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?
Obviously, in putting soil on the map, much effort has been focused on highlighting the importance of soil for food production and sustainable agriculture, and other ecosystems that soil delivers. However, this narrative of ‘soils are under threat and they are very important’ does not have the effect of making soils sexy – rather, it brings across the message that we HAVE to study soils because otherwise the world is doomed, not because we CHOOSE to and that it’s inherently INTERESTING to study soils.
Then, another way through which we, the soil biodiversity community, have tried to make soil sexy is by emphasizing how beautiful and fascinating soil organisms are. I generally start my talks and lectures with a picture of a variety of pretty and weird soil organisms (Figure 1 from this recent Nature paper by Richard Bardgett and Wim van der Putten), and, true, sometimes it works, but sometimes I just get blank faces. Soil organisms are just not as charismatic as mammals, birds, or plants, and it doesn’t help that you can’t actually see them. The many Zoology students I supervise generally seem to end up doing projects on earthworms, and I teach about earthworms in our Urban Biodiversity course, because, although they are not particularly charming, you can at least see them with the bare eye and quantify them relatively easily and cheaply. But I have to admit that I, also, despite their importance, don’t get very excited about earthworms (and I know I am offending a lot of people now – sorry!).
These two approaches, which are actually effectively used by The Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative, do work to make other scientists, practitioners, and policymakers interested in soils. Indeed, many plant scientists and ecosystem ecologists are realizing that they can no longer ignore soil. Their website also provides great educational resources, mainly for primary school children. But they are not reaching high school and undergraduate students.
Thirdly, soil science used to be firmly embedded in agronomy, which, although interesting and important, is not the sexiest of research areas. Things are changing, but the field of soil science used to be dominated by old men in dark suits – not very conducive to attracting, for example, young, female, researchers to this field.
So, why am I excited about soils?
Not so much because they are important for the delivery of ecosystem services (although yes, I have also jumped on this bandwagon). Also not because now everyone realizes they are important, as has been widely promoted by the International Year of Soils.
Partly because of the beautiful and fascinating creatures that inhabit soils, but more so about how they interact – how they compete for resources and feed upon each other.
Also partly, because I had a fantastic lecturer, Lijbert Brussaard, teaching my first Soil Biodiversity course, who later became my PhD supervisor, and who inspired me to pursue a career in soil ecology. After that, I did my postdoc with another fantastically inspiring ecologist, Richard Bardgett. And along the way, I have met many other inspiring and motivating soil ecologists, who have collectively mentored me and fuelled my desire to unravel the things that happen below the soil surface.
More so because soils are of fundamental importance for global C and nutrient cycles, for plant competition, community assembly, and succession, and thus for ecosystem functioning. We can explain many patterns that we see aboveground from what is happening in the soil (I will have to come back to this in another post – I think this one will be too long and cluttered if I include examples here).
But mostly because soils represent a relatively under-explored world, in which things are working sometimes the same, sometimes differently from aboveground. Because they form a fantastic model system for testing and developing ecological theories, and they have provided us with empirical evidence for those theories, for example in the areas of microbial ecology and food web ecology (I will have to come back to this, too) – I think this one will be too long and cluttered if I include examples here). Because it is wonderful to work on things that you can’t see with your bare eye, and be able to explain the things that you can see. Because it is challenging to work with soil, and because I don’t like to take the easy option. Maybe, too, although this is increasingly less the case (or maybe I am just making this up), because being a soil scientist makes you a bit of a nerd.
I am doing what I can to enthuse students about soil, mainly by trying to get my enthusiasm across, and by highlighting surprising results, influential findings, and quirky facts about soils.
What are you doing? How are you battling the unsexy image of soil? And why are you excited by soil?