My Soil Story

In this next edition of our ‘Your Career In Soil Or Plant Sciences’ segment, Dr Brendan Malone from the University of Sydney, Australia, discusses his journey”

A couple of key events during my undergraduate studies in agricultural science ultimately coerced me to make the enquiry of soil my current profession in life.  Before this, there was nothing really from my childhood that I recall that made me particularly fascinated about soil. There is an old photograph however amongst our family photo albums of me as a bright eyed toddler in a baby walker chowing down on a bowl full of wonderfully black garden soil. I am literally covered in this material from top to toe with my encouraging siblings in various stages of hilarity coaxing me along.  I never put this event down to a ‘that was it’ moment, rather, just a funny childhood moment of misguided love on behalf of my 3 older siblings.

I guess I had a general interest in math and science at school. I was not particularly brilliant nor a brick wall either. I did ok in exams. I recall my teachers were not particularly inspiring people, and most of my report cards said I had some ability, but should apply it a bit more concertedly. I think during school I was more focused on sporting pursuits, with me being a keen runner and football (rugby) enthusiast. I worked out pretty quickly that by excelling in sports, I could get to travel round to all sorts of different places to participate in sporting carnivals, and even miss the odd day of school too.

When I was around 11 our family moved from where we were living in Wagga Wagga (147.37°E, -35.11°E) to a rural suburb around 10km away. It was an idyllic place in comparison to living in town. My parents took up gardening avidly and my siblings and I helped (often reluctantly) out a lot. We constructed flower and shrub beds everywhere, and made the most immense vegetable garden. We are talking about a series of garden strips enclosed within a 50m x 50m square. We grew everything imaginable in terms of veggies and herbs. I know that after the many hours that we spent in this vegie patch, turning the soil over, removing the weeds, and general upkeep that a lifelong passion for gardening was sparked here. Our back paddock was an agistment for a few horses owned by friends of ours, and I would regularly be out there collecting the manure from the field. Some of it used to be incorporated into our gardens, but I took great pride in developing what I liked to call ‘super juice’, aka an organic garden fertilizer. All this was, was a 44 gallon drum containing a soup of water and collected manure, regularly mixed and topped up. Without doubt this super juice could bring any withering plant back from the brink of demise, or that’s what I thought anyways.

After my formal education, I was not particular interested in going to a university. I moved to the city (Sydney) where a couple of my siblings were now established. I worked the odd job or two. I spent a year in a remote mining town in outback Queensland operating heavy mining equipment. Missing the family a bit I ventured back to Sydney and more-or-less went working with my brother who was and still is an outstanding arborist. For around 3 years at various companies we worked around Sydney removing, reshaping, and maintaining trees of all shapes and sizes. I loved this job; the working outdoors, being close to nature, driving big trucks and operating all sort of machinery and the accoutrements associated with tree maintenance and removal. Even now on the odd weekend, I gladly help out my brother doing the tree thing.

I think my motivation to get a ‘real edumacation’ was when my then girlfriend (now wife) was about to embark on a Bachelor of Education at University of Technology Sydney. I don’t know what it was, but flicking through and reading some of the university guides she had was a turning point. I think my first motivation was to study horticulture, though I particularly fancied viticulture and wine making, except this would require us making a pretty substantial move to where the course was offered. In any case I first attended and exceled at a course for preparing students for tertiary education. This was a 12 month course, and the learning and study just came so easy to me. I had excellent teachers, with one in particular who was able to make differential calculus such an enjoyable and fun subject. I think during this year of tertiary preparation that I zeroed onto the fact that the University of Sydney offered courses in horticulture. But I do recall very clearly that the related Science in Agriculture degree was also offered, which had a bit more variety in terms of the subject matter. There was some literature in regards to soil science in this course offering that made be particularly inspired. Consequently, this led me to enrolling to the Science in Agriculture stream at the University of Sydney in 2005.

