Soil education through students

Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Linking Philadelphia and Camden, NJ. The 2013 Soil Ecology Society Conference was held in Camden this past summer.

John Dighton
Rutgers Pinelands Field Station
President Soil Ecology Society 2012-13

As we try to put the finishing touches to an edited volume on soil and plant growth, we are finding that a lot of discussion revolves around the diversity of soil organisms and their importance in driving soil processes. However, what is striking is exactly how little we still know about the interactions between these organisms and how they are involved in the ecosystem services that soil provides.

(Left: Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Linking Philadelphia and Camden, NJ. The 2013 Soil Ecology Society Conference was held in Camden this past summer. )

I wonder if this has something to do with the way biology, in many departments, is moving away from traditional biology, as I was taught, towards a more molecular and biochemical approach to the subject. In my day we were expected to know something about taxonomy of most groups of organisms and, although I have never been a great taxonomist, I do know how to distinguish between major groups of organisms and be able to get further in some selected groups.

To my current class in ‘Advanced Soil Ecology’ (which is not truly advanced as most of these graduate students have not had the opportunity to be exposed to a general soil ecology course), the fact that there is such a diversity of organisms in soil is an eye-opener.

Two students from this class come to mind.  Like many of our graduate students, they have full time jobs, and have realized that, perhaps, these organisms might be important.

One student works for a company that sells products to farmers to improve physical properties to soils, but had no awareness that soil organisms exist and may do something important that might relate to the products they sell.

I recently spent a morning with the main personnel of the company, at the invitation of the graduate student, talking with them abo

ut the diversity of organisms in soil and what they do. I got the impression that this was an exciting revelation to them and something they needed to explore further as it might impinge on how they could use their products to better effect, or how biotic factors may adversely affect their product’s success.

The second student works as an environmental consultant and deals with restoration of sites. Her current project has been involved with oil pipelines, where she has been trying to get contractors to pay more attention to the order in which they back fill with the soil horizons they have excavated. As she has been telling them more about what she is learning in class about the importance of soil biodiversity and its role in soil processes, the contractors have been more careful about what they are doing and can see that a healthy and diverse biota may help with the restoration of the site. Perhaps one-by-one we can chip away at education and get our messages across.

I have been lamenting the loss of traditional organismal based biology as I see this happening in one of my home departments. With the recent establishment of a Computational and Integrative Biology Program it has been decreed that all new members of our department must have a strong link to this program.

The interpretation of the program is that it should concentrate on genomics and metagenomics and associated modeling with an emphasis on the medical applications. I have no objections to this diverting part of the faculty into these areas, but the trend has been for every new hire to posses the skill sets and interest in these areas, leaving organismal biology sadly wanting.

It is heartening to see, however, that we still maintain a small hard core of students that have an interest in ecology (some completed their MS degrees by only taking the entire course offerings of the two faculty who teach ecological subjects).

The up and coming metagenomic, transcriptomic and proteomic methods offer great advances in our understanding of soil processes, especially those mediated by the microflora, and I see a greater need for ecologists and molecular biologists to work together to progress this area of science.

Despite my reservations about the direction in which my own department is going, I am heartened to see how successful the Soil Ecology Society has been in stimulating the interest of graduate students in soil ecology. Our recent meeting consisted of about 50% students participants, all of whom were doing excellent research. Their enthusiasm was evident and I look forward to seeing many of them taking over leadership roles in the society, pushing forward with educating others about the vital importance of soil and soil biodiversity in a world that seems to be very slow in altering positions on environmental problems that may have global implications. The Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative is an important step forward in this education initiative from which I hope future soil ecologists will benefit.