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One of Us: The Person Behind the Professional

Dr. Bob Smith
Dr. Bob Smith
Dr. Robert (Bob) Smith

Dr. Bob Smith is currently the Associate Dean for Engagement for the College of Natural Resources and Environment and a Professor in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials. He also served as the Department Head for the SBIO department from 2012 to 2019. Bob led the department with a calm spirit and greatly influenced the faculty and staff by always being willing to listen and support them. Bob had an open-door policy and everyone in the department knew they could count on him.

We want to say thank you to him for his past leadership. Check at the bottom of this article for several quotes from our faculty.

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Dr. Bob Smith grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan near the shores of Lake Superior. He graduated from Michigan Tech in 1977 with a B.S. in Wood and Fiber Science. He worked for 14 years for the major U.S. forest products firms including St. Regis Paper Company, Champion Paper Company and Wheeler Consolidated. He worked in quality control and production management for eight years then moved into the sales of wood products throughout the Midwest (primarily Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois) for six years. During his time with Champion Paper Co., he earned an MBA from the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. After completing  the MBA in 1989, he moved to Virginia Tech in 1991 to work on his PhD in Forest Products Marketing and Management. 

Bob’s father, Ben, was an avid outdoorsman and Bob was raised hunting and fishing in the forests of Michigan. Ben was involved in the lumber business all of his life, and Bob spent a lot of time with him during the summers when he was growing up traveling to different lumber mills. And, while Bob went to Michigan Tech, his summer jobs were working at the mill his father managed. He started his college career in forestry, but he transferred into wood science in his junior year as he had heard there were more job opportunities in wood science and the beginning salaries were supposed to be higher.  

After finishing his PhD in 1994 through the USDA National Needs Fellowship Grant that he was awarded, Bob decided to stay in academia rather than return to the private industry. He got a tenure position here at VT immediately upon graduating as an extension specialist. Bob’s favorite part about being a professor is the actual teaching: “I sincerely enjoy the intellectual challenge of putting together and delivering classes, and conducting research. I like working with graduate students from the start of their careers to successful completion. I remain very good friends with a number of my past students. I believe that business management and marketing are core capabilities that all of our students need to have before graduating. When they are successful in their careers, they will end up in some form of management and the more they know how to apply good management principles and deal with people, the more successful they will be.” 

Bob particularly enjoys teaching his graduate class SBIO 5614, Sustainable Biomaterials Marketing and Management Strategies.  He finds that graduate students are very interested and active in their courses, and when taking 5614, most students are close to the end of their studies and seriously want to understand the subject matter. He’s found great pleasure working with the students in this class.

When we asked Bob what aspects of his job, as department head, he enjoyed the most, he said that one of the most rewarding parts of his job was getting to work with the younger faculty as they started their careers; supporting them when they needed his assistance as the leader of their department. He also feels that “the graduation ceremony is a very special time for the families and students. Being part of the ceremony by reading the names of the graduates was always very special to me. The day to day interactions with all the faculty/staff and getting to understand their research areas better and helping them with their opportunities was always rewarding.”

Bob recently finished a book titled “International Marketing Guide for Small to Medium Sized Forest Products Firms” with colleagues from the University of Minnesota.  It is the third book addressing business and marketing practices for small to medium sized forest products companies. In order to write it, they conducted market research on the needs of urban wood manufacturers and recycled wood firms. Bob also conducted extensive international marketing research looking at new markets for US hardwood lumber in Asia, South America and Europe. And, the co-authors conducted interviews with architects and engineers on the opportunities and barriers of Cross Laminated Timber for tall wood construction.  

Recently, Bob has found his most interesting work to be the market research into urban and recycled wood. He believes this could “close the loop for wood ending in landfills and help move our efforts towards the circular economy. It will also reduce the demand on virgin wood if we can find more uses for wood that comes from our urban areas or being deconstructed.” He thinks this area of research is a great opportunity for the SBIO department.

