What is the current weather doing to our soils?

There has been plenty of media coverage of the current extremely hot and dry weather. The drought is revealing archaeological features, (see also here), and we can even see the browning of our landscape from space. But this drought is not good news for our ecosystems at all, and one example of that are the recent wildfires in the Peak District. These fires are not just bad news for the plants and animals that live there, but also they make large amounts of carbon that have been sequestered over many years go up in the air as CO2, and this can amplify climate change. Drought also affects our ecosystems more subtly than that, but the long-term consequences might be as severe.

We can all see the effect the drought is having on plants: lawns are turning yellow, corn leaves are rolling, and in extreme cases, trees even lose their leaves. They become inactive, and can even die. This is not just bad news for the plants, it is also bad news for the soil. When plants stop growing, they are not photosynthesing, and when they are not photosynthesising, they are not removing CO2from the atmosphere. A large part of this photosynthesised COgoes straight into the soil to fuel the activities of microbes, which carry out important functions such as the decomposition of plant litter and the release of nutrients for plant growth. Continue reading

Advertisements

Your child might choke

When I read this column on the Dutch newspaper NRC’s website, I felt this was so accurate and recognisable that it deserved a translation into English. When I said this in a tweet, author and microbiologist Rosanne Hertzberger responded that she would love a translation. So, here you go:

We bought an inflatable paddling pool for our eldest. It’s a miracle he survived. On the blue plastic warnings were printed in 27 different languages. ‘Without adult supervision, your child’s life is in danger’ and ‘Children have drowned in portable swimming pools’. This is the tone manufacturers use when talking to parents. ‘Just use some common sense’ isn’t cutting it anymore. Similar to images of cancerous lungs being printed on cigarette packs, paddling pools are covered in obituaries of drowned children. There were other warnings printed on the pool: children might swallow small parts. And older children might get paralysed if they decide to dive into the 7-inch-deep pool. ‘Inflate your fun’ was the product slogan. Continue reading

The reality of maternity leave.

It has been very quiet here again, because I’ve been on maternity leave for the past six months. And I have struggled to get any work done, let alone write a blog post.

Which is why is wasn’t particularly amused when I read this article in The Guardian, which compares maternity leave with a sabbatical, and gives the impression that you can catch up with the literature and do some deep thinking, while your perfect baby either sleeps or quietly plays on the floor.

So, let me tell you something about how I experienced my maternity leave, and how I feel about maternity leave in general. Continue reading

Soil science. A man’s world?

I am a female soil scientist (a soil ecologist, more specifically). And while traditionally the field of soil science has been dominated by men, I’d like to think that women are catching up. Certainly in the labs where I have worked in the last 10 years, women have dominated the postdoc and PhD positions, although this trend yet has to reach the more senior, permanent academic posts. (Unfortunately, there are many reasons why it might not.)

And I couldn’t help but notice that in a recent NERC strategic call for soil science grants (within the larger Soil Security and SARISA programmes), all eight grants that were awarded had male principal investigators. (And that is on top of the fact that all other projects in these two programmes, which were funded about two years ago, are also led by men.)

And because of this traditional male domination of soil science, I thought that maybe, just maybe, and hopefully (in a way), this might just be a true representation of the gender balance of the applications, and of the wider UK soil science community.

So I inquired. And these are the numbers.

Out of 34 applications, 11 were led by female principal investigators – which means that grants led by women made up a reasonably healthy 32% of all grants submitted. And this number is actually representative of the gender balance of the members of the British Society of Soil Science (which assume to be a representation of the UK soil science community as a whole): women make up 30% of its members.

But none of these applications led by women were successful in getting funded. While the female submission rate was 32%, the success rate of female applications was 0%. And while it is well known that grants submitted by women often have lower success rates, this is a pretty low number. I made a graph to visualise it for you, just in case it wasn’t clear yet.

soil-security-small-grants

The number of applications and the number of grants awarded in the latest round of Soil Security small grants (between £150k and £250k), split for male and female principal investigators.

Continue reading

This time it’s personal

When I read the news of Trump’s election I cried. I didn’t just cry a little bit, I cried so much that my husband had to take our two-year-old son to another room. I felt devastated, sad, and angry. Now, a few days on, mostly the anger has staid. But I am still shocked to the core.

Why has this election result affected me so much? I don’t live in America, and the consequences of Trump being president will take a while to trickle down to the world, or to affect my life directly.

In fact, this election result affected me even more than the outcome of the Brexit referendum. While, this, too, made me cry (actually Brexit was the first time I cried about politics ever), and feel upset, and angry, and scared, it did not affect me to the same extent as Trump’s election did.

