Which organisation do you work for?
A day in the life of…
My typical day can be hugely varied! It might be office-based, working on data analysis or writing reports and papers, with a few meetings thrown in. Or I could be working hands-on in Cranfield’s soil and agri-tech facilities, preparing experiments or taking measurements. This tends to be in blocks of a few days or weeks at a time, rather than one day in the office and one day hands-on. For example, when setting up experiments it is all hands on deck! We are just finishing setting up almost a hundred layered soil profiles, which has taken weeks of work.
How does your job fit within Soil Science?
I am currently exploring how we can design soil profiles to support calcareous grassland habitat re-creation, connected to the broader HS2 development in the UK. Soils are absolutely vital for the success of this kind of habitat re-creation. We are looking at how waste products from construction might be used to create or enhance soil profiles which can support biodiverse habitats and can deliver a wide range of ecosystem services.
Why is this an interesting area to work in?
Habitat re-creation and re-wilding are increasingly important research areas, and are fundamentally underpinned by soils. Interest in, and the importance of, this area is likely to expand substantially over coming years, in part stimulated by governmental policies ensuring new developments have no net biodiversity loss; this is certainly an exciting area of soils research to be involved in.
Why Soil Science?
There are so many different aspects to soil science to catch your interest, and many other related disciplines it intersects with. For example, in addition to my current work I also have broader interests including soil carbon dynamics and plant-soil interactions which I enjoy working on.
Soils are such complex systems, sitting at the intersection of biology, chemistry, and physics. This makes soils fascinating to explore, particularly if you take a systems approach to investigate and disentangle how soils function, and model potential future outcomes.
Soils are also of fundamental importance to society – they underpin food production, store huge amounts of carbon, and provide a wide array of other services. This provides many opportunities for research which is highly relevant and useful, rather than just theoretical.
What did you study?
I initially started in a very different field, completing a BA in Modern History and an MSt in Medieval History at Oxford, before changing direction. Whilst working, I studied for a BSc in Natural Sciences at the Open University, and completed my PhD in Agrifood and the Environment at Cranfield in 2021, funded by the STARS CDT. My PhD research examined plant-driven soil carbon turnover in the rhizosphere, using stable isotope methods to separate soil and plant carbon fluxes by exploiting isotopic differences between plant and soil respiration. This was really interesting research and involved a lot of novel work developing a system for partitioning plant and soil carbon fluxes, and has allowed us to investigate how plants may drive soil carbon turnover in the field. I’m currently preparing my final results, collected over two years, for publication.
What has your career path been so far?/ How did you begin your career?
After finishing my PhD, I began working for Cranfield University as a Postdoctoral Researcher in 2021. I have worked on a couple of projects so far, first investigating pesticide recovery from soils, and now working on habitat re-creation. More broadly, I was initially drawn into soil science by an interest in plants, but as I have learnt more about the world of soils, my research has increasingly moved in a more soil-focused direction.
What is the best thing about your job?
The variety! I enjoy the mix of hands-on work with plants and soil directly, and also working with the outputs from those experimental projects, analysing data and writing papers.
What skills, abilities and personal attributes are essential to success in your job/this field?
In my experience, a broad range of skills are vital. Organisational skills are really important and essential for planning and carrying out experiments. There is also a large numerical and statistical component to my work, in addition to a lot of writing required to produce reports, papers and proposals for further work. It is also essential to have good interpersonal skills for collaborations with research and industrial partners. Also, if you are working with large datasets, learning a programming language such as R can be a huge help when it comes to data processing and analysis.
What advice would you offer to young people interested in a career in soil science?
Go for it! It’s a fascinating field to work in and it has never been more important or higher up the policy agenda. As it is so varied, it would be a good idea to consider different aspects of soil science to find what is most interesting to you. If you are considering an academic career, reach out to those further on the career path for advice, or, if they are doing work that you are particularly interested in, to discuss potential opportunities.
Can you recommend other journals, magazines or professional associations which would be helpful for professional development?
BSSS has a great range of resources, such as monthly webinars and an ever-increasing range of Early Career (EC) materials on the website. The Society’s journals are also well worth following and keep an eye on the EC Twitter for news! Beyond BSSS, there are other organisations which may be of benefit depending on what your interests are. For example, the British Ecological Society or the European Geosciences Union. Also think about journals specific to any area you are interested in, e.g. Soil Biology and Biochemistry or Plant and Soil. There are lots of specialist journals for different aspects of soil science so it is worth exploring!
If you could do it all over again, would you choose the same path for yourself?
I would like to end up in the same place, but perhaps with a slightly more direct route!
Tell us one thing about yourself that not many people know
I still have a great interest in ancient and medieval history and palaeontology, and would love the opportunity to link that to my work someday.