‘Dirt Science’ – BSSS introduction to Soil System Science

The British Society of Soil Science (BSSS) in collaboration with Cranfield University (CU) and the James Hutton Institute (JHI) recently hosted a NERC-funded (Natural Environment Research Council) course for PhD and postdoctoral researchers entitled ‘Dirt Science’. The week-long residential course aimed to provide attendees an opportunity to improve their knowledge and skills in soil science fundamentals.

In this post, Alex Cooke and Grant Campbell, both PhD researchers, reflect on their time as part of this engaging and packed course.

Grant explains: the course was my first real opportunity to get together with other fellow students and staff within the soil science community. Being at an early stage in your PhD can be daunting especially when you go to your first conference, workshop or even meeting for the first time but I was really looking forward to it.

The one thing that immediately came to my mind was the spread of where people had come from to come on this course. From Cardiff, to Liverpool and of course, our own Cranfield, they came from far and wide. Of course, there was also me…all the way from Aberdeen (although I’m technically registered at CU, I am based at JHI in Aberdeen)!

Another observation was the variety of topics that my fellow students were doing around the soil science theme. I never really took into account how wide the topic was. There were people researching soil resilience, structure and myself with soil data and information. You can see where this is going already can’t you?

Day 1 – Soil functions: what do soils do?

The opening day was predominantly lecture based. We were welcomed by Jacqueline (Jack) Hannam, course director from CU, and Helaina Black from JHI. CU’s, Tom Stephenson talked to us about on-going research at Cranfield and recommended visiting the local kebab van at some point during the week.

Helaina provided an overview of soil functions and then others filtered in with the specifics. Jack talked about production functions. John Quinton from Lancaster University spoke about regulating functions. David Powlson from Rothamsted Research introduced soils and carbon and Clare Wilson from Stirling University investigated the cultural heritage of soils. Willie Towers from Hutton approached the practical applications of soil functions which proved useful ahead of the following day in the field.

We were then introduced to our research challenge. Throughout the week, we were tasked with coming up with a ‘hypothetical’ research proposal, which would have the equivalent of 3 years of NERC funding. We were split into groups, assigned a mentor, and tasked to come up with such a challenge.

The first day ended with a group discussion based on what we perceived to be the meaning of ‘soil health’. Within our groups we each had to put ourselves in the shoes of a stakeholder and come up with what they would envisage. My group were in the shoes of people working for DEFRA. What we brainstormed is below.

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Alex describes Day 2:

Day 2 – Digging a hole at Shuttleworth College

We spent Day 2 working towards the Institute of Professional Soil Scientists (IPSS) professional certification ‘Working with Soil’ – an essential standard for individuals working in the soil science sector.

The morning session saw Dick Thompson and Willie Towers introducing us to the extensive soil survey maps and books of the UK, along with procedures for digging a soil survey trial pit. Research groups were then given a location within the Old Warden Estate to begin digging (what at the time seemed a back-breaking exercise) a 1m x 1m x 1.2m pit. This exercise highlighted the differences in the soil which can occur across field-scale plots due to both natural and human causes. Groups at the bottom of the field saw subsoil so compacted it required a pick-axe to excavate, whilst those at the top of the hill had friable topsoil overlying wet sand.

Soil-pit dug at the Old Warden Estate

Soil-pit dug at the Old Warden Estate

After an awesome, and much needed, buffet lunch in the mansion house we spent the early afternoon in our groups learning pedological variations and survey methods for soil horizon examining. This was then put into practice back in the field for the remainder of the afternoon, followed by learning the safe practice of pit backfilling.

Upon returning to Cranfield, we sat down to more excellent food, and a surprise soil-related dinner quiz and soil tag-line invention. Rachel Efrat won the prestigious Soil Atlas of Europe for her tag line “50 Shades of Brown”.

After a few pints in the bar, we all headed off to bed for a much needed rest!