Bob enjoys the small town feel about working in our college.  Because he came from the upper Midwest, he has come to really appreciate the long fall and spring seasons in this region.  Not to mention less snow to shovel! He has lived, with his family, in Christiansburg since coming to Virginia in 1991. “I have has been married for(ever) 43 years to my wife Barbara.  We have two grown children. Kate and her husband, Jason, live in Christiansburg. She works at Virginia Tech as an administrative assistant. Logan is an IT manager for Salesforce.com in the DC area. He and his wife, Jessica, just gave us our first grandson, named Caspian Robert, this past February.”

When asked what his profession would be if he were not a professor at Virginia Tech, Bob said, “I most likely would still be in the forest products industry in some type of management role for a company.  I enjoyed both the management and marketing side of the industry, so most likely I would have followed along that career path.”

On the topic of his gradual road to retirement next year, which started with stepping down from the department head position, he told us that “It was a real honor to serve as head of SBIO for 7 years. The department had a number of significant achievements during my tenure as head. We finalized the two degree-programs in Packaging and SBIO.  We hired 4 new faculty and 2 new staff positions to help the department. Our undergraduate enrollment more than doubled during this period to over 190 students. The Packaging program moved to the number 4 program in the nation.  The department led an effort to have a meeting in 2018 held in Blacksburg with all the wood science departments in the nation looking at the future of our discipline and this meeting was repeated with European programs and held in Slovenia in 2019. In 2017 we were recognized as an Exemplary Department for student engagement on campus.”

Bob has been at Virginia Tech for 29 years now. He loves the rural setting in the mountains. In fact, that was one of the first things that attracted him to this area when he came down for his graduate school interview. Although the VT campus is fairly large with 30,000+ students, Bob feels that our college, in particular, has a great working atmosphere. He believes that “everyone works well together and puts the goals of the program as their priority.” Bob has held a number of roles at Virginia Tech and feels he has been fortunate to have seen how well we try to move the mission of the college and University forward. Bob believes that we, as a department, have great students, faculty, staff, and researchers! 

A selection of his more-recent awards include the following:

  • Fulbright Fellow in 2007 to Austria. 
  • Appointed by the US Secretary of Agriculture to serve on the US Forest Service Forest Research Advisory Council (FRAC) for two, consecutive 3-year terms between 2012 and 2018. 
  • Served as President of the Society of Wood Science and Forest Products in 2018.
  • Zink Sharp, Audrey and Robert Smith.  2017. Increasing Awareness and Opportunities for Women and Minority Students in Sustainable Biomaterials Education. USDA – NIFA. $100,000.
  • Espinoza, Omar and Robert Smith. 2016. Development of International Marketing of Forest Products book. USDA Forest Service, Morgantown WV.  $48, 500.
  • Espinoza, Omar and Robert Smith. 2016. Expanding Export Markets for Forest Products from Minnesota. USDA FMSIP Program.  $85,000
  • Quesada, Henry and Robert Smith. 2014. Increasing Exports of U.S. Wooden Modular Homes to Developing Countries” VA Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. $72,000.
  • Quesada, Henry and Robert Smith. 2012. Analysis of Factors Impacting the International Value Chain of Hardwood Products: A Comparison between Asia and Western Europe. 2012-2014. VA Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. $75,150.
  • Janaki Alavalapati, Robert Smith, and Henry Quesada. 2012. S-India Consortium for Development of Sustainable Advanced Lignocellulosic Biofuel Systems: Task 3: Sustainability and Marketing Section. Department of Energy. $542,670.

Quotes from Colleagues:

I have had the pleasure of working with Dr. Robert Smith since he arrived at Virginia Tech in the early 1990s.  During this time, he has consistently proven to be one of the best people I know.  I respect Bob and am pleased to count him among my friends. – Dr. Bob Bush, Professor, Sustainable Biomaterials Department

When I think of Bob’s service to the department as chair, words that come to mind are trust, integrity, support, reinforcement. Bob helped bring together a diverse department and gave us room to move forward, with his strong support, to enhance successful aspects of the department and create new areas of leadership for SBIO that we will build on for growing success. – Dr. Kevin Edgar, Professor, Sustainable Biomaterials Department

