A sum of many parts; Or, how a kid who wanted to be many things ended up a pedometrician instead

“In our first post for a while, guest author Nathan Odgers from Landcare Research presents the next segment to #YourCareerInSoilOrPlantSciences”

No five year old ever sets out to be a Pedometrician when he or she grows up, yet it’s what I became. I thought I’d try and describe to you a bit about this came to be, and where it’s taken me. Every kid dreams of being something when they grow up, and I was no different. At various points during my childhood, I wanted to be an inventor, a writer, and a cartographer. In the end, I didn’t choose to follow any of these careers at all, so it’s ironic that I still get to be a little of each!

I grew up in the city, so some may wonder how I ended up working with soil and land. Actually I’ve always been interested in it. Like many young boys, my brother and I loved to play in the dirt in the backyard when we were little. I thought the better of including them in this piece, but I recall that there are photos in my parents’ collection that show our little toddler selves in track pants and flannel shirts, and with a healthy coating of moderately pedal A horizon across our faces. A few years later, my dad had to dig a six-foot-deep pit in the backyard because the Eucalyptus roots had got into the water pipes. My parents’ property sits on deep clay, like a lot of south-western Sydney, and I distinctly remember being fascinated by the bright and contrasting mottles of the subsoil.

There’s a deeper connection, too. Before they came to Australia in the mid-19th century, the Odgers worked the Cornish tin mines for many generations. Other ancestors favoured pastoralism, first in England and later in the colony of New South Wales, where some were pioneer settlers in the great southern tablelands.

As it happens, during the latter years of my teens I also wanted to be an architect. I didn’t qualify for the architecture degree, but I was offered a place in the Bachelor of Land and Water Science degree at the University of Sydney. The degree was new at the time, and I enrolled into only its second first-year cohort in 2001. It was a nice compromise between the existing agriculture and environmental science degrees. I got to study a broad range of subjects across the agricultural, biological and earth sciences, so it fit well with my interests. I got a taste of pedometrics through a soil science course in my third year. We spent a week sampling the soils of a small part of the acclaimed Hunter Valley near Sydney, and later trained a multinomial logistic regression model to predict them across the area we visited. About the same time, I studied Inakwu Odeh’s Rural Spatial Information Systems course and was quickly hooked on spatial science, so I chose to do my Honours research project with him the following year. This involved collecting profiles from the Walgett area in northern New South Wales and using the data derived from them to create digital soil maps.

 “The author examining a soil profile near Walgett during his Honours field work in 2004.”

I started a PhD with Alex McBratney and Budiman Minasny at the University of Sydney in 2006. I’d loved my time as an undergraduate student and, in truth, I probably wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my career just yet. Just keep studying and something will work out, right? I did know that I wanted to do something related to geographical information systems, I enjoyed doing research, and I enjoyed working with soils. In the end, my PhD research provided for all of that, in spades (heh). My research demonstrated how it’s possible to construct a soil classification system from the bottom up by first allocating soil layers to classes, then allocating sequences of classified layers to profile classes. It was obviously pretty heavy on numerical soil classification, but there was plenty of digital soil mapping, and I was introduced to the development of pedotransfer functions using midinfrared spectra. I’ll ever be grateful for the opportunity to do my postgraduate research in Alex’s laboratory. Alex and Budi need no introduction, and quite apart from the pedometrics, I learnt a lot from them about research in general.

After I submitted my PhD thesis, I went to Morgantown, West Virginia to take up a position as a postdoctoral fellow at West Virginia University with Jim Thompson. While I was there, I was chiefly responsible for developing a preliminary version of the GlobalSoilMap products for the United States, and at the time I think I was one of the few people in the world who was getting paid to work on GlobalSoilMap full time. It was fantastic to be so directly involved with GlobalSoilMap, and the consortium gathering in Ispra, Italy, in 2011 remains one of the best meetings I’ve been to in my professional career (not only for the sense of hope, inspiration and anticipation around GlobalSoilMap itself at the time, but also because it’s not every day that you attend a meeting on board the ferry on Lago Maggiore). Besides all that, the work I did in Morgantown—the exposure to national-scale soil databases, cooperating with national-agency staff, a taste of spatial disaggregation—was personally foundational and has had a lasting impact on my career.

I then had an opportunity to return to the University of Sydney to work on the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network’s Soil and Landscape Grid of Australia facility. We developed the DSMART and PROPR algorithms for spatially disaggregating choropleth maps and using the results to map soil properties. Colleagues used these tools to disaggregate the legacy soil mapping coverage of Western Australia and part of South Australia, and these data were then merged into another set of digital soil property maps that CSIRO’s Raphael Viscarra Rossel created using more conventional digital soil mapping methods. The result was the first, published, nationally-consistent suite of digital soil property maps in the world that we are aware of, and it represents Australia’s first contribution to GlobalSoilMap.

 “Undergraduate soil science students, and a kangaroo, in the Hunter Valley in 2014.”

Now I’m at Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research in tiny Lincoln in the South Island of New Zealand. My wife and I certainly never anticipated moving to Aotearoa! Six months in, and, while I certainly miss academia, I’m really enjoying the work. Most of what I do supports S-map, the national soil map, in some way. National coverage of S-map is incomplete and much of what is unmapped is remote, is steepland, and is therefore less accessible than the cushy Hunter Valley wine country from which a good deal of my field experience has been derived. So there are certainly challenges ahead, but it always helps to take time to get your bearings. To that end, I am learning New Zealand’s soil classification system. Other tasks benefit both my understanding of the context and broader project aims. For example, one of the first things I was tasked with was to compile an inventory of national environmental spatial data that could potentially be used as scorpan predictors for digital soil mapping. Hardly ground-breaking research, I hear you say, but it gives my colleagues and I a better idea of what we have to work with. I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds.

I suppose that is my career in a nutshell. It really is the sum of many parts. I’ve been doing pedometric things for nearly 15 years, if you include study, but I still consider myself a so-called “early career researcher” (whatever that is). I have a long list of things I’d still like to learn, and research, and get better at, and participate in, which is never a bad thing. I’d like to spend more time with proximal sensors and digital soil morphometry, and I’m fascinated by the potential of drones, for example. I have an interest in science communication, and I’m interested in building tools that help stakeholders and laypeople to really understand soil. To those who are involved in it, pedometrics is really quite a broad discipline, and no-one can specialise in everything. I tend to lean more towards the information systems and the computer programming side of things, whereas others have a more statistical bent. Each skillset has its place and all are necessary.

Many other writers in this series have concluded their pieces by offering helpful advice, and I know I particularly connected with that given by Murray Lark and Richard Bardgett. I don’t want to rehash what’s already been said, but I do hope the following thoughts are helpful:

  • Embrace the plot twists. I certainly never envisaged living in West Virginia or New Zealand, but my career is all the richer for the experiences that I’ve had in these places. I couldn’t have had them elsewhere.
  • Don’t rest on your laurels. I’ve been blessed with the interest that DSMART in particular has received, but there is so much more to do. I wouldn’t help my career, satisfy my curiosity, or help advance pedometrics, if I didn’t go and do it.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. In science, it can be easy to tie your sense of self worth to your achievements or your citation count. You may be in the midst of great and important things at work, but your work is only one component of your life. Don’t forget to live the rest of it too.

Author: Nathan Odgers