Grant describes Day 3:

Day 3 – Soil Data, applications and spatial modelling of soil properties

For Day 3 we were indoors again, investigating soils data and applications in the computer lab. Using soils data and information on a regular basis as part of my PhD, I was particularly excited about the day.  Steve Hallett (CU) and Russell Lawley from the British Geological Survey (BGS) opened with an interactive session on the context of soils data across the UK, EU and worldwide.

Afterwards, Ron Corstanje from CU introduced the concept of Digital Soil Mapping. This provided us with some background information ahead of our practical in the afternoon in which we used covariates to predict soil types in Ireland. This was associated with the ISIS (Irish Soil Information Study) study and involved using computer programs such as Statistica and ESRI’s ArcGIS to undertake the analysis.

The day ended with us being back in our research challenge groups to continue working on our projects*.

*N.B. Jim Harris was our group mentor for our project. Unfortunately, Jim couldn’t make the meeting with us on the Wednesday as he had other pressing engagements. I suspect he was once again invited to a comedy gig so that he could try out his Homer Simpson impersonation! Never found out if this was true though…D’oh!

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Using GIS to map Irish soils

Alex describes Day 4:

Day 4 – The Art of Soil

The day began with Abdul Mouazen (CU) introducing us to soil-sensing techniques for soil property identification in the morning session. Theory was then expertly put into practice by Lorenzo Menichetti and Becky Whetton (A Dirt Doctors founder!) who took us through the processes involved for implementing an on-the-go soil sensing system in-field using Cranfield University’s own soil management facility.

After another Social Club lunch, Jane Rickson (CU) informed us about the NERC ‘Pathway to Impact’ criteria when writing research grants. Furthermore, identifying who, where and how our research may be broadcasted in the future. This proved an essential element to our own research proposals we were developing within the challenge.

Daro Montag from Falmouth University then introduced us to the weird and wonderful world of ‘Soil Art’ (See previous post). Many artists around the world are increasingly using soil within their art work to inform the world about environmental, biological and political issues. Daro himself, who is head of the Art and Environment division at Falmouth, uses soils’ natural biological communities to create artworks out of photographic film; the biological communities eating away at the gelatine on the film, creating amazing patterns and colours. He then challenged us with creating our own soil-inspired artworks, and as you can see, we generally set the bar quite low! However, this really did get us thinking about the diverse nature of soils, and how their properties and functions cannot be easily captured in art, let alone within research and policy!

Another afternoon working with our research groups and our mentors was followed by another awesome dinner, and the final preparation of our research challenge presentation slides…ready for the Friday challenge!

Daro Montag with some of our 'questionable' artwork.

Daro Montag with some of our ‘questionable’ artwork.

Grant and Alex discuss the final days events:

Day 5 – Research Challenge

So the day had finally arrived. Our date of destiny had come before us. We were to present our research proposals to the rest of the group. Our project was called Biochar in Britain’s Agricultural Landscapes or ‘BIBAL’ for short. As a group, we were happy with our project set-up and how we had decided on the name BIBAL. However, as pointed out by Jane Rickson (CU), she told us to be wary of using acronyms as they could be taken out of context. She spoke about an experience whilst working on a project in Hungary, where they had come up with an acronym which translated into English meant ‘nothing’!

The rest of the group presentations were done to a very high standard and at the time it was hard to predict who the winners would be.

After much intense questioning and debate, our group ended up being the winners! A real surprise in all of our eyes, and as a reward we each received a hardcopy of the ‘Soil Atlas of Africa‘! – which by the way is free as a pdf.

Our winning team, and our Atlases!

Our winning team, and our Atlases!

All in all, it was a very exciting week in which new connections and friendships were made. Hopefully some, or indeed all of us, will end up working together on projects or collaborations in the near future.

From Grant and Alex, we would like to wish everyone all the best and if you are going to the BSSS Early Career Researchers Conference, see you in York!