ARBRE Interview – Henri Cuny

Henri Cuny

Postdoctoral researcher

June 24, 2014


Henri Cuny is a post-doctoral researcher. He is currently woking with the Joint Research Unit for Forest and Wood Resource Studies (LERFOB) at INRA Nancy-Lorraine. He is participating in the WADE project (Wood Acclimation to Disturbed Environments). His research project is titled “Influence of climate on the dynamics of formation of wood”. Henri is the author of the article “Kinetics of tracheid development explain conifer tree-ring structure” published in may 2014 in the journal New Phytologist.

Henri recently presented his work and that of his team at the TRACE 2014 Conference  (Tree Rings in Archaeology, Climatology and Ecology) in Aviemore, Scotland this past May. Henri was awarded the prize for ‘Best Presentation’ (Model of tracheid development explains conifer tree-ring structure). Henri is the recipient of a postdoctoral grant from LabEx ARBRE.

Below is the interview Henri agreed to grant us recently.


Where are you from originally?

I was born in Géradmer, a small tourist town in the heart of the Vosges mountains about a hundred kilometers from Nancy (in north-eastern France).

Can you describe your education up to now, and what brought you to work with LERFob at INRA?

I am a biologist by training and 100% local, as I completed all of my education at the Henri Poincaré University in Nancy. I first worked towards a bachelor’s degree in life sciences followed by a master’s degree in Forest Ecology, Agronomy and Environmental studies (FAGE – University of Lorraine-AgroParisTech). The first year of this master’s program included a 6 week internship. I wanted to work in the forest and wood sector and it was a natural next step to work for INRA and the LERFoB research unit, who are partners with the master FAGE program. I liked the work so much that I haven’t left their lab since. In the end, I signed on for a second internship for 5 months in my second year of my master’s studies and continued for three and half years working on my thesis and finally earned my doctoral degree last year. I then received a one year grant from LabEx ARBRE to continue my post-doctoral work. I am currently in my 9th month working on my post-doctoral degree.

Tell us about your science – explain briefly what your specific focus is and why this is important?

My research mainly focuses on wood formation in trees. Specifically, I am a specialist in the dynamics of wood formation: when, how long, and how fast the processes of wood cell production and differentiation take place over the course of a season. In temperate climates, for example, wood formation which occurs from Spring through Autumn when the conditions are favorable, stops altogether in Winter and starts again the following Spring. This cyclical activity materializes in the stacking of annual growth rings. Each ring is composed of cells which are produced and developed over the course of a season relative to specific dates, durations and rates. For example, a cell positioned at the beginning of a ring was produced in Spring and took roughly one month to develop, whereas a cell positioned at the end of a ring was produced at the beginning of Autumn and took two months to develop. The dynamics are crucial to wood formation as they determine the quantity and quality of the wood product: the number and shapes of cells and the density of the wood. These dynamics are also subject to environmental factors which in effect influence the quantity and quality of the wood produced. A solid understanding of the dynamics of wood formation is therefore essential to understanding the influence of environmental factors, and ultimately the potential impacts of climate change on wood production in our forests.

When did you first become interested in the forest, wood and its formation?

I have always been interested in nature in general, but it is true that since very early on, I was particularly fascinated by the forest environment. This fascination certainly comes from the beautiful forests in the Vosges which have always been a part of my personal environment and which I explored far and wide taking countless family hikes when I was young. Added to that, my family has worked for generations in the forest and wood sectors. My father headed a sawmill and my uncle owned a construction company specialized in building chalets. Growing up in this family context also played a big part in my being drawn to forests and wood, even if I was much more interested in the biological and ecological aspects than in the industry or business aspects. What is interesting to me is understanding how trees function in relation to their environment; currently, I am approaching this issue by studying wood formation. I had initially known very little about wood formation before my internship the first year of my master’s studies 6 years ago – I remember being struck by the exceptional complexity of the process and it’s held my interest ever since.

In your opinion, what are the major scientific issues for forest and wood sciences?

Today, a crucially important issue in scientific research is in evaluating the influence of current and future climate changes on organisms, populations and ecosystems. At the level of forestry and wood sciences, understanding the influences of climate change involves particularly important issues because of the important role forests and wood play from ecological, economical and social perspectives. At the level of my own work, my major objective is to arrive to the point of precise understanding of how the climate influences wood formation in trees.

Advice for young researchers?

I myself am a young researcher, since I’ve only had my doctoral degree for a year. Patience and perseverance are in my opinion two qualities essential to becoming a researcher – I know how difficult and daunting to the point of discouraging the publishing process can be. For example, we just had an article published in the journal New Phytologist. This article represents a long-term effort; it took us over a year to gather the necessary data, analyze the data and write the article. And another full year from the point when we submitted the article to the actual publication date. Long waiting periods like that can foster doubt. I believe, however, that this doubt plays a fundamental role and should be seen as a positive – ultimately because it drives us to question ourselves and in doing that, advances our work even further.

Could you comment on the idea of collaboration in science? How has that played a role in your most recent work?

Today, collaboration between scientists is both inevitable and necessary. The more specialized we become in our respective fields, the more essential it becomes to develop partnerships to benefit from a wide range of different expertise which allow us to study systems in their entirety. Involving others outside of our own labs or structures also allows us to look at our own work with a new perspective, with a more critical eye. For example, for our article published in New Phytologist, our first submissions were refused, at which point we decided to involve two scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL). This collaboration helped us considerably to target the weak points of our work and make improvements, which ultimately led to its publication. I also collaborate regularly with a research team at the University of Quebec in Chicoutimi who I advise with my own expertise about analyzing data for wood formation dynamics.

And lastly, where do you hope your science will lead you in the future (in the short or long term)?

My current contract will end in three months, in late September. My number one choice will be to continue working on this theme, but I am staying open of course to other subjects, preferably those linked to forests and wood. Several foreign labs (notably in Switzerland), have expressed interest in my work, but the main obstacle comes down to funding. I am working now on just such requests (like for example, Marie-Curie) that will permit me to carry out my projects and continue my research.


For more information ..

Henri Cuny’s post-doctoral project description
Article Abstract – Kinetics of tracheid development explain conifer tree-ring structure – New Phytologist
Presentation abstract TRACE 2014 – Aviemore, Scotland
Poster – Juin 2010