Bob MacMillan (Canada)
Address:7415 118 A Street NW, Edmonton, AB, Canada
Position:Owner LandMapper Environmental Solutions Inc.
1. When did you decide to study soil science?
I really didn't decide to study soil science until after I had been given a job as a soil surveyor. I began university enrolled in political science and English with a view to a career in journalism. I was required by university regulations to complete at least one course in science as part of my first year program. I elected to take a course in Earth Sciences that had a large soils component. I felt it would be one of the easier science courses and I had previously taken physical geography in high school and had enjoyed it. At the end of my first year, of university, I decided that I enjoyed science more than humanities and decided to transfer from Arts into Science and to major in geology. I took only one other course in soils from a geography department as part of my 4 year BSc, in geology but it was enough to help me land a summer job with Agriculture Canada, soil survey the spring that I graduated. This summer job led to an offer for a permanent job in soil survey with the understanding that I would register part time in an M.Sc. program in soils while working on soil survey.
2. Who has been your most influential teacher?
I have to say that the most influential teacher I have encountered is the landscape itself. Observing, studying and trying to understand how and why soils arrange themselves in the landscape the way they do has provided me with both my greatest inspiration and my most useful knowledge. In terms of people, I apprenticed as a field soil surveyor and the first two individuals I worked with (Doug Berry and Len Knapik) taught me my most important lessons about soil mapping. These were to enjoy myself while trying to trying to understand complex spatial patterns of processes and forms and to use this understanding to predict where soils would occur in the landscape. They also taught me that it was impossible to achieve perfection in mapping and that one had to do the best one could in the time available and then move on. Dr. Wayne Pettapiece was my Provincial Correlator for the 10 years that I was an active soil surveyor in Alberta and he greatly influenced my approach to mapping and interpreting landscapes. Dr. Ron Eyton introduced me to the use of digital elevation models, GIS and remote sensing at a time (1984-87) when I was searching for better tools to help automate the production of soil maps. Dr. Peter Furley supervised my Ph.D. and helped me to recognize that wisdom and service to others were important personal achievements. Finally, I met Dr. Peter Burrough first in 1986 after only knowing of him through his published papers. Peter was a huge inspiration to me for many years, as I greatly admired his incisive writing, brilliant ideas and ability to apply new technologies to the aging discipline of soil mapping.
3.What do you find most exciting about soil science?
The most exciting aspect of soil science for me is that it is an integrative discipline. It provides a venue for integration and practical application of ideas from geomorphology and geology, hydrology, biology, climatology and pedology. Soil science presents us with a spatial-temporal puzzle that we are challenged to solve. How do the various hydrological, geomorphological and pedological processes interact to result in the mosaic of soils that we discover when we study landscapes? Soils provide a means of interpreting what has occurred in a landscape in the past, what is presently occurring, and what may most likely transpire in the future. I also have enjoyed the fact that it is a field-based discipline that virtually requires one to get outdoors and to physically interact with the landscape, to learn from it and to appreciate it.
4.How would you stimulate teenagers and young graduates to study soil science?
The simple answer is that teenagers and young graduates will study soil science if they can believe that it will help them obtain interesting, relevant and well paying jobs. So, the discipline must make its taught courses relevant to activities where jobs are available. In the developed world, these jobs are mainly associated with studying, monitoring and preserving the environment in response to human activities that disturb it. Soil science needs to become a key component of university programs in ecology, environmental studies, resource management and physical geography. For me, the real appeal of soil science is the opportunity to study the environment in the field in an integrated and holistic fashion. I believe that young students would also be stimulated by studying soils in the field and not just in books and classrooms.
5.How do you see the future of soil science?
I believe that soil science has to adopt more quantitative methods to describe how soils form and where they occur in the landscape. Soil science has to become more like hydrology, which has adopted physically-based, deterministic models to describe, and attempt to predict, the flow of water in the landscape. Secondly, soil science has to become directly involved in addressing the key environmental issues that challenge society. It would be difficult to find an informed adult who had not heard the terms ecosystem or environment and who did not have some appreciation for the need to study and protect ecosystems, and the environment in general. Most will not have heard of pedology, and if they have, would probably have associated it with deviant behaviour against children. Soil science has to break out of its self-imposed segregation in stand-alone university departments of soil science and to become a smaller, but more vibrant and effective contributor to larger, more multi-disciplinary entities that are directly involved in addressing contemporary environmental issues. Soil science needs to be a key component of studies that address the major current issues of global warming, green house gasses, resource development, land degradation, sustainable agriculture and forestry. Soil science needs to undergo a re-definition and resurgence, in much the same way as geography has found new relevance and life through its association with new technologies (e.g. geographic information systems) and contemporary environmental issues (GHG, ozone hole, global warming, bio-diversity).