Meet Orlando Rojas, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Forest Bioproducts

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Orlando Rojas, an internationally renowned expert in bioproducts and biosystems, will soon be joining UBC to continue his efforts to create high-performance materials from renewable resources. Cited almost 17,000 times and awarded the 2018 Anselme Payen Award, one of the highest honours in his field, Rojas is helping accelerate society’s transition to greater sustainability and resource efficiency.

As recent reports from the United Nations make clear, if humanity wants to preserve the integrity of Earth’s ecosystems, it must take immediate action to prevent the onset of truly catastrophic climate change. Avoiding more heatwaves, greater sea level rise and other harmful consequences of global warming will “require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” said Hoesung Lee, chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

These changes include reducing our reliance on carbon-intensive energy sources, which continue to be used for fuel, electricity and all kinds of everyday materials. By improving our ability to acquire such products from renewable resources — things like non-food crops and residues from the agriculture and forestry industries, which can be rapidly replenished by natural means — we can help curb greenhouse gas emissions and limit the disastrous impacts of global warming.

Set to be appointed in three UBC departments — chemical and biological engineering, chemistry and wood science — Rojas will hold the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Forest Bioproducts and will serve as the scientific director of the BioProducts Institute at UBC. He kindly took the time to answer some questions about himself and his work.

What is your educational and professional background?

I was awarded a PhD degree in chemical engineering from Auburn University in the US, followed by appointments as senior researcher at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology and the Institute for Surface Chemistry, YKI, both in Stockholm. Earlier in my career, I completed an MS degree at UPC (Spain) and a BS in chemical engineering at the Universidad de Los Andes (Venezuela). My most recent appointments as professor were at North Carolina State University and Aalto University (Finland).

Why engineering? Did a particular person or event inspire you?

As a kid I was fascinated with chemistry-related activities. I used to “play” with chemistry sets, enjoying the changes in colours and shapes. At first I wanted to pursue the same career path as my aunt, a psychologist, but in the end I chose to study chemistry with a purpose and did my undergraduate studies in chemical engineering. I have been inspired by many people, including my aunt — there is always somebody in the family who influences you. But there have also been many mentors in my academic life who made a mark. Still, I hope to draw connections between psychology and chemical engineering. Any suggestions?

Why UBC?

I was born in the tropics (Venezuela) but I have spent a significant part of my career far away from my home country, in Sweden and Finland. So now I turn to Canada to build a personal Boreal corridor, and for this, what better place than UBC? UBC engages in some of the best science and exemplary multidisciplinary efforts related to bioproducts. So I come to UBC to collaborate with colleagues and students and to discover new methods to utilize renewable resources from the Boreal forests. This will lead to next-generation transformations and bioproducts that will help promote our sustainable development.

What are your research/teaching interests and current projects?

Nanomaterials, colloids and surfaces form the basis of my cross-disciplinary approach to understanding the fundamental principles involved in the design, manufacture and performance of biobased systems. My group strives to understand the science and engineering of processes involving biopolymers from plants and animals, and to develop advanced materials from renewable resources. The combination of expertise in my group enables us to control and design self-assembly and structural hierarchies in multicomponent hybrid materials, from the molecular and colloidal levels up. Multiphase systems are at the core of my research.

How do you hope your work will impact society/students?  

As a teacher and mentor, I hope to make a positive impact in the lives of students and researchers around me. I want to be inspired and also to inspire others. On a bigger scale, all of us together share the dream of improving the quality of our lives and the health of the planet. By learning from and nurturing relationships with each other, it becomes possible to use the resulting synergies to create new and useful concepts, materials and products.

How do you think the field of engineering will be different 100 years from now?

Engineering is becoming increasingly multidisciplinary. It is and will continue to be vital in solving major societal problems, helping not only to protect our biosphere but also to find solutions beyond our planet, in space. Engineering will be critical in making us healthier and in solving challenges relating to the sufficiency of our resources, including water and energy. It will increasingly integrate concepts from other fields, from synthetic biology to AI, not to mention social sciences, art and business. Big themes in the future will likely be immortality, weather control, fully circular societies, robotics and communication, among others. Engineers will be fully involved in all of these.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in engineering?

Be ready to work in groups and find solutions through projects that involve a combination of math, biology, physics and chemistry. Don’t be anxious about the challenges in the courses or curriculum — they are there to train you to find information, to be critical about that information and to deploy knowledge to tackle even the most difficult challenges. There is a great reward at the end. The way you learn to think and the creativity and skills that you develop will help you make a positive impact on the world around you.

What is your favourite book/movie/album/food/sport/leisure activity?

I used to play water polo. Now I have trouble to keeping afloat, but one of these days I will start swimming again.

What are you passionate about outside work?  

I enjoy very much walking with my wife in the forest, breathing its air and admiring creation.


For more information on Professor Rojas and the BioProducts Institute, please visit:

Breaking new ground in forest bioproducts 

Renewable fuel from forest-based biomass