Become a soil scientist and tell the world how awesome soil is

Photo credit: Oliver Pritchard

My journey into the underworld

I’m a pedologist (a rare species these days).  My research focuses on 21st century soil mapping by combining muddy boots soil survey (digging holes) and digital soil mapping  (reproducing soil maps using models). I am fascinated to explore how we can replicate the mental models that the surveyors used to understand how soils change in two and three dimensions in the landscape by applying learning algorithms or classifiers to environmental data. After high school I made the decision of science over art. After 10 years in academia as an undergraduate and postgraduate in environmental science, geography and geophysics I only really ‘found’ soils when I started working at Cranfield University. I had some fabulous mentors (now sadly retired) who were the former soil survey staff of England and Wales. These guys are amazing. They spent many years in the field deciphering the soil landscape and collecting the soils data that was subsequently used to produce the soil maps that we now have in the UK, some of them now available at your fingertips as apps (SoilWeb for US data, Soilscapes for UK data) on your smartphone. These guys made me a soil nerd.  

#girlswithtoys: soil data and digital soil mapping

I’m a soil nerd but why isn’t everyone else? Let’s face it soil science has a bit of an image problem. Dirt. Mud. Muck. And we don’t have dinosaurs or rockets to illustrate our science but there is so much cool technology that is used to investigate soils. In digital soil mapping we use all sorts of mapped environmental data. This includes data collected from satellites that identify vegetation responses or the land surface (terrain), some of the factors that give rise to differences in soils in one part of the landscape to another. At the farm level field soil and crop data is collected using a variety of sensors that can collect data ‘on-the-go’ off the back of a tractor or by capturing images from the air using UAVs. How cool is that?  The soil maps that are created using this data combined with digital soil mapping techniques are predictions. Although the models will give us some idea of the uncertainty of the predictions we still need to verify then with observations and direct measurement of soil properties. So even with all this technology we still need some experts getting their boots muddy and their opinions can also be incorporated into some of the models we use.

[Soil] Science communication

But where are all the experts? We all loved playing with mud when we are kids but assessments of the sector indicate there is an increasing lack of professional soil scientists. The IYS is a brilliant platform to engage with soil #scicomm with a proliferation of excellent events across the globe. But many of these are aimed at audiences that are already engaged with soil or science. I recently participated in a fantastic science outreach event soapbox science (@SoapboxScience) on London Southbank. The location is in central London with lots of visitors and tourists wandering past – many will not be thinking they will be engaging with science that day. The philosophy is simple:  bring science to the people and showcase some of the fantastic science undertaken by women academics (from PhD students to professors). The format: you stand on a soapbox in a lab coat and engage the public by discussing your research with limited props. At present it is a UK initiative but it will hopefully be across the pond next year….and who knows elsewhere? I had a totally awesome time talking about soils using a gigantic soil map to illustrate the diversity of soils in the UK and got the audience participating! People who stopped to listen were really interested and asked loads of inspiring questions. The spark is there. We just need to ignite it. Soils are amazing and everyone should know about it. What are your #soil #scicomm stories? I’d love to hear them. I heart soil. 

Submitted by Jack Hannam (@Dirt_Science)

Soil Scientist at Cranfield University UK

Photo credits: Oliver Pritchard

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Everything that we eat has nutrients. They are needed for strong teeth and bones, strong heart and blood vessels, and help your brain and nerves work. These nutrients come from the food we eat. We get these from the plants that grow, and the animals that we eat that eat the plants. Most soils have a large supply of nutrients in them, and they get taken up by plants when plants absorb water. Soils need to be healthy to grow large quantities of plants, and animals need plants to grow strong.
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