UP master’s graduate wins big in global wood science competition

Posted on May 20, 2019

Martin Wierzbicki, a recent MSc graduate from the University of Pretoria (UP), is one of three global winners of the 2018-2019 Blue Sky Young Researchers and Innovation Award. The International Council of Forest and Paper Associations (ICFPA) recently named Martin one of three winners, along with Elina Pääkkönen (Finland) and Chinmay Satam (USA). The trio was lauded for their novel wood-based research projects.

“I hope my story inspires other young South African researchers to apply for awards like this, as there is so much great research being done in this country that should be highlighted to the world,” said an elated Martin when asked what this award meant to him.

David Gandossi, CEO of Mercer, presents a Blue Sky Award to Martin Wierzbicki.

“I'm extremely happy and humbled to be honoured with such a prestigious award. It feels so surreal, as it went from applying out of curiosity to representing South African research on an international level. I applied for the award and hoped for the best, but didn't expect much to come of it. To my amazement, the application went further and further. I worked hard on my project, and I was proud of the work I did. It’s amazing to see other people appreciate the work as well, especially when they are experts in the field. It is always scary to put an idea of yours into the world, but I'm really happy that it ended up positively in such a fantastic achievement.”

His award was based on his research on genome-based biotechnology for designer wood. His work focused on how the genetic makeup of trees can be changed to improve how wood reacts to industrial processing in order to maximise the extraction of biopolymers such as cellulose, lignin and xylan (a complex sugar found in plant cells). Separating wood components into distinct processing streams as cleanly as possible allows each component to be used to make high-value products, but is hampered by the strong associations between wood biopolymers that make industrial breakdown difficult and costly. 

“I have combined genetics, genomics, big data and wood chemistry analyses to build a gene network model,” he explained. “My model treats the tree as a ‘living biorefinery’, where we have control of how the wood is made.”

Martin completed a master’s degree in Genetics (cum laude) in 2018 under supervision of Prof Zander Myburg and Prof Eshchar Mizrachi from the University’s Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI), in collaboration with Prof Shawn Mansfield of the Department of Wood Science at Canada’s University of British Columbia. During his undergraduate studies at UP, Martin was selected to be a mentorship student in the Forest Molecular Genetics (FMG) Programme in FABI, and he later went on to also be a mentor for undergraduate students.

Martin hopes that his work will help companies to improve breeding techniques to reduce the loss of valuable components during wood processing, and introduce novel properties for advanced biomaterial production in trees.

The international Blue Sky Young Researchers and Innovation Award – now in its second edition – aims to attract submissions from aspiring young scientists and engineers who are developing novel solutions using wood fibre, process improvements or other products along the forestry-pulp-paper value chain.

The research projects were judged against the theme of disruptive technologies that can revolutionise the future of forest-based products and services. The 2018/2019 contest invited submissions in two particular areas: future generation forestry and innovation in the wood-based industry. These issues are particularly topical as the world seeks greener, sustainable and renewable alternatives to packaging, fuel and materials.

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