Soils have no panda bears

I usually dread the question, “What do you do for a living?”

Not because I dislike what I do; I love researching soil microbial ecology and addressing issues in land management. However, sometimes saying out-loud the three words “soil microbial ecology”, in that order, is enough to give even the most polite conversational partner that glassy-eyed look of disinterest, and it only gets worse the more detail I try to give.

My phobia of being a boring conversationalist usually pressures me to change topics. Soils aren’t exactly charismatic (if only we had the soils equivalent to a panda) but they are so fundamentally important to society and the environment that people should be more aware of them (unlike pandas). Apart from my research questions, during my PhD I’d also like to make some discoveries in the area: “How do we get people excited about soils?”

Recently, I had success leading a section on soil microbial ecology during the 2015 Bioblitz event at the Whiterock Conservancy in Iowa. It’s a great organization that is working hard to find sustainable solutions to land management and is very interested in soil ecology. I was really excited to be one of the experts during this event and I also brought out a dissecting scope, corers, sieves, and printed out some of the awesome infographics that the IYS offers. Here’s how it went:

I ran two sessions, but only one person showed up to the first so I had to cancel it… I made the mistake of simply saying that I would be talking about “soil microbial ecology” and showing them “soils”, and no one was interested. Understandable. For the next session I urged gardeners and farmers to join in, and that bagged me a group of six.

I drove my group out to adjacent soybean and restored-prairie fields on the conservancy and showed them the differences in soil structure and talked about the microbial ecology within each system, and why it was important. My guests, who seemed a little unsure about the topic at first (some had come because another session was canceled), became surprisingly engaged after I cored each soil and started pointing out the differences, and what they might mean. I talked about how the decreased biodiversity in the corn-soybean cropping systems contribute to widespread issues in Iowa such as soil erosion and nitrate leaching. On the ride back from the fields I was bombarded by questions about soil microbes and I’ve never felt so smug. Later, one of the participants even told me the soils session had been one of their favorites and that they appreciated being able to look at the prairie soil in such detail. These opportunities don’t come along very often, but maybe they should!

So, I suppose getting people’s hands in the soil is a good way to get them to start thinking about soils in a way that words alone can’t. I also learned a lot from the people I was teaching so it was a win-win. It was a great experience and I urge other soil scientists to do more outreach. Find a group like the Whiterock Conservancy that values soils and get out there and share your enthusiasm. I still don’t know how to make my research sound interesting to a new acquaintance at a party though…

So, do you have any good one-line openers for soils? What have you done in the past to get people jazzed about your research? I’d love to hear about it and try it in my own outreach efforts.

Take a look at the great conservation projects that the Whiterock Conservancy is working on:



The views expressed here belong to the speaker and do not necessarily represent FAO’s views, positions, strategies or opinions.

Submitted by Cassi Wattenburger 




Duncan Jones 28-08-23 10:54
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John Wojciechowski 20-07-23 09:53
John Wojciechowski 20-07-23 09:52
Joann W. Allen 22-06-23 05:45
Thank you for sharing with us. It's such helpful article.
Sherry Whitman 04-04-23 08:21
Thanks for share this information!!!!!
Patricia Pritchard 30-03-23 12:35
Thanks for share this topic .!!!!
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