The Accidental Soil Scientist!

The next post in our ‘Your Career in Soil Or Plant Sciences’ segment comes from The James Hutton Institute’s Matt Aitkenhead who talks, humorously, about the many obstacles he had to work around to become successful in his field of soils and data”

I became a soil scientist through a series of twists and turns. Most of us do, moving into the subject from some better-known or apparently sexier area. I’ll get into why this happens to everyone else later on, but I maintain that mine was probably one of the stranger routes to this particular destination; a Brownian motion of topic, buffeted with an eerie and apparent inevitability towards an enduring passion for the brown stuff.

I’d graduated from St Andrews with a classic Desmond, my youthful enthusiasm and naiveté blunted on four years of Astronomy and Astrophysics, with a side order of Theoretical Physics. I’m the first to admit: I wasn’t smart enough. Or at least, the mathematics I’d been so good at in school turned out to be a gentle whistle set against the full-orchestra symphony of what hit me as an undergrad. Chastened, I began preparing for the classic avoidance manoeuvre – I’d go to Australia for a year or so, working my way around as a jobbing barman until my Big Opportunity arrived.

Mum had other ideas. She’d just graduated from Stirling, a mature student with a rediscovered love for study. ‘Aberdeen has a space in their Soil Science MSc. They’ll take anyone with a science degree’. Hmm, thought I. One year, an extra qualification. Might help with the eventual job search. I don’t know anything about soil, but I’m only there for a year. It can’t be that bad.

That was 21 years ago. I still live in Aberdeen. Thanks, Mum.

Instantly, I was hooked. This wasn’t theoretical, this was real. This could make you dirty. It possibly helped that my supervisor was Graeme Paton, who is to Soil Science what Hannibal Lecter is to home-cooked dinners. I learned a lot, I laughed a lot. First lesson: the supervisor makes the subject.

One thing that baffled me was the messiness of it all. The study of soil includes physics, chemistry and biology. And surely those last two were just the first, in big lumps and slowed down a bit? It was all just physics and mathematics in the end, right? Yes, I hear your hollow laughter now, but back then I still thought physics was the One True Subject. Think Sheldon Cooper with one or two extra social skills.

So I did an MPhil, trying to model soil hydrology at the smallest scale, simulating pore structures and looking for hysteresis. I found it, and a lot more besides. I found a complexity that had nothing to do with chaos, or emergent properties. Also, I learned lesson two: soil scientists absolutely love an argument, and the ideologies are as intense as they are hair-splitting and obsessively detailed.

Luck struck again in the form of an institutional peculiarity. The University of Aberdeen waived course fees for members of staff? Hurrah! All I had to do was become a member of staff…and so I became the Plant & Soil Science storeman, handing out glassware, chemicals and plastic bags as a replacement for a recently-retired technician. Rule Four: most opportunities for career advancement come up when someone else leaves.

My PhD was immensely fun. I got to choose my own subject, and all I had to do was find a supervisor willing to, well, supervise. I created an unholy mishmash of artificial intelligence, scavenged environmental datasets and eye-watering assumptions. Like many other people at the turn of the century, I was discovering data mining. Enormous, geeky fun was discovered, along with Rule Five, which is important enough to deserve capitalisation: Write Your Thesis As Papers. Seven chapters mine had, and (eventually) seven papers. Admittedly, the last one took seven years, the death of one reviewer (I kid you not) and two changes of journal editor to make it to press. Perseverance pays.

On the strength of my ability to write code, use GIS and understand a little of the links between land cover, soils and land use, I got my First Academic Job at the Macaulay Institute. Trying to find a way to map Scotland’s land cover using a strange amalgam of satellite imagery, field survey data and the mythical beast known as ‘expert knowledge’. It didn’t work. The data was good, and the idea was sound. It just turned out to be a lot harder than anticipated. But Rule Six was first fully appreciated, that the results you get are not always the results you go looking for. Science was done. Papers were published.

Then the Smiths came along. Watch out for these guys, Pete and Jo. They look normal. Well, Jo does. How they accomplish what they do is beyond me. If you ever get the chance to work for someone whose successes make everyone else slightly intimidated, take it. Hang on tight, watch closely and pay attention to how they do it. You might want to go off and cry in a quiet corner occasionally, but my goodness, you’ll learn stuff. And Pete is still the only man I have ever done Latin Dancing with.

Three years of soil process modelling under the Smiths, and I thought ‘ha, now I’m a real academic!’ So I went and worked as a teaching fellow in Aberdeen’s School of Geosciences, after not quite acing the interview for a lecturer’s job. And I learned the truism that you really don’t know a subject until you’ve taught it. Remote sensing and GIS are pretty technical subjects, with very little in the way of grey areas – it either works or it doesn’t. But try teaching students with shaky computer skills and a passing familiarity with spatial awareness, and you really need to know what you’re talking about.

Rule Seven: take the chance to demonstrate/teach/assist. Until you’ve done that, the only lack of knowledge you have is your own. When you find out about what everyone else doesn’t know, you’ll discover plenty you hadn’t even realised you were ignorant about. Unknown unknowns, and all that.

Stupidly, I’d assumed that when the lecturer’s post was re-advertised, I would have gained enough experience and ability to walk into the job. Oh Rule Eight, you evil sod: absolutely everything, all your skill and knowledge, can be totally worthless if you mess up the interview. I was arrogant, and I was cocky. And I made an absolute hash of it, and someone else got the job.

So I needed a job. Now, saying this and then saying I went back to work at the Macaulay Institute will give the wrong impression. Just like saying that a year after I went to work there, the Institute stopped existing. One did not lead to the other (I think). Along with SCRI in Dundee, what became the James Hutton Institute was and is a pretty amazing place to work. Yes, we complain – it’s not perfect, nowhere is – but JHI or ‘the Hutton’ has got some of the most enthusiastic, dedicated people I have ever worked with. If you can’t do it there, then I’m pretty sure you can’t do it anywhere.

And so, back to soil science. Except, I’m not like the other soil scientists. And none of them are like any of the others either. It’s a massive subject, sitting on the overlap between so many other topics, that you can call yourself a soil scientist and actually look like a hydrologist, a microbiologist, an economist or a geologist. People drift into soil science, osmosing between subjects and sliding down gradients from elsewhere. They adsorb, finding a niche and an opportunity to do good. It’s a strange research area, different from others but underpinning them all, providing and supporting and nurturing like the soil itself.

One shared quirk we all seem to have is a sense of caring, of responsibility for the whole world. I think this comes from a realisation that without healthy soil, all we would have left is a choice of interesting ways to die – starvation, thirst, suffocation, drowning in mud or killed in some petty, pointless war over what few resources were left.

Me? I’m still a geek. I love the data, and am pretty useless out in the field with the hard-core spade-wielding soil survey fanatics. I prefer to take what they give, folding and contorting the data, looking for what it can tell me. Finding new ways to see the soil, either from up close or hundreds of kilometres away. You’ll find me and others like me, a can of some battery-acid energy drink near our twitchy elbows, muttering and staring at our multiple screens, trying to make sense of it all. How deep is that soil? How much carbon? Is it any use for growing crops, and if so, what might we lose in return?

Come and find us. And bring some dirt!!

Author: Matt Aitkenhead

Twitter: @aitkenhead_matt