The first of the key moments was a lecture in my first undergraduate year from Dr. Damien Field, whom gave the most incredibly interesting lecture about Vertosols and their distribution in Australia and around the world. Damien is a gifted communicator, but something was stirred during this lecture. The second moment was actually more like a semester where I completed my first course in soil science during my second year. Compared to my other courses, I always got the impression that the soil science teaching team were the most organized and proficient of all the academics within our faculty. The course was just really fun and expertly run. During my third year I was introduced to GIS of which I developed an immediate passion. I think it was because I love maps (an atlas is probably my favorite book really), and the ability to create them and perform simple spatial analyses at whim got my juices flowing a lot. But if I try to pick one point in time at uni which did it for me, then it was a soil science fieldtrip to the Hunter Valley as a third year student (151.28°E, -32.79°S). This fieldtrip required us to examine and describe soils down a toposequence (I actually worked on 3 different toposequences).

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Figure 1. I worked on describing the soils along these 2 soil toposequences (TC and TO) in 2007. Despite at times apocalyptic weather, I walked away from the fieldtrip deeply satisfied knowing that soil science was to be my métier.      

Despite at times apocalyptic weather — this was the time the Pasha Bulker, a 77 000 t Panamax bulk carrier ran aground on the reef at Nobbys Beach, Newcastle, not that far from where we were in the Hunter Valley— being out in the field, being amazed at the variation in soils down the slope, and being in a particularly beautiful part of the world really did it for me. At the end of the fieldtrip we were required to describe in detail an excavated soil pit. Dr Stephen Cattle was assigned to our pit expertly gave our group an amazing whirlwind pedological story about this particular soil. The soil itself was incredibly pleasing to visualise, but Stephen’s interpretation of its pedogeneisis I think will stay with me forever.

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Figure 2. Despite this soil being far from ideal for supporting any form of productive agriculture due to its acidic and poorly draining subsoil, its visual beauty intrigued me profoundly in 2007.  (Photo Acknowledgement: Assoc. Prof. Stephen Cattle)

It was in this same unit of study that I got my first taste of digital soil mapping. Prof. Alex McBratney intrigued me greatly, but I think the idea of coupling GIS and spatial soil modeling was quite a profound concept for me, and so I took to this component of the unit of study quite enthusiastically. My fourth year was dedicated to honors research, in which I studied whether soils near Orange, New South Wales — in and around Mt Canobolas (148.982°E -33.343°S) — were partly derived from Aeolian materials. Stephen Cattle was my excellent supervisor on this project and guided me through a raft of analytical techniques for analyzing soils that included high resolution particle size analysis and soil XRD to name a couple. To quench my own predilection for mapping, I also embarked on building a simple predictive model to help me figure out where the Aeolian materials might be situated across this particular landscape other than at the sites we had visited.

I think as a whole, my undergraduate studies made me appreciate the underlying science of things, and without any clear cut options for employment opportunities to go to after my honors, it was an easy option to stick around with the soils people and embark on some PhD studies. I recall an awkward conversation with Alex about whether he had anything in mind for a project I could do. I guess he was assuming I would continue my studies working in Stephen Cattle’s lab. But I think at the time (end of 2008) there was a growing enthusiasm about the creation of a digital global soil map.  Knowing Alex’s involvement in this, I could sense there could be an interesting research project to be involved in this global effort. I think at the end of our conversation he said to go and talk to Budi (Prof. Budiman Minasny). I think the rest is history really. My PhD studies took me overseas for the first time, where I attend a geomorphometry conference in Zurich, where I also coincidentally met Tomislav Hengl who helped me out on my steep learning curve of learning R and computer scripting.

From my PhD we were able to publish a few methods papers that have probably helped in the detailing of specifications the GlobalSoilMap project. I had plenty of good times during my 3 PhD years of which included the birth of 2 of my 3 children. After the PhD was out of the way I have embarked on various projects of the digital soil mapping kind as a research fellow working with both Alex and Budiman, and other colleagues. The job I have now continues to interest me, and I love the fact that my learning is constantly in flux. I pick up new skills all the time. Probably the biggest thing that frightens me now though, being some sort of an academic, is now I am compelled to become a researcher in my own right. It’s pretty daunting, and not something that comes easily and straightaway either. I am getting used to being looked upon by undergraduate students as an educator, I am also getting used to the idea that to do research, one has to regularly submit applications to funders whom may or may not finance your intend project. So while my PhD and even undergraduate years were years of immense discovery for me, I am also finding my years as a post doc equally enlightening and challenging, but in many varied and different ways. I think where I am at in terms of an academic profession is a difficult middle ground between completing PhD and getting something akin to tenure. I think the academic life is to my liking though, so I think I will stick it out in this strange purgatory until something permanent (if that concept of employment exists anymore) comes along.

