Unlocking the scientific secrets of wood

A wood collection doesn’t sound very exciting. In fact, student and faculty at Pennsylvania State University ignored a rare collection of wood for more than forty years. But now one professor is dedicating his time to organizing it and unlocking its scientific secrets.


A wood collection doesn't sound very exciting.

In fact, students and faculty at Pennsylvania State University ignored a rare collection of wood for more than 40 years.

But now one professor is dedicating his time to organizing it and unlocking its scientific secrets.

Here's the story.

Dr. Charles Ray has spent the last 3 years updating a spreadsheet.

1,500 entries and counting, each line contains names, dates, and locations.

It's tedious work -- part data entry, part mystery.

A mystery that may have been lost to time, had Ray, a Penn State professor, now writing a blog post about collecting wood.

I got a knock on my office door, and opened the door and it was Dr. Bob Baldwin.

And he said, 'Well, if you like that kind of stuff, I want to show you something.

And he pulls out a set of keys, opens it up, and there is this wood collection stuck in this big walk-in closet.

And I said, 'What is this?'

And he said, 'Well, it's the university wood collection.'

Drawer after drawer stuffed with palm-sized wood samples and some important paperwork that gave Ray, a die-hard Sherlock Holmes fan, his first clue.

Documents trace the collection back to 48 original samples donated in 1909.

More than 100 years later, Ray found more than 5,000 specimens in that closet, the sum of some 30 different collections.

The only real attempt to organize it started in the late 1950s by a Penn State professor named Newell Norton.

And he had been doing that for more than 10 years, as far as I can figure, and he, unfortunately, passed away.

And he was... See right there in the middle?

He was kind of right in the middle of those boxes there when he passed away.

So that was a big problem, is that about half of it then is documented and organized, and the other half is still sort of a mystery that I have yet to solve.

A recent donation added about 6,000 samples, making this one of the largest university collections in the country.

If you take a close look, you'll find some interesting stuff, like a hunk of wood taken from an Egyptian tomb, a slice of something called 'Welwitschia'... It's so rare, Ray thinks it's one of three or four samples available to collectors.

... and a stump found near Ontario that's carbon-dated at 8,700 years.

It's interesting because it was down in the bog and deprived of air and everything else.

It's not petrified.

It's still a piece of wood, woody wood.

In another 3 years, Ray hope to have about 8,000 or 9,000 samples identified and labeled in a searchable database.

Good thing, because after 44 years on the shelf, this collection is more popular than ever.

There are several people around the world that are waiting for me to finish this process so that I can share our list with them so they can see what we've got.

80 years ago -- In fact, 100 years ago when this collection was started, it was really just more about collecting them and having them and not exactly knowing what you're gonna do with it.

With advancements in imaging, computing power and biological testing, samples like these could mean new breakthroughs in genetics and molecular composition.

And if the past is any indicator, that could mean new breakthroughs in medicine.

The Pacific Yew was a poisonous tree, until medical researchers found out that the poison, the Taxine that was in the plant itself, would actually kill cancer cells in breast cancer for women.

Well, the interesting thing about that is if you think about it and say, 'Well, if they can do that for one disease...' Then you think about all these traditional medicines.

It seems like we could synthesize those same chemical compounds to treat a myriad of other kinds of things like that.

It may have started 300 years ago with the first scientist that looked through a microscope and identified the cell organism.

And so in the short-term run, that 300 years looks like, 'Okay, that whole field has been conquered.'

But in reality, what we're seeing now is that it is just beginning to open up and who knows what's gonna come come out of it.

But first things first -- He needs to finish that spreadsheet.