Sunday, September 4, 2016

Why I study subaqueous soils

I'm a few posts into this blog, and I keep referring to my research, so I suppose this is a good time to give a little bit of an introduction to it! I do have a handful of smaller projects, and of course my work here in Denmark, but for this post I'll focus on an introduction to my general field of study and how I got into it.

I have been interested in soils for long time, long before I even took my first course in soil science. A lot of soil scientists will say, "I got into soil science like every other soil scientist does, by accident," but I was fortunate to have my interest sparked at a young age. I really wanted to take that first course in soil science, and I was thus pretty receptive to the material in that class. My first brush with what has become my livelihood was a sidebar in Dr. Ray Weil's introductory soil science textbook discussing the work of George Demas, the first soil scientist to map soils underwater. I thought that it was a really interesting idea, particularly since I had also long been interested in the ecology of lakes, rivers, and seas. I tried to learn more about the topic of "subaqueous soils" but there weren't any popular science books on the subject, only some academic papers. A busy student, I didn't have a lot of free time and put that idea on the back-burner for the time being.

The following semester I took a 1-credit course, Acid Sulfate Soils, taught by Dr. Del Fanning. Del is quite a character, and that course will get its own post eventually, but in it he talked in more depth about subaqueous soils and the work of George Demas. I learned that part of the reason I might not have read much about the topic was that George had passed away shortly after receiving his PhD and becoming Dr. Demas. A few others had picked up on his work and continued to carry it forward (some of them still do), but the real founder of the discipline was gone, and his ideas had been largely untouched since the 1990s. But one of the great things about academic work is that it doesn't all die with you; your ideas and publications can live on. So I tracked down the copy of George's dissertation, the book you write when you get a PhD, in the University of Maryland library. I read it over spring break as an undergraduate, and decided I wanted to be a part of carrying that work forward.

That dissertation won George the Emil Truog award, a pretty serious award in soil science. Soil can be a tricky thing to define, not because it is fundamentally resistant to definition, but because so many different definitions have been used by so many different groups of people over such a long period of time. A civil engineer sees soil as loose material you can push around to build things with, a farmer sees it as what plants grow in, a hydrologist sees it as porous material that water flows through, and the list goes on. George showed that for many definitions and many purposes, shallow aquatic sediments had undergone "soil formation" and could be meaningfully understood as soils. From my interpretation of his perspective, soils were complex natural bodies of material that changed in predictable ways both across landscapes and with depth into those landscapes. That's essentially the definition that I have come to accept, and the application of that definition underwater fascinated me and continues to do so.

That fascination really came at the right place and the right time for me. I finished reading that dissertation and contacted Dr. Martin Rabenhorst, the professor who had been George's graduate adviser and who taught in my department. At the end of our first meeting I knew where I was applying for graduate school, and I didn't even bother applying anywhere else (though I did search extensively, I found no comparable opportunity). He had just gotten funding for a new student to study subaqueous soils, and I had expressed my interest at just the right moment.

So, in January of 2015 I began my PhD work in mapping the subaqueous soils of the Rhode River, a subestuary branching off of the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. I collect core samples and bathymetric (depth) data and compare them to find relationships between them, and to understand how the landscape has changed over time. I hope to identify areas for oyster reef restoration and aquaculture and to rank them based on their suitability. In doing so, I will also be identifying areas suited for other management practices, such as restoration of baygrass meadows or clam beds. And by understanding the relationships between the subaqueous landscape and the appropriate uses of the soils found in it, I will be making further surveys easier and faster, and helping to ensure that we're managing our natural resources as wisely as we can.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Soils Matter!

Soils matter!

At least, that what you'll hear at soil science conferences and small meetings. It's a slogan that's apt to show up in a presentation or on a sticker. It pops up in discussions among soil scientists, and we're likely to exclaim it to people in other fields at the slightest opportunity.

But for the majority of Americans, it's not really an intuitive concept. If you grew up on a farm or with a garden you'll have some familiarity with it, but growing up in Elkridge Maryland, a lovely suburb of Baltimore, I didn't really get it for a long time. I didn't see where my food came from, aside from the grocery store. I didn't see where clean water came from, aside from the tap. That's as incomplete a picture as thinking that money comes from ATMs (though as an abstract concept, money is a bit of another thing).

What it really boils down to is this: If you can't mine it, you have to grow it!

There are some abstract exceptions to this, like money and music, but all the physical stuff in our lives was either extracted from the Earth or produced on the landscape (which I would argue includes seascape, but you can make a distinction if you insist). Did you eat grains, fruits, or veggies today? They were probably grown in the soil. Even if they were grown hydroponically, the nutrients and water still ultimately cycle through the soil. Did you eat any meat? Well, that animal (or those animals, if you're enjoying crabs like a proper Marylander) traces its diet back to plants at some point. Did you have a glass of water, or perhaps 8? Much of the filtration and regulation of the water supply occurs naturally in our soils. Water treatment plants only finish the process. Once your body is finished with that food and water, where does the waste end up? Some is exhaled as carbon dioxide (soils do help regulate the atmosphere as well), but the solids and liquids end up, you guessed it, back in the soil. There, they are recycled back through this process, and it can all keep going on over and over.

These are just a few examples of the "ecosystem services" that soils provide for us, the processes that help to support our ways of life that we don't directly provide for ourselves. As our population has grown and our technologies have advanced, we have stressed these natural systems and pushed them to do more than they would on their own. We have had to learn, and are still learning, to manage and to care for (and even to create) our soils in order to continue to provide for a world full of people.

And that is why soils matter to me. Why do they matter to you?

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

STEM Scholars at Howard Community College

I was asked by one of my earliest professors, Dr. Loretta Tokoly, to make a short film about my time in the Howard Community College (HCC) STEM Scholars Program, and how it has helped me advance through my career. Like many academic honors programs, STEM Scholars at HCC has to regularly justify their existence and funding. It's competitive out there, and I'm always willing to do what I can to help support those programs that have helped me on my path.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Pedologist Abroad?

I suppose I'll open this blog with a short post about who I am, what this blog is, and what I hope to do with it.

I'm presently an American PhD student in Soil and Watershed Science at the University of Maryland, in the Department of Environmental Science and Technology. Put succinctly, I'm a "pedologist," a basic soil scientist. I study how soils form, how they are distributed across the landscape, and how they can be managed. I'll get into my research in another post.

I'm also a recipient of a Fulbright Student Program grant to spend the next year studying in Denmark at the University of Southern Denmark. The Fulbright program was started a few years after World War II as an international exchange program, and dozens of countries participate. It is both diplomatic and academic. It has two objectives. The first is to prevent future wars by improving the understanding between peoples of different nations. That's a pretty big objective, but in general it is why the program exists. The second objective is to, much more specifically, fund individual research projects like my own that may benefit the countries involved.

So this blog is intended to be a record of my work along those lines. I've traveled out of the country before, to Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Iceland, and of course now Denmark (the list is a bit shorter if you don't count layovers, but even some of those might end up getting posts so they're included for now).

My hope is to entertain and educate my readers. Some posts will be text, but there will be some videos as well. Not all posts will have to do with soil science, or even science. Some will just be about my general observations while abroad, others may be about how I got here. I'll write about cultural differences, history of where I am, and even about my difficulties learning foreign languages. A lot of people have asked me to start this blog, so if you want to hear about something specific, leave me a comment! I'll do my best to respond to those.

Finally, the disclaimer: the opinions expressed in these posts are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my funding agencies or my academic institutions.