My Career in Soil Science

“In the latest installment of our #YourCareerInSoilOrPlantSciences segment, Paul Hallett reflects on his interesting journey so far.”

I have only met three people who wanted to be soil scientists from a young age.  All of them are graduates of the University of Aberdeen, Scottish and now have very prestigious careers in the discipline.  I stumbled into soil science on a not so tortuous path filled with good luck and some very supportive mentors.   In the 1980s I recognised that the environment was being wrecked and that expertise on how to fix it would be very valuable.  An inspirational high school geography teacher1 taught me about landscape formation, resource conflicts and land capability, prompting a decision to study a BSc Agriculture at the University of Guelph, majoring in Resources Management.  I went into first year classes with several hundred students as one of the few people not from a farm. As I progressed through university I was lucky enough to get a summer job with a local environmental consulting company setup by a former Guelph soil science professor and his student2.  Bashing soil cores into parched clay soils to assess phosphorus transport to the Great Lakes was my epiphany. Heat stroked and exhausted I started to imagine how phosphorus moved through soil and better ways to take measurements than hammering cores with a mallet.

Sampling peat soils in 1990 for my honours project.  Hood up to keep away mosquitoes. Photo blurry as it’s a phone camera capture of a 35 mm slide.

We had flexible degrees at Guelph so I promptly signed up to every soil science course available.  There were many.  At the time, I had no idea that I was in such a hotspot of the discipline.  We had 5 faculty specialising in soil physics alone, outweighing the 2 faculty in soil biology.  After an honours project on organic soil mechanics with Ray McBride I decided on postgraduate study.   My main desire was to improve employability as an environmental consultant, as the early 1990s offered poor career prospects for graduates.

Letters and applications were sent around the world.  I wish that I had kept a lengthy and kindly meant response from the University of Newcastle that thanked me for my interest, but stated that students far better than me were not getting PhD positions so I should consider a different path.  I was expecting to study an MSc and then had an offer of a PhD on soil fracture mechanics with Tony Dexter at Silsoe Research Institute, subject to favourable reference letters.  When I asked Bev Kay and Dave Elrick for references, they saw Tony’s name, and told me not to get my hopes up as many people more qualified than me likely applied. A formal offer came through and I was off to the UK.

Life as a PhD student was often a miserable experience that I look back on fondly.  Soil fracture mechanics is not an easy subject and I had lab skills that could be politely described as undeveloped.  I should have done an MSc first to prepare me.  In between using pressure plates in a dubious way (I tried to equilibrate a 10 cm clod to -15 Bars) I managed to update the electronics of the ‘clod basher’, a 1980s no-expense-spared relic that accurately measured the energy exerted in whacking lumps of soil to smithereens.  This was fun work and the Canadian bashing soil with a hockey stick became part of the institute director’s regular tours with visitors. I went on to do more accurate and theoretical work, helped by input from my second PhD supervisor Jonathan Seville, who is a Chemical Engineer specialising in powder mechanics.  This taught me the value of interdisciplinary research. I spent time in my final year working in Rainer Horn’s lab in Kiel, doing an extremely precise experiment with soil microtensiometers, so my lab skills were improving.

The Clod Impact Rig at Silsoe Research Institute, complete with state-of-the-art 1992 electronics upgrade. The red wheel would spin very quickly and when the green button you can see was pressed, a soil clod was brought up to be smacked very hard with a simulated tine. The oscilloscope measured how the force of impact changed over time.

With my PhD nearing an end I was fortunate to be offered a postdoctoral position at Silsoe Research Institute.  As I was completing my write-up, tired and easily distracted, this was not a productive period of my career.  One year in I had considerable luck (I think Silsoe thought the same thing).  Iain Young at the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) offered me a permanent position, which he claims was due to the Director seeing a fancy rental car upgrade that I received.   I needed someone like Iain who would constantly badger me to complete work and write papers.  Our work on biology impacts on soil water repellency took off and so did my career.  The next summer Rainer Horn invited me to be a keynote in the soil physics session at the World Congress of Soil Science in Montpellier. Things were looking up.

SCRI was described to me as a great place to start a career.  The available resources are now unimaginable and the group had impressive young scientists who became very well-known names.  I spent 16 happy years developing my career in conditions that were relatively free and driven by curiosity, with a sprinkling of policy-relevant applied research to demonstrate my worth.  By being allowed to do the former, I think that I was better at delivering the latter. Projects developed with China and across Europe, resulting in collaborations that have since developed into large projects.  As my career progressed, I eventually headed the Plant-Soil Interface Group and then became the Theme Leader of Sustainable Production Systems when SCRI merged with the Macaulay to become the James Hutton Institute.

Nepal 2006 as part of the EU AsiaLink programme training students in soil biophysics.

Restricted access to RCUK funding prompted my search for a part-time position with a university.  The University of Aberdeen had an advert for Lecturers, that I was told was a ‘starting point of negotiations’.  I applied, thinking of a 20% shared post, but as the process developed I realised that a job as an academic more suited my ambitions and skills than one as a manager.  I moved to Aberdeen in 2013 to be Professor of Soil Physics.  The UK now had as many Professors of Soil Physics as the University of Guelph had in the early 1990s.

Being a teacher of soil science was a great career move for me.  I was passed on an excellent course called ‘Global Soil Geography’ that made me appreciate the value of pedology.  I also took over coordinating the last MSc Soil Science in the UK.  Keen honours, MSc and PhD students came to work in my lab, showing much better lab skills than I had at their career stage.  My move coincided with a surge in soil science funding.  One year in, frazzled from writing grants and fearing the end of my start-up funds, I won a BBSRC grant on rhizosphere physical formation.  Over the next year funding came in from NERC with long-time collaborators in China, and colleagues involved me in projects funded by the EPSRC and ESRC.  Things are busy.

Given the state of soils and our ability to repair the damage, I think the prospects for soil science are excellent.  As a community, we have a huge capacity to improve the world.  To get people to listen and to make a difference, I think we need to stop scaremongering about the sorry state of soil, and instead offer solutions.  We also need to take a step back and think of the important challenges facing soils.  There is a huge bias towards soil biology and ecology in the UK, but when you consider drought, flooding, erosion and compaction impacts to food security and the environment, redressing the balance with soil physics would help us solve important challenges.

Many early career soil scientists dream of eventually becoming a Professor.  My path was full of luck, helped considerably by some more senior scientists who took an interest in developing my career.  Plenty of my fellow students and collaborators left science out of choice or necessity.  Some of them earn far more than me and work far fewer hours.  Keep an open-mind about your career path because you never know where it will take you. Aged 16 I wanted to be a forester, but I guess being a lumberjack was not my destiny!

1Bob Worrall, who I realised when I moved to Scotland is a world-famous bagpiper.  He features as the commentator with Jackie Bird when BBC Scotland airs the World Pipe Championships.

 2Bill Crooks, now a Senior Soil Consultant with SAC, was a fellow summer student bashing cores into soil.  We enjoyed maxing out the expense account on steak dinners and beer.

Author: Paul Hallett

Twitter: @PD_Hallett