By Jasmine Black (@JasmineBlack90), Newcastle University.
Jasmine will be standing on one of our soapboxes in Newcastle, on the 27th of June. Her talk: ‘Soil’s got talent – delve into the dark, mysterious world of soil and discover why it’s so important to you’
Can a woman in science also play around in the mud?
My story of fascination in the dark, mysterious world of soil first began as a child. We all loved playing in the ‘dirt’ didn’t we? Fingers and toes exploring textures of sand, soil and mud. Always with that magical child-like sense of adventure. Long verdant summers, crunchy and colourful autumn leaves, frozen sparkling winter ground and awakening blossoms in spring are things that have always captivated me. But what happens to all these plants once they are gone into the dark earth beneath? And what is that earth exactly?
My research investigates the teeny-tiny (molecular) fragments of soil that make up its existence. These are from plants and animals, as well as minerals from the rock beneath. I look at how much these different parts have been eaten up by soil creatures, or broken down / preserved by environmental conditions, such as sunlight and water. I am particularly interested in the ‘organic matter’ of soil; this is often the smallest part of soil (on average about 5%) and is the stuff that makes soil the brown colour we often associate it with. Organic matter is the dead remains of plants and animals, as well as their waste in the environment. Eugh! Why would I study that?? Well, this amazing stuff is the most vital part of soil that gives life; it allows plants to grow and give us food to eat, filters water to make it cleaner, stores carbon to help moderate global warming and more! Why wouldn’t I study it?!
I have been lucky enough to undertake this research in the tropical rainforests and savannahs of Guyana, South America. This unique little country is part of the north eastern Amazon and all its incredible biodiversity. The soils are diverse too! My work here has involved digging soil pits, using machetes to get through the dense rainforest, pulling 4x4s out of quagmires and generally getting my hands dirty! Not something you might associate with a typical lab-coat clad scientist. Or even a woman for that matter. I love practical work and all the elements of being in the field, it is a fascinating and dynamic work-space. Despite this, I also love putting on some red lipstick and going for a dance every once in a while.
For me however, studying soils is more than a career, more than science. It’s a vital connection. Our lives are all rooted in soil, from the food that we buy at the supermarkets, to the houses that squash the soil beneath them. My mission in life is not just to study soil on a scientific level, but to reconnect people with its existence. Our huge and expanding human population means that soils, and their organic matter, are being put under pressure both locally and globally. This is a serious issue for us and our future generations, and we should all have a say in how our soils are looked after.
Soil is the subject of my career, but also a refuge – an entity in which to curl up into away from the harsh realities of the world. Soil and nature gives us everything we need to survive. It is that simple – and it makes me ridiculously happy just to be aware and in touch with that. There is no contentment to rival the feeling of being in a wood, limbs outstretched, toes curled in moss, fingers digging into rich, fertile earth. How could modern technology ever give you such a physical and spiritual connection? This is why I want to promote awareness and learning about soil.
Working with the British Council on the RENKEI Programme with UK & Japanese researchers, writing soil lessons with Allversity.org, and communicating about soil and its sustainability with the British Science Festival, British Society of Soil Science and Seven Stories National Centre for Children’s Books,
I have gained a real passion for working with the public. I’m incredibly excited to be bringing soil to the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne this summer with Soapbox Science!
Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know – dig deep and start discovering!