From patients to profiles: my career in soil science

“The latest post in our ‘Your Career in Soil Or Plant Sciences’ segment comes from Dr. Jenny Jones from Liverpool John Moores University. Jenny talks about her journey.”

Roald Dahl said that “a life is made up of a great number of small incidents and a small number of great ones”.  I sense occasionally that undergraduates believe that their first employment after graduation will be a model of how they will spend the rest of their working lives.  Professional employment is no longer like that.  My career began as a paediatric nurse and ended as a soil scientist.  I could never have imagined that life would have taken me from caring for patients to examining soil profiles.

I was a good nurse, a very good nurse.  I won awards and was deemed to be “an asset to any ward”.  My career seemed set.  Then life threw a brickbat.  An injury, followed by spinal surgery resulted in the end of my nursing career.  I was in my early 20s and devastated.  The verdict of the medics was that I would face a lifetime of constant pain and would never be able to work.  Those are bleak words to hear at such an early age.


The author in her early years as a nurse- a good one at that!

Thankfully, a combination of self-determination and sterling efforts of pain management consultants together with the support of my amazing family helped me to rebuild my life.  I can never thank them enough.  Soon I was applying to university, but wondering whether in my late 20s this was sensible.  Sensible or not I arrived at the University of Liverpool to study Geography and Botany and three years later graduated with a 2.1.  Despite the challenges of learning later in life, I loved life as an undergraduate and I thrived.  My 2nd year studies sowed the seed and nurtured my fascination with soils.  They say that no-one forgets a good teacher and it was the teaching of Dr. Peter James that switched me on to soil.  Researching my final year dissertation I discovered the trials and the magic of research.  Hours of tedium drying, sieving and extracting soils would be rewarded with the thrill of generating and analysing results to tell a story.  That was when I became hooked on soil research.

I secured a university studentship which enabled me to study for my PhD.  My topic was ‘Heavy metals and magnetic minerals in ombrotrophic peat’ and I was supervised by Profs. Frank Oldfield and Mike Johnson.  I had admired and respected these two when they taught me on undergraduate modules, so it was a joy to work alongside them.  Thus began my fascination with peatlands and, particularly, their geochemistry. It was in my 2nd post-grad year that Frank Oldfield commented that I was a “born communicator”.  I didn’t realise at the time that this simple observation actually held the key to my future employment.

In common with many aspiring to soil science careers in academia, the years after being awarded my PhD featured a series of short-term contracts.  Within 6 months of obtaining a temporary contract at the then Liverpool Polytechnic (now Liverpool John Moores University, LJMU) it became clear that I had an aptitude for teaching and communicating soil science and I was much in demand.  In an effort to secure a permanent contract I was buried in teaching, project supervision etc.  No gentle lead-in to the lecturing life for me.  I was hitting the ground running, enjoying it all and learning to tackle challenges.  I introduced soil science teaching into all three undergraduate levels.  Later an external examiner was to comment “Jenny even manages to make soil seem exciting”!! The reward after 2 years of temporary contracts was a permanent contract as Lecturer in Soil Science in the Geography Department.  Unfortunately, this was not an opportunity to dispense with some of my teaching, the inevitable consequence of which was an impact on my research career.  It was difficult to juggle teaching loads and research aspirations.  The lack of resources, physical and financial, proved another impediment.

My career in soil science has been one of gradual evolution as opportunities allowed me to explore the many dimensions of our discipline.  I continued to grow as a teacher of soil science and started to win awards: two LJMU Teaching and Learning Awards, twice the institutional nominee for the National Teaching Fellowships, and in the final year of my career the award of ‘Amazing Academic Supervisor’ award.  I loved supervising project and post-graduate students.  My PhD students researched an eclectic range of soil-related problems including those investigating trace metals in soils, or the stability of soil aggregates on embankments, culminating with one who researched geophagy in spider monkeys in Costa Rica.  I am humbled to see how well some of my former students have done, several becoming prestigious soil scientists. I had a sense of déjà vu when I was appointed Disability Co-ordinator and the compassion I had applied when nursing now came into play again. Careful lateral thinking enabled disabled students to achieve goals they had previously thought impossible.


The author as a soil scientist!

Four years ago the time felt right to retire, but I was not ready to hang up my auger.  Retirement became a beginning not an end as many opportunities came my way.  Another of Roald Dahl’s “great number of small incidents”. LJMU made me an Honorary Research Fellow thus enabling me to continue to indulge my passion. The University of Chester invited me to be a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Geography and they continue to invite me back. Joy of joys: I could still experience my love of teaching.  Of course, 2015 was a great year for us with the International Year of Soils.  I travelled around North-west England giving talks about soil to 6th form groups.  I continue to do that today. Then I became the Chair of the Northern Soils Network of the British Society of Soil Science.  This challenging, but exciting role has enabled me to meet with many wonderful soil scientists who share my passion for the brown stuff.  I still write, publish and review papers. Retirement is certainly not a state of idleness!


The author is a massive fan of peat! Happiest when coring!

What about that medical verdict of a life of pain and never being able to work?  Well, they were right about the first part, but I proved them totally wrong achieving many decades of demanding, full time work.  I could not have wished for a more rewarding career and just wish that, during those bleak years of my 20s, that I had known that such wonderful opportunities would come my way.  What of my advice to others?  Stick with it especially through the difficult days.  Age, disability or other factors are not an impediment to a career in soil science. Travel readily the highways and byways of a life in soil science.  Make contact with other soil scientists.  Don’t be afraid to stand up and put yourself forward: promote your passion.  Inspire others. People respond positively to passion for your discipline. My passion for soil remains undimmed even in retirement.

Author: Jenny Jones

Twitter: @bogtrotter99