Dr Patricia Bruneau

Soil Science Advisor

Dr Patricia Bruneau

Soil Science Advisor

Which organisation do you work for?

NatureScot (formally known as Scottish Natural Heritage)

A day in the life of…

Most of my work time is spent dealing with a range of soil use and management issues concerning nature conservation policy and activities in Scotland. 

Rising early, I typically start my day dealing with queries about soils that have arisen from colleagues at Nature Scot, other Scottish government agencies and the general public. I then work on more long-term projects including formal responses to statutory consultations, engaging with other government agencies on developing policy, and research activities to support all of Scotland’s Nature.  

This means that a lot of my time I am ‘networking’ to ensure that we all talk more about soils and make access to information about soil relevant to all our work.

How does your job fit within Soil Science?

My work is all about soils, but not only about soils. It embraces wider environmental topics like habitat management, planning and pollution control. This makes my work exciting, but also sometimes challenging.

Why is this an interesting area to work in?

The multidisciplinarity of soil science, coupled with the multiple topics that my job requires me to consider, provides a constant source of intellectual stimulus. It is also very satisfying to have witnessed how soils have become more relevant to many aspects of our life and their roles and values have become more widely acknowledged.

Why Soil Science?

My interest with nature started with geology, and has always been with what lies below our feet. In my post graduate studies, I started to consider surface processes and then become interested in soils when one of my friends started a PhD in soil science and got me hooked on studying soils too! 

It turns out that the skills I have developed reading earth sciences were in demand for modelling soil processes. I chose to do a masters in soil science rather than continuing studying applied geophysics with no regrets.

What did you study?

My whole education was in France. I read applied and fundamental geology and geophysics at undergraduate and post-graduate level at the University of Rennes. I did a research-led masters (DEA) on soil science at Pierre and Marie Curie University, now Sorbone-Paris University. This was the first year of new national post-grad programmes, and turned out to be a great opportunity to learn first-hand from the ‘crème de la crème’ of French researchers and academics on broad aspects of soil science.  I followed this with a PhD in soil science at the same university, co-funded by INRA, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, looking at modelling diffuse pollution in a small agricultural catchment, considering field level land use and input loads.

What has your career path been so far?/ How did you begin your career?

After finishing my PhD in France, I moved to Britain to work at Silsoe Research Institute, then a major BBSRC institute. I joined their overseas division working in developing water and soil models in Zimbabwe and Tanzania.  At the end of this, I moved to more fundamental research in soil physics, principally at study locations in the UK, investigating the dynamics of surface soil properties and agricultural management practices.

I added another strand to my professional experience joining the NERC Thematic Programme Biological Diversity and Ecosystem function in Soil with the University of Stirling to examine soil biodiversity in soil microstructure and morphology.

After nearly 10 years of post doc work and not keen on teaching, I decided to move into a different line of work and joined Scottish Natural Heritage (now NatureScot) as a ‘soil science’ policy advisor.

What is the best thing about your job?

My job has a great mix of dealing with fundamental policy issues, management of research, and outreach to colleagues and the public. My colleagues in NatureScot are hugely supportive and great to work with. Also, occasionally, I am able to go in the field for real soil science work!

What skills, abilities and personal attributes are essential to success in your job/this field?

Understanding how government and its agencies work and being able to address their need for evidence is key to my role.  Being able to bridge between policy and research has required me to use my knowledge of scientific approaches, have an attention to policy detail, and understand the boundary between networking and lobbying. Sometimes I have to be very assertive!

What advice would you offer to young people interested in a career in soil science?

Go for it!  Try to get a broad foundation in your degree. Learn about good science principles and the critical evaluation. These transferable skills will serve you well during your career.

Can you recommend other journals, magazines or professional associations which would be helpful for professional development?

Don’t just read about soils but broaden your horizons. This could help understand what others need to know about soils.

If you could do it all over again, would you choose the same path for yourself?

Yes absolutely!

Tell us one thing about yourself that not many people know

I enjoy sailing the west coast of Scotland on our boat Té Bheag nan Eilean and I am a keen bridge player.

Is there anything else that you would like to share relating to your work in soil science?

I did a term on BSSS council and would recommend that experience to all.

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