Frank Owens

Frank Owens portrait
Photo by David Ammon

Mississippi State Associate Professor Frank Owens sees wood as a window to the world. His forest products career has taken him to 26 countries where he has connected different cultures through the beauty of wood.

A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, he earned his bachelor’s in international relations from the University of Minnesota and his master’s in East Asian Languages and Cultures from the University of California, Los Angeles. He then studied Japanese linguistics in Japan.

“I started out with the dream of becoming a diplomat,” he said.

His first foray into wood products was with a Japanese company that focused on imported high-end interior building materials.

“When I started, I knew nothing about wood. I left three years later with enough knowledge to grow in my career,” said Owens, who serves as vice president of the Forest Products Society and on the Council of the International Association of Wood Anatomists. “Wood is a unique material that fits my interest in international studies. Everyone around the world uses it, and you can source it from almost anywhere on Earth. Part of my job was going to different countries to procure wood for the Japanese market.”

This included adapting a Finnish wood material called Thermowood, typically used in saunas, into a floor covering for radiant heating systems in Japan.

Over the next decade, his career propelled him across the globe from Estonia to the United Arab Emirates, where he worked for one of the largest building materials suppliers in the Arabian Gulf region and helped them become the first company in the UAE to sell certified sustainable lumber. He also oversaw exports to China and Europe for a Mississippi-based lumber company.

His fascination with wood and thirst for knowledge led him to pursue a doctoral degree. In 2015, he came to MSU for a Ph.D. program in forest resources with a sustainable bioproducts concentration.

His acumen in international forest products now is helping advance international wood identification through artificial intelligence using the nation’s fourth largest wood collection, which he helped MSU acquire in 2020.

He’s also training tomorrow’s global leaders in the field, bringing on industry experts from Ghana and Indonesia as doctoral students.

The team is developing wood identification tools that inspectors and customs officials around the world can use to deter illegal wood trade and species fraud.

“I became interested in wood identification because, having imported wood from all over the world, I was familiar with the frustrating and all-too-common practice of species fraud in the international market,” he said.

While Owens may not have become an international diplomat, he does serve the role of ambassador of international forest products well at Mississippi State.