So, why? And why have these two occasions both affected me much so more than any political event before?

Well, I think I know why.

First, these two outcomes challenge everything I feel I stand for. They challenge fairness, equality, kindness, and looking out for others. But they also dismiss the truth, scientific evidence, and expert opinion and knowledge.

But, I think both Brexit and Trump’s victory affect me more than any other political outcome because this time, it is actually about me.

I am an EU citizen living and working in the UK.

I am a woman.

I am a scientist.

This referendum and this election are about me.

I have never considered myself different, or less, than other people. But these two outcomes give the message that I should not be working in the UK, that I can be dismissed and groped because I am a woman, and that I don’t have to be taken seriously as a scientist working on climate change.

So there. And this makes me wonder whether this is how many, many coloured, or LGBT, or disabled people, or other minorities, have felt numerous times before. Or, in fact, whether they might feel like this continuously.

So I’ve made a decision.

I know academia isn’t the most diverse work place. While it is inherently international, it is also extremely white and male-dominated. The representation of minorities is shocking, and there is a strong gender imbalance in many scientific fields. There seems to be an under representation of LGBT people. And I know very few disabled people who work in academia.

So, I am going to do everything I can to promote diversity and equality in my group, in my university, and in academia in general. While I hope I am a reasonably kind person, I am going to do my best to be kinder, and to encourage especially people from minorities to work and succeed in academia. And I am going to challenge every practice that is ignoring or underrepresenting minorities.

That’s the least I can do. Who’s with me?

On gender bias in research funding

I have never, in any way, in any shape or form, experienced sexism in my career. I have never though that I could not do something because I am a woman. In primary school and high school, never once made anyone a distinction between boys and girls and their abilities, or future career aspirations. At university, I never gave the fact that I am a woman any thought. And during my PhD and postdoc, OK, maybe I started thinking about having children at some point, and maybe that seemed complicated (I now know that it is certainly not straightforward). But never, never, have I experienced any form of harassment, or bias, or being disadvantaged, or not being taken seriously, because of my gender. Despite my gender, I am generally doing quite well in my career.

But it might be that I am, unknowingly, disadvantaged in receiving the research grants that I am applying for.

But last year, the BBSRC, who fund my research, published a report ‘Towards a better understanding of issues affecting grant applications and success rates by female academics’. This report clearly shows not only that fewer women apply for BBSRC research funding, but also that their success rate is lower than that of male applicants. This is particularly the case with the applications for strategic LOLA (longer larger) grants, which are considered to be more senior grants. A notable exception are the fellowships, which are aimed early career scientists (and of which I am a recipient), in which female applicants are more successful.

Then, a couple of days ago, I read an article that essentially shows the same trend for NIH grants. While there was no difference in funding rates for start-up grant applications, when women applied for grant renewals, they received lower scores than men. This was despite the fact that these grant applications were more likely to receive praise in their written feedback from the panel.

Triggered by these two reports, I decided to have closer look at the gender balance of research grants of some other funders – particularly the ones that I might apply for.  Continue reading

Soil boring? My take on the image problem of soil science.

I am passionate about soil, especially about soil biodiversity and how soil organisms and plants interact and control C and N cycling. I have studied soils since I started my undergraduate in 1996, and I have witnessed a complete turnaround when it comes to interest in soil biodiversity and the functions it performs. When I started my PhD, no one was interested in soil organisms and how they regulate crucial ecosystem processes that also happen to be central to sustainable agriculture. Now, everyone is interested – from farmers, to policy makers, to fellow ecologists.

Well, I say everyone, but that is clearly not the case. Soil is still remarkably unsexy. I will illustrate this with a little anecdote.

Last Friday, I met the third year Zoology student who had been assigned to do a final year Science Media Education Project with me. As we walked up the stairs, I asked her what her background was, and she replied and said: “….. and you study soils, right?” in a slightly too upbeat manner. We went to my office, and after finding out that she’d like to interact with primary school children, I suggested organizing a book launch family activity or classroom activity linked to a children’s book about an earthworm that I provided scientific advice for. I explained to her what the book is about (it is about a little worm with low self-esteem, who goes on a journey and meets lots of impressive animals, but eventually finds out that worms are crucial for soil health and plant growth), that the authors are based in Manchester, and that it will come out in February. I saw her face light up as she got increasingly enthusiastic, and I said: “You probably thought, oh no, I have to do a project on soil” to which she replied that she had indeed been a bit worried. When she left, I felt happy that I had been able to excite her about the project, but sad that she had been worried about studying soil.

Sadly, I can’t really blame her.

I, too, often feel deeply bored when I read about soil.

Why is this? Continue reading