women is an honor for me as we work toward creating better ways to design and build innovative and sustainable products for our future.”

In addition to teaching undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education classes in sustainable biomaterial cell structure, properties, and processing throughout her career, Zink-Sharp has also embraced outreach opportunities that introduce children to wood science and developed curriculum units for both the SWST and 4-H.

About 25 years ago, she adapted a popular Wood Magic program initiated by Mississippi State University and created a three-hour program at Virginia Tech for local fourth- and fifth-graders.

“The Wood Magic program ran for 11 years and was focused on the amazing uses of wood, its properties, characteristics, how we use it every day, and how much we use,” Zink-Sharp said. “We also included discussions about reforestation and harvesting.” 

From this effort she developed a traveling program offered to schools throughout Virginia.

In 2019, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Zink-Sharp and fellow faculty member Bob Smith created InsideTREES, a summer camp on the Blacksburg campus for women and underrepresented high school students.

Plans for subsequent summer sessions were stalled by COVID-19, but Zink-Sharp is in the process of publishing modules from InsideTREES, as well as a paper on best practices that other universities can follow to set up similar camps on their campuses, one of the goals of the project.

“As a colleague and as former head of the department, I congratulate Audrey on this recognition,” said Dean Paul M. Winistorfer. “She has been an exceptional ambassador for the field of wood science and is known and recognized for her many contributions to the profession.

“Her unique interest and ability to translate the cell structure and anatomy of wood into an exciting, interesting, and useful knowledge base for our students and industry partners is truly exceptional. She is a talented instructor, has made important research discoveries and contributions, and is ready to serve for the good of our students, the department, the college, the university, and the profession. She is an obvious choice for this recognition.”

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