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.

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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

One year later

This is my attempt to revive my severely neglected blog, which I enthusiastically started just before moving to Manchester for my fellowship at The University of Manchester, exactly one year ago.

In that year, a lot has happened, of which, I would say, most was condensed in the second half, which at the same time explains why I haven’t written a blog post since August. I did make one attempt in November, entitled ‘My hole in the ground’, but I never finished it, which says it all, really!

It’s been a good, but unbelievably busy, and, from September, unbelievably stressful year:

We set up a new lab from scratch. We just about got most of the equipment set up and running last month! This has been a challenge, at times, with people (including me) running experiments and needing the lab equipment.

It has also been a challenge, albeit (mostly) an enjoyable one, to get to know how everything works at a new workplace, and to start doing my first teaching. Balancing doing research with students demanding attention and juggling new administrative and marking tasks is something that you have to get used to!

I’ve also submitted three grant proposals, one small one and two big ones (I got the small one, didn’t get one big one, and am still hoping for the second big one).

Then, I am also the chair of Plants, Soils, Ecosystems, a new special interest group of the British Ecological Society. We organized our first (Very successful! Read Sarah Pierce’s report of the meeting here) meeting, which was an extremely fulfilling, but at the same time very stressful thing to do – I am sure it will get easier though!

Finally, I have had a complicated operation on my hand, which was very successful, and has resulted in me being able to do all the things that I used to do before I broke my scaphoid 1.5 years ago: mountain biking, climbing, getting out of the swimming pool, even just leaning on my hand.

But what caused last year to be stressful was the fact that all these things occurred at the same time – in September and October. So, I submitted a big grant proposal, just before I harvested a major experiment while not having a fully set up lab, after which I went straight into my operation, after which I had to teach for the first time, then I organised and chaired our first Plants, Soils, Ecosystems meeting, after which I submitted another big grant proposal. Does this sound crazy? It was.

But, now it’s 2014, I feel refreshed and motivated, and I am determined to revive my blog!

So far, the posts I have been writing varied quite a lot in their topic – from my move to Manchester, to academia in general, to more science-y posts about soils in general, and my own research. I wonder what my readers (if there are any left!) find most interesting and enjoyable to read, but I am tempted to make my posts more science-y, about ecology in general, and plant-soil interactions and soil ecology specifically. If you’re interested the latter two: also keep an eye out for Plants, Soils, Ecosystems’ new journal club, in which we will discuss articles that have recently been published within the broader field of soil ecology and plant-soil interactions. I will post the first paper by the end of next week, and we will aim for bi-weekly/once-a-monthly updates, facilitating (hopefully) lively discussions and interaction between people interested in plant-soil interactions!

Cucumber time

In Dutch, we often call the summer month during which not very much is happening ‘cucumber time’. This is a time during which small news items get blown out of proportion, like cucumber harvests failing, ducklings crossing the road, or princes being born.

For many people in academia however, this relatively student-free period is the time to get on with writing those papers. It is also conference time, because of the same reason – no teaching. In addition, for ecologists, it means the peak of the field season.  So, no time for cucumbers after all. Continue reading