My Journey in Soil Science

” In this segment of #YourCareerInSoilOrPlantSciences Professor Budiman Minasny at the University of Sydney describes his career through soil science to date.”

Thirty years ago I didn’t see myself as a soil scientist or a researcher. How did I get here? Maybe some random chance, luck, but mainly hard work and perseverance.

I graduated from high school in 1989 and entered the Indonesian National University exam with Agriculture as a second choice. So I studied Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Agriculture at Universitas Sumatera Utara in Indonesia and graduated with a specialisation in Soil Fertility. My first soil science course was about 25 years ago, where I learnt about Jenny’s factors of soil formation. I chose a major in soil science as the program had the most rigorous lecturers. Mostly basic soil science and quite a bit of rote learning. However, I enjoyed doing statistics, inverting a 6 x 6 matrix, calculating ANOVA and linear regression using a non-programmable calculator.

The author showing off his keen interest in statistics

With the support of my parents, I did my Masters in Sydney, as it is one of the few Universities in Australia that offered a Masters degree by coursework. I was then introduced to the more “modern” soil science, and fascinated using models and computers to solve soil problems. I started to learn basic programming languages, BASIC and FORTRAN. There were no readily-available packages. I have to code or modify other people’s codes to suite what I need.

I continued my PhD in 1997 with a topic on inverse modelling for predicting soil hydraulic properties with Alex McBratney. As an offside work, because of my programming skill, I built my first software program called Vesper, combining automated variogram calculation, nonlinear least squares model fitting, and kriging with local neighbourhoods. I presented it at the 1999 Pedometrics conference in Sydney. People were excited to see variogram fitting and kriging done in “real-time”. That was fun!! The 1999 conference also introduced me to the Pedometrics community, where I felt my work fit in nicely, and to be part of this energetic youngish community. Since then I tried to attend the biennial meetings, and learn more about pedometrics research.

Another breakthrough was around 2002 when Alex asked me to be involved in the writing of “On Digital Soil Mapping” article. We saw a large interest in this “new” type of mapping and so the paper and idea took off. I was fortunate to have Alex as a mentor, who always guided me in my research and career. My position at the University was supported through various fellowships for about 15 years. So my suggestion is don’t give up.

One of the advantages working in soil science and research is the chance to travel the world and working collaboratively with students and researches. Mapping soil of the world a pixel at a time. I enjoyed mapping saline soils in Iran, mapping carbon stock of Denmark, carbon stock of a field in Northwest of France, mapping peat thickness in Indonesia, estimating change in soil pH in Korea and more.

I am passionate about working with soil data, small and large. It is now an exciting time. More data are becoming available, various statistical routines are readily available. Computer memories are improving all the time. This increases efficiency and productivity, but also poses some worries. Some soil researchers proudly proclaim they are expert in machine learning. If you look it up, the simple definition of machine learning is pattern matching. I would rather be a humble soil scientist than a pattern matcher. If we follow the path of machine learning blindly, we simply loses our basic understanding of soil.

After 25 years, I still enjoy working in soil science, trying to incrementally contribute to the community. What helped me is a basic understanding of mathematical principles, and programming (being able to write an algorithm), but most importantly critical thinking. A bit of random chance, luck, but mostly perseverance, hardworking, and humility.

 

The author making sure Nathan Odgers recorded the correct water level (Narrabri, 2004).

Author: Budiman Minasny

Twitter: @BudimanSoil