Gary Peterson (USA)
Gary A. 'Pete' Peterson
Position: Professor and Head
Soil and Crop Sciences Department
Colorado State University
Fort Collins , CO 80523
1. When did you decide to study soil science?
I majored in chemistry for the first 3 years after entering university, primarily because of an interest that developed in my later high school years. My chemistry interest remained, but I struggled with what I wanted to do with it. Academic counselors suggested I consider applying my chemistry interest to the field of agriculture. One of the first classes I enrolled in was 'Introductory Soil Science' taught by a master teacher, Professor Robert A. Olson. The subject matter was fascinating to me, and the following semester I requested that Prof. Olson be assigned as my academic advisor. In addition, he hired me as an undergraduate student assistant in his research laboratory, which put me in contact with his graduate student group. Following these experiences my career choice was easy; soil science and in particular soil fertility management. The change from Chemistry major to Soil Science (in an Agronomy Dept.) cost me an additional year of time to complete my B.S. degree, but it was well worth the time!
2. Who has been your most influential teacher?
Without a doubt, Professor Robert A. Olson at the University of Nebraska (now deceased). Two other persons also have greatly influenced my career; Dr. John Pesek at Iowa State University (my Ph.D. advisor) and Prof. Charles A. Fenster at the University of Nebraska (my unofficial mentor during my first academic position at Nebraska )
3. What do you find most exciting about soil science?
The most exciting fact about soil science, to me, is how soil functions are so tightly linked to the sustainability of earths life systems. This realization has grown as my career has matured; it was not as apparent to me when I started in my career.
4. How would you stimulate teenagers and young graduates to study soil science?
'Hands on' experiences are the best stimulus for teenagers. The trick is finding the correct venues for the experiences. In Colorado we do not have a good way to do this at present.
For college students, work experiences in research laboratories and field projects are very effective. Over my career some of my best graduate students who pursued careers in Soil Science started as undergraduate research assistants. Their interest is piqued as their eyes are opened to the applicability of our science to the solution of agricultural and environmental problems in a real world setting.
5. How do you see the future of soil science?
We need to focus our attention on young people beginning at the grade school level. Our professional societies must lead these efforts, but individuals need to act locally to make it actually happen. National level efforts like the Smithsonian exhibition, 'Dig It' The Secrets of Soil, sponsored by the Soil Science Society of America, are excellent platforms from which to launch our programs. However, the follow up must be at the local level.
We must also find ways to get soil science classes inserted into other curricula at our universities. This will require improved communication on a department to department basis, and I dare say on a professor to professor basis. As soil scientists we should be actively campaigning with our university colleagues about the value of placing their students in soil science classes.