The first time I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Smith was when I came to Virginia Tech for my job interview.  It was exciting but intimidating at the same time meeting him because of his well-established reputation, and I was not sure I had all the answers for him.  During our first encounter, I would ask questions and he would answer them.  After we went through several rounds of my questions, finally I told him that I had no more questions but was scared to take on this new challenge of being a department head.  He comforted me and told me that this is not an 8 to 5 job but 90% of this job would be fun if I can face challenges with a positive personality and a sense of humor.  Since my employment with Virginia Tech, I have had opportunities to seek Dr. Smith’s advice.  As his successor, I am grateful for all the knowledge and wisdom that he has imparted on me.  I believe that he is a true servant leader who always watches out for SBIO’s interests and wants to promote this department.  I am looking forward to continuing to work with him and learn from him. – Dr. Ching-Hsun Huang, Department Head, Sustainable Biomaterials Department

Bob has worked very hard to serve the needs of the forest products industry by connecting students and faculty to industry professionals.  Some of my most rewarding experiences at Virginia Tech have developed through professional relationships that began with Bob’s many connections. – Dr. Earl Kline, Professor, Sustainable Biomaterials Department

“One of the most important contributions of Bob to the Department and to our field has been his willingness to support junior faculty. From paper and grant writing collaborations to connecting new faculty with on and off campus stakeholders, Bob has always shown a genuine interest in helping and sharing his experiences so others could succeed. In addition, Bob’s passion for the field of forest products has made him a key contact point. Through the years and on his different roles; he has provided leadership, knowledge, and dedication to increase the utilization of renewable materials in our society. Bob is a great asset for the Department and I am very thankful and honored to also call him a great friend.” – Dr. Henry Quesada, Professor, Sustainable Biomaterials Department

“I first met Bob when I arrived late one night and he picked me up at the Roanoke Airport for my job interview at VT! He graciously chatted me up to get to know me better. He kept conversation going so that I would not doze off after my 48-hour trip! I learned even then that Bob has a big heart and loves to tell a good story. I always appreciated the meetings he held at his “other office” (off campus) and his ever-present good humor.

We did lots of travel during our time here – some of my more memorable journeys were ones that we took together. He and I think alike – always looking to see a new place or have a new experience. Together we have climbed mountains and explored the fern forest of Bolivia. Bob and I have been swimming together on both sides of the Atlantic! Once we were in the surf in Liberia off a beach where there was no one for miles! No hope of rescue! And, it was snorkeling in Belize, I think, we saw sharks. Maybe that is why Bob got out of the water a bit earlier than the rest of the group - he never told us!  One time our jeep got bogged down in the middle of the night in the jungle in Belize. We then walked for miles in foot deep mud! We both have seen this as a small world. Why did we do all this – we both love to explore!

While I haven’t played golf for many years, after he retires, I may have to pick it up so that Bob and I can have a chat once and a while. I am very thankful that I have had these opportunities to serve others together with Bob!”  – Dr. Tom Hammett, Professor, Sustainable Biomaterials Department

Bob genuinely cares about the wellbeing of his colleagues. When he was the department head, he was always available to help when I needed to ask for advice or when I needed to vent about something. He always had constructive ideas and if he did not know something he always helped me find somebody who knew the information. 

Bob was also vital help for me to rebuild a relationship with NWPCA. Although, he was really busy, he attended key NPWCA meetings with me, advised me when I needed it, and he was even willing to drive all the way to DC on multiple occasions just to be able to support me during key discussions. – Dr. Laszlo Horvath, Associate Professor, Sustainable Biomaterials Department

Dr. Smith is a natural educator, scientist, and business man. Because of his leadership, the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials has been smoothly revamped from the past. Thank you Bob!! – Dr. Young Kim, Associate Professor, Sustainable Biomaterials Department

Bob Smith touring wood facility
Bob Smith touring wood facility
Bob Smith with wife Barbara and grandson Caspian
Bob Smith with wife Barbara and grandson Caspian
Bob and Barbara Smith in Europe
Bob and Barbara Smith in Europe