Co-funded by:
Mentored by:

I try to make sure sustainable building strategies include improving occupant health and social good

Michael (Mike) Burnard; Main areas of research/activities: Sustainable building with wood, human health in the built environment, data science

  • Where were you living in childhood and where do you live now?

I lived in Oregon, USA. Mostly around the Portland area. I lived in Central Oregon when I was in middle school (grades 6, 7, 8). I also lived in Corvallis, Oregon, when I was studying at Oregon State University. I had a brief stint in upstate New York in 1998 when I spent a couple months in Ithaca, New York.

  • What have you studied and what were the motives for your decision?

This is a bit of a complicated and long story.

1998 – 2002

When I enrolled at Oregon State University, I was a double major in computer science and physics (my interest was in becoming an astrophysicist, like my uncle). I soon found that computer science wasn’t really for me, and picked up math as my other major, so I was a double major in math and physics. I then found some interest in the social sciences after taking an intro to sociology course as part of my baccalaureate core courses… I dropped physics and was a double major in mathematics and sociology for a while. A year or so later, I dropped out of undergraduate and went to work. I only needed one course to finish my degree in sociology… Not the best choice I ever made, but my path may have been very different if I did finish that degree and I’m quite happy with where I ended up.

2005 – 2007

While working, my employer asked that I finish my degree and requested I get a degree in management or business. Two years later, I finished my bachelor’s degree in management at Linfield College where I specialised in strategic and operations management. Business law wasn’t a specialisation option, but I would have chosen it if it were. Linfield had a programme for working adults with a mix of evening and weekend lectures complimented with online learning, which made it very convenient for me.

A few years later, the company I worked for – a lumber company originally founded as a sawmill by my grandfather and at the time run by my father and his business partners – closed, unable to weather the economic downturn. I happened to get the news while sitting with some colleagues from Oregon State University. They suggested I consider returning to do a master’s degree in wood science.

2010 – 2012

I returned to Corvallis (home to OSU) to work on my master’s degree. My work was related to checking (the cracks that form in wood) in decorative panels with maple veneered tops. This probably wouldn’t have been my first choice, but the project suited me and there was funding available for it. I also got to work under some great advisors. For my masters thesis, I developed a method to count and characterise checks using an automated imaging and processing system that could assess 32 samples (each 300 mm x 300 mm) in a single test session. The check assessment method used digital image correlation to detect, count, and to estimate length, average width, area. The method was applied to 8 replicates of 96 combinations of manufacturing variables to determine the contribution of each factor to check development. This is also when I became interested in statistics and data science. If I would have known more about it going into undergraduate or graduate school, I might be a statistician now.

2013 – 2018

After completing my Master’s, I moved to Slovenia to work on my PhD at University of Primorska in sunny Koper, Slovenia. My topic was Wood and Human Stress in the Built Environment – we examined how wood elements in buildings (especially offices) can improve stress responses and recovery from stressors. I was inspired to work on this topic by my now-friend Dave Fell, who was quite nearly my PhD advisor… until Andreja recruited me to Slovenia, which seemed like the more interesting adventure. I worked on a range of other topics during this period, but the primary activity for most of my time as a PhD student was the development of InnoRenew.

  • How would you describe your work to someone outside your field?

I try to make sure sustainable building strategies include improving occupant health and social good.

  • What does your typical working day look like?

I work on a variety of activities, but I would say about 50 % of my day is dealing with institutional operations and development, 20 % of my day is prepping for classes, teaching, and grading, and 30 % of my day is scientific work. The scientific work is primarily supporting other researchers at this point, including my PhD students and other researchers at InnoRenew and University of Primorska.

  • What makes you excited about your work?

I enjoy coming to work to learn what my colleagues are up to and seeing the ways InnoRenew is contributing to improving wood technologies and sustainable building, and seeing how students are growing their skills and knowledge at University of Primorska. In my own work, I most enjoy finding better ways to do the science that supports better sustainable buildings. I also get rather excited about new datasets and the challenges they present.

  • And what is the biggest challenge at your work?

Keeping up with the latest developments in the work at InnoRenew. Our team contributes so much and is doing so many interesting things that it has become difficult to keep a good overview of it all.

  • Which scientist or scientific achievement are you fascinated by and why?

I tend to appreciate scientists that have an impact outside of their domain of research and make contributions either to the scientific process broadly or society. Some examples:

  • Hans Joachim Schellnhuber – for taking his expertise and knowledge of physics and climate and seeing solution for sustainable building in forests and wood-based construction.
  • Edward Tufte – for maintaining a passion for communicating science well and championing clear presentation of data.
  • Hadley Wickham – for leading the transformation of the R programming environment through a dedication to a structured approach to data analysis and semantic language.


  • Tell us about the work of art (books, music, movies, theatre, dance, visual arts) that has a special place in your life.


  • Contemporary artists: Radiohead has been inspirational to me since I first discovered them back in 1994. They always push themselves to create their music in new ways, to express themselves in ever changing styles. I also enjoy Kygo for the warm, bright, and uplifting style that relies heavily on collaboration with other artists. I would be remiss to leave out my adoration of Lady Gaga.
  • Broadly – Aside from contemporary music my tastes vary. At the moment I rather enjoy classic symphonic music and opera. If I had to pick favourites artists from these genres they would be Brahms and Puccini.


  • I’m a very big Tolkien fan – not just of his books, but his approach to creating a world in such depth and his willingness to write in a domain many of his peers and critics of the considered sophomoric and unserious.
  • Beyond Tolkien, my favourite books are those that expose me to new perspectives on life. To name two: I Served the King of England, by Bohumil Hrabal, and My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk.

I’m a big fan of theatre, too, especially musical theatre (just not Andrew Lloyd Webber, please.) As for visual arts, in the classical domain I can point to Toulouse-Lautrec, Rembrandt, Hayez… I also admire Alvar Aalto, a Finnish architect and designer who used wood in creative and functional ways.

  • What have you read, listened to, or watched lately?

I’ve been rewatching Brooklyn 99. It’s funny and comforting and I love it. I also really enjoy the Freakonomics podcast.

  • Which place on the Slovene coast do you like the most?

A café or bar with a sea view. I’m not picky.

  • What makes you enthusiastic?

I tend to listen to upbeat music to get myself going for work. New experiments and new data sets also drive my interest.

  • Characterize your life’s guidance or an important realization (or epiphany) you have experienced.

I learned a lot from my mother and father. My mother made sure I always remained mindful of and participated in cultural events. Around the time I was transitioning into a serious career, my father told me something along the lines of, “When you get older, you will lose your ability to compete physically, but you can still satisfy your need for competition by trying to be a better leader and businessman.” I took that to heart, and it drives me to be a better scientist, teacher, mentor, and leader.

  • What does the charm of wood mean to you?

I think the charm of wood is derived from the human fascination for life, life-like processes, and complexity. The patterns in the grain derived from anatomical developments as a tree grows, the presence of “defects” likes knots, the scent, the feel of wood, all remind us (not just me, I think) of the process of growth, the strength of trees, and the diversity of forests… The elements of wood are also just complex enough to be noticed and take our attention in a healthy way.