Jock Churchman (Australia)
Name: Jock Churchman
Position: Adjunct Senior Lecturer (since 2009)
Address: The University of Adelaide, School of Agriculture, Food & Wine, Australia
1. When did you decide to study soil science?
I have never formally studied soil science. My initial degree, in New Zealand, was in chemistry. However, none of the PhD topics offering in pure chemistry in the year I finished attracted me much, and I spent the year beginning a BA in humanities (completed in 2005, 40 years later, with a thesis on the philosophical status of soil science). An enjoyable year nonetheless decided my preference for the quantitative over the qualitative and I took up a scholarship offered by the local ceramics industry for basic research into the clay mineral, halloysite. I enjoyed this very much, and also became aware of the important role of clays in soils. I went into soil science via a post-doc at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1971.
2. Who has been your most influential teacher?
My PhD oral examiner in New Zealand, Dr Morice Fieldes, was an early mentor on clays in soils. He recommended me to Professor ML Jackson at Wisconsin, who especially taught me the value of bold hypotheses. I have learnt much from such colleagues as Benny Theng, Kevin Tate, David Lowe and Roger Parfitt in New Zealand, from Keith Norrish, Phil Slade, Ralph Foster, Bill Emerson, Pichu Rengasamy and Will Gates in South Australia and, through study leave, from Donald Payne in Reading, England and Bob Gilkes in Western Australia. To do research is to continue to learn, including from students and even journal reviewers!
3. What do you find most exciting about soil science?
My journey in soil science has been from the strictly quantitative and relatively static area of clay mineral crystal structures, where the laws of chemistry and physics rule, into the much more dynamic realms of soil structure, where biology dominates and systems change with time, often over quite short time scales. Furthermore, as more new, often expensive, instruments are applied to study them, the more evident it becomes that even the inorganic components of soils are almost infinitely variable and also that they largely occur in an infinite variety of associations with other soil components.
4. How would you stimulate teenagers and young graduates to study soil science?
To study soils is to study materials and systems that are surely among the most fascinating phenomena in nature. Soil science demands many skills, thanks to its contributing scientific disciplines, including geology, crystallography, mineralogy, computer mapping, chemistry, biochemistry, physics, hydrology, mechanics, plant physiology, ecology, microbiology, and computer modeling. There are big scientific challenges involved in integrating information from all of these to distill out the essence of soils. There are also great challenges facing humanity, especially those of feeding the growing human population while sustaining the planet. The idea of tackling these can appeal to the idealism of many young people and meeting these challenges will necessarily involve soils as the basis of all terrestrial life.
5. How do you see the future of soil science?
Soils are so complex that they present major scientific opportunities, especially for interdisciplinary research. Even so, soils ultimately grow most of our food and much of the material for our shelter, while filtering and recycling much of our waste. The need for solutions to the problems involved in understanding soils will only become greater as population increases, as affluence grows and as attendant environmental problems and shortages become more pressing. These scientific and humanistic challenges need more of both the brightest and the best to study soils so as to ensure the optimal use of this valuable resource for future generations. It only (!) remains to convince politicians, educationalists and financiers of their importance.