By Adam Cobb, Oklahoma State University, ESA Soil Ecology Section Student Travel Award winner
The Ecological Society of America’s (ESA) annual conference – most recently held in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida – has been a meaningful part of my professional journey. In 2012, I gave my first scientific conference presentation at ESA in Portland, Oregon. Now, four years later, I was able to present again – just as I finish my time in grad school. However, my presentation was not what I found most exciting about this conference.
This year, the majority of the soil-related presentations were spread across various sessions. That seems right to me. How can we have a session on climate change without considering soil? How can we have a session on sustainable agriculture without considering soil? How can we attempt to address better practices in restoration ecology without considering soil? Those who worship the belowground world need to infuse every ecological discussion with our love of getting dirty and the tiny allies who live underneath us.
I particularly enjoyed two soil presentations. One of these focused on the use of cover crops in agroecosystems. I was driven to speak with the presenter after his talk because I was so impressed by his statistical jujitsu. Those who know me can tell you that I have never been so excited about mathematical analysis! On Thursday, as part of a session on the use of microbes in ecological restoration, I learned more about soil crusts – which might be my new favorite restoration topic. Researchers are uncovering how to use them to combat soil erosion on a large scale, and the success they have had in propagating healthy soil crusts is remarkable.
It is critical that soil researchers find each other and share their creativity. This conference, and the efforts of the Soil Ecology Section, as well as the Microbial Ecology and Biogeochemistry Sections, facilitated this. We were able to meet our peers, and dream together as a group. What can we do to enhance the soil discourse at ESA and globally? From marketing, to community outreach, to potentially supporting small grants for graduate student collaboration, there is a vision to discover and communicate the benefits and wonder of soil life.
Considering the state of soil, it is easy to become discouraged. By some estimates, we are losing this resource 30 times faster than it is replenishing. That is untenable and frightening. Living soil supports living people. As we diminish soil, we run of risk of diminishing our entire planet. We must tell people this hard truth without losing hope ourselves.
I found a lot of hope in students presenting their soil research for the first time at ESA 2016 – just as I had done four years ago. It is my goal to be part of a community of soil researchers who encourage and support and mentor these new dirt worshipers. At conferences, in the field, and even through simple emails, we can keep each other focused and passionate about looking for answers within the soil.