Dr Jack Hannam (@Dirt_Science) is a senior research fellow in soil science at Cranfield University. This saturday, 2-5pm on the South Bank, Jacqueline will take her research on our soapbox, with a talk entitled “What lies beneath: how soils change in space and time”.
When I respond to “What do you do?” most people ask me so how on earth did you become a soil scientist? Sometimes the path to enlightenment is not clear, I had no eureka moment or burning desire as a child but there was something that attracted me to science. At 16 I had just finished school, I had a bad haircut and bad glasses. I had a major dilemma (apart from the haircut issue): Science or Art? On balance I thought science could provide more career opportunities so I decided to connect with nature. I ended up taking Geography, Geology, Biology and Chemistry A levels. What now? All these subjects are useful in understanding the natural world and I didn’t want to specialise yet. I asked my biology teacher for advice when choosing a university course. He suggested an Environmental Science degree. I really enjoyed this degree which led me to a PhD in geography and geophysics and after a couple of postdoctoral positions BOOM! I “arrived” at being a soil scientist. And I am still learning.
So what IS it with soils?
Aren’t all soils just brown and muddy? Well, that would make my life a WHOLE lot easier. There are actually lots of different types of soils, like there are lots of different types of animals, plants or rocks. Soils provide numerous, often hidden services to society. They provide us with food, support important habitats and enhance our well-being though connection with beautiful landscapes and urban green space.
They regulate and purify the water that moves through it and support environmental processes such as nutrient cycling and atmospheric regulation via carbon sequestration. Soils are essentially a non-renewable resource because soils form slowly – sometimes it can take up to 1000 years to form 1 cm of soil! Recently it has been suggested we only have 60 years of farming left if soil degradation continues. We need to look after it. After all, 95% of our food originates from the soil.
I heart soil
I think SOILS ARE AWESOME and it’s not just me, even the UN says so. It has recognised 2015 as the International Year of Soils. My research interests are focused on why soils are different from one place to another. We can predict this spatial variability through modelling (using systems that learn from data e.g. artificial neural networks) and observations (either directly by digging a hole or from satellite data).
If we can better represent where soil properties change at the farm and landscape scale it can help us manage our soils more effectively to deliver their important ecosystem services. Things click into place when I can visualise soil data across a field or landscape which quite often involves creating maps (ohhh I LOVE maps!). In fact many of the projects I have worked on have ended up with some kind of map as a major output (soil and terrain mapping, a national map of soils in Ireland and soil magnetic properties and landmine detection).
Collaboration and communication
Working on diverse research projects has developed my skills as a research scientist and given me the valuable opportunity to work in multidisciplinary teams and meet some really great people. I heard an analogy recently between football and research. Successful research is about working in a team with diverse skills – after all you wouldn’t have 11 strikers on the pitch would you? This is the great thing about research – diversity and discovery. The visualisation part of my research has also enabled me to use my creative side. So although it seemed like a major decision at the time I have actually managed to do science and art after all. Brilliant! This has been an organic process but I have also recently sought out collaborations with curators and artists. Science communication is also part of this, which I have been doing in an admittedly ad-hoc way with the British Society of Soil Science. And I’m still learning.
Science needs YOU!
Soapbox Science’s tagline “Bringing science to the people”, stirs up the old socialist in me. EVERYONE should have the opportunity to “do” science at any level of engagement. Putting a face to science is important. I am a scientist, I am a mother of two kids and I am the person sitting next to you on the bus. My mum had to give up a career in chemistry when she had children. Thankfully things have improved since then but here is still much work to do. Soapbox Science is part of the solution and I’m really honoured to be part of it.