“In this blog post, Tom Sizmur from the University of Reading discusses his career in soil or plant sciences”
Careers in science are entirely unpredictable. You can make grand plans about where you might go and what you might do but the reality of life is that you have to respond to the opportunities that present themselves and do whatever seems exciting at the time. You may end up exactly where you started, but the journey can be simply sublime.
The author in his full laboratory gear!
Like most contributors to this blog I never planned on becoming a soil scientist. As a teenager I was interested in ‘saving the environment’. I don’t think I really knew what ‘the environment’ was or how one goes about ‘saving’ it but fortunately I was interested in science and had chosen some sensible A levels which, despite my poor grades, got me on to the Environmental Science of the Earth and Atmosphere BSc programme at the University of Reading. The programme was a mixture of meteorology, geoscience and soil science. Meteorology was too difficult for me (all that maths!), Geoscience was too dull for me (it is hard to get excited about things that don’t change for millennia), but I was inspired by soil science. Soil was something that I had never given much thought to before but it was brought alive by Professor Stephen Nortcliff. At the time Stephen was Secretary General of the International Union of Soil Sciences and his lectures struck that perfect balance between introducing the role played by soils in the really huge challenges facing the planet (Food Security, Climate Change, Environmental Pollution) and backing this up with memorable anecdotes on how these issues play out in the real world, drawn from his trips all over the globe. We used to play hangman during his lectures, adding a line each time he mentioned another country he had visited, and seeing if we could complete the diagram before the lecture was finished.
At the end of my BSc and hungry to learn more about soils I searched for MSc programmes and came across Cranfield University, another soil science powerhouse. I enrolled on the MSc programme in Land Management right around the time when the department was moving from the Silsoe campus to the Cranfield campus. (I even volunteered to help pack and unpack the labs and a recent visit reveals that some of the things that I stuffed into cupboards thinking ‘this will do for now’ are still in the same places that I left them). Plan A was to graduate and work in the contaminated land industry but I was tempted (and slightly nervous) by the prospect of starting a PhD. If I’ve learned anything over the last few years in academia then it is that if something makes you nervous and takes you outside your comfort zone then you should probably do it. I got in touch with my BSc dissertation supervisor at the University of Reading, Professor Mark Hodson, to see if he had any PhD positions available. He did but the deadline for applications was just a couple of days away, so without time to over-think the situation I popped an application in and (long story short) I spent the next four years looking at the effect earthworms had on metals in contaminated soils. Experiments basically entailed taking metal contaminated soil and comparing the chemistry of the soil before it gets eaten by the earthworm with the chemistry of what comes out the other end. It was more fun than it sounds!
The author graduating from Cranfield University!
A big part of succeeding as an academic is learning the ‘rules of the game’. I don’t mean reading the guidelines for formatting and submitting the thesis, but working out what activities successful academics undertake. It became pretty clear to me from talking to people that already had a PhD that passing the viva and graduating really was the minimum requirement. To be an employable researcher you had to write papers and you had to network. I therefore set about doing exactly that while I was a PhD student (and still continue to do so). Rather than designing experiments that would contribute to a thesis, I designed experiments that would make good papers and as soon as I had the data I would process it and write the paper so that I had a publication record before I graduated. Most of the papers from my time as a PhD student were published before I submitted my thesis and all of them were submitted. This made writing the thesis a very easy task. I just had to write a few pages of introduction and conclusion to bookend the papers I had already written, which comprised a chapter each, and then ensure everything was in the same style and font. I did it over a weekend. When presented with a thesis which almost entirely comprised of published work that had already undergone peer review it was almost impossible for the examiners to level any major criticisms.
While I wasn’t collecting data and writing papers I attended as many conferences as possible, both nationally and internationally and funded some of these trips by applying for travel grants from various scientific societies. I’m not a natural networker. Approaching people I’ve never met before and striking up conversation takes me well outside of my comfort zone (hence it’s something I figured I should probably do). It helps to do a bit of homework first. Delegate lists or programmes are usually available ahead of most conferences and you can study these en route and make a shortlist of people that you’d like to meet. It then helps to know what you might say to them if you do bump into them. Express interest in a recent paper they have published, ask a question about their presentation. All scientists are flattered to know that someone is interested in their research. I also kept up my sleeve a list of postdoctoral scholarship schemes that would enable me to be eligible to work in their lab if we successfully applied.
The author working in the laboratory…again!
After my PhD I took the opportunity to spend a year in Nova Scotia, on the eastern coast of Canada. Why? Because the opportunity presented itself and it sounded like a fantastic place to spend a year. I was right. Nova Scotia is beautiful, everyone I met was ‘super awesome’ and the science was really exciting. The opportunity arose after a chance encounter with Professor Nelson O’Driscoll from Acadia University a conference in Seville. He was interested in the work I presented on metal contaminated earthworm poo in his session and told me that he was interested in how polychaete worms bioaccumulate mercury in mudflats. Fortunately I knew of a postdocrotal scholarship scheme that funded UK postdocs to work in Canada and after an exchange of business cards and emails we applied. The application was unsuccessful but Professor O’Driscoll was still able to support me for a year with his own funds to carry out the research anyway. Hey presto, I had my first postdoc position and I didn’t even need to attend an interview or compete with others!
Fieldwork in Nova Scotia
My next two postdoctoral positions at Iowa State University and Rothamsted Research were applied to through much more conventional channels, but in both cases the intention was to take me outside of my comfort zone and teach me new skills. I joined a Materials Science department at ISU (probably the only soil scientist working in a materials science department in the world!) and worked on designing environments that mimic aspects of the soil environment, using the capabilities of materials science, to study the effect of soil properties on plant behaviour. It exposed me to a completely different suite of techniques and a very different culture which took me further outside my comfort zone than I had ever been (or have been since). I then moved from studying single seedlings in very controlled conditions in the laboratory to managing large field experiments at Rothamsted Research, back in the UK, as part of an HGCA funded project to quantify the improvement in soil structure brought about by organic matter additions and the subsequent impact in crop yield. I really enjoyed the fieldwork at Rothamsted but it was only 1.5 years into this 3-year post that I had to make one of the hardest decisions of my professional life when the opportunity presented itself to apply for a lectureship back at the University of Reading. On one hand it would be a huge shame to leave Rothamsted and a job I loved, but on the other hand the lectureship at Reading was an opportunity to gain that all-important first permanent position at a world class organisation and to work with a group of colleagues that I knew I would fit in well with. I knew that it would be some time before another opportunity like this would come around again. Needless to say, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
Now that I have come full circle and am back at the University of Reading, sitting in the same building where I was first inspired during my undergraduate soil science classes, I have one piece of advice: Don’t try to plan a career in academia. Take the opportunities that present themselves, however mad or scary they may seem. The journey is much more important than the destination.
Author: Tom Sizmur