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Figure 3. Head down, bum up. That’s generally how I roll when it comes to work. Here I am trying to teach pedology and soil spectral inference (simultaneously) to a group of enthusiastic undergraduate students. 

So what advice can I give to current postgraduate students? Clearly those years of study can be ones of great discovery as they were for me. I suppose having a clear concept of exactly when you want to finish a task and move on to the next task is rather important. I am all for encouraging people to go down a rabbit hole or two and seeing what can be made of it. But it is important to put limits on this and recognize that your investigations will never fully encapsulate the problem you are trying to solve or find answers for. That’s what lifelong study is for. So in this regard, it is important to document what you do have answers for in addition to those that you do not have answers. I have seen a few times people go down the rabbit hole, who are then unable to trace back to where they started, or for what reasons they started. So the solution I would say to students is with the help of their supervisor is to discretize their project at the outset. The project is a whole, but is composed of a suite of elements, and ultimately research outputs. Sure, at times it is possible to juggle all the elements simultaneously, but it is important to focus on one element at a time in some purposive sequence. I would even recommend that for each element to put a timeframe around each. I would even recommend that you also consider distilling each of those elements into research papers for publication or at least some substantive technical documentation so as not to be running round in a complete daze around the time that you should be submitting your thesis.

The idea of having your research critiqued via the peer review process I found was entirely useful because I was able see things from the perspective of researchers other than my supervisors. I certainly felt the crushing humiliation of rejection as a PhD student, but oftentimes the critique is spot on, and you just need to put those experiences down as learning curve stuff. I actually found that by the time of thesis submission, I had already gone through the trials and tribulations of peer review for selected chapters that I was not at all worried or concerned about the commentary I got back from my thesis reviewers.

Another recommendation I would give to students is to get into the habit of writing and documenting everything that you do. For example, I keep a diary of my daily activities to discipline myself into the habit of writing frequently. It is harder to keep up this diary habit these days with extra demands on my time, but during the PhD studies, I found the habit to really benefit me in terms of developing a writing style and enhancing my breadth of communication.

For me, I found as a PhD student that the best way to learning something was to teach it. Many people say this of course, but I can personally attest to this. I was able to get my head around linear algebra by teaching it to second year biometry students. I think my understanding of geostatisitics and digital soil mapping have all come about through standing up the front of everyone and teaching it. The process forces one to distill the most important elements efficiently, so that you can better focus your efforts.  With time, that learning process becomes more nuanced and as a result your teaching efforts become a little easier too.

Lastly, something I found particularly useful in my studies (but making sure I didn’t go too far down the rabbit hole) was to seek out help, and where I could, help out my colleagues and other students. This may seem a normal thing to do, but sometimes the odd conversation here or there, or sitting down to nut out a problem with a colleague other than your supervisor can be very rewarding. I think I got on top of numerical classification and fuzzy clustering during my PhD by working with one of Alex McBratney’s honors students. Similarly I learnt about design-based sampling and inference from other students. So I guess the message I am trying to convey is that don’t limit your learning to the confines of your project, you will pick up new things along the way that are not immediately useful but could be gems later on. But watch out for rabbit holes!

In summary, I like other professional soil scientists have had an unconventional pathway to this career. I wonder if there is actually a conventional pathway though, probably not. I believe I am quite passionate about the profession. I think some of the life and technical skills I acquired prior to becoming a soil scientist have actually been of great benefit at times. For example, I easily take into stride the various logistic and field challenges that crop up during a soil survey, because of my ability to organize and operate machinery and tools etc. In any case, postgraduate study is merely just a short chapter of your life; it is not your whole life. It is a time of immense discovery, but let it be said that there will be greater challenges ahead of you in life so get over it and submit that bloody thesis!

Author: Brendan Malone

Twitter: @sOiLmAlOnE