John Ryan (Syria)
Address: Int. Ctr for Agric. Res. in the Dry Areas(ICARDA, Aleppo , Syria)
Position: Soil Scientist (since 1992)
1. When did you decide to study soil science?
Prior to graduation with a B.Agr.Sc Degree from University College Dublin in 1967, I had already settled on soil science for graduate study. Coming from a farm background, I was always fascinated by soil. I loved the smell of soil after freshly dug potatoes in early summer and the fragrance of the earth after rain. I often pondered why mushrooms grew profusely n one field and not so well in another. I also wondered how the dung that I spread by pitchfork worked wonders in producing a good crop of potatoes or why growth of grass was so green and lush after spreading ammonium sulfate, or why we used to side-dress sugar beet seedlings by hand with Chilean nitrate. I loved the smells of the farmyard, particularly from the dung heap in early summer (I was later to learn that it was ammonia being given off). Choosing soil science for graduate studies and a career was, for me, much more than a means to making a living; there was a broader almost spiritual element to it.
2. Who has been your most influential teacher?
Graduate degree programs in Ireland are wholly based on research (a mistake, as I now see it), and so one is not normally exposed to a range of teachers as in the USA (I was later to audit several courses in the US while at the University of Arizona ). However, the person who influenced me most and furthered my interest in soils was the late Professor William 'Bill' Brickley, one of nature's true gentlemen. I admired his obvious love of soil science, especially the practical aspects. I was attracted to his fundamental human decency and his impish sense of humor and I loved the smell of the tobacco from his pipe that was always close by! As an undergraduate in the Soils Teaching Lab, I enjoyed listening to his soil stories from his years as a local agricultural instructor. After post-doc studies in the USA and some time as a professor at the American University of Beirut, I looked forward to coming home and seeing him again and thanking him (over the proverbial pint of Guinness) for setting me on the right career path. Unfortunately, it was not to be, but I treasure his memory.
3. What do you find most exciting about soil science?
The most obvious aspect is that our food supply comes from the soil, with a bit of help from manures and fertilizers and often some lime, as in Ireland . Later in Arizona , I came to appreciate that soil had an environmental dimension and that soil can mediate with the atmosphere for absorption of gaseous pollutants. As I traveled, I came to appreciate the global diversity of soils and that few soils are perfect for growing crops, while others may have components that are toxic to crops. I also saw soils as living incinerators of man's wastes. Soil and water are inextricably linked. At ICARDA in the historic Middle East region, I saw how soils dictated the rise of ancient civilizations, and how civilizations fell with the abuse of soils. The 'Dead Cities' that litter northeastern Syria are mute testimony to the follies of previous generations. There, a study of tells, or ancient man-made habitation mounds, served to indicate the importance of soils for the archaeologist in his quest to elucidate the evolution of earlier societies. The emergence of 'soil forensics' serves to demonstrate the many and varied aspects of this material that some call 'dirt'. The recently published, and unique book 'Soils and Culture' by Landa and Feller, rounds off the wonderful spectrum of characteristics of soil. Working with an international agricultural research center sponsored by the Consultative Group on International Agriculture (CGIAR) has afforded me a perspective of soils in relation to society that I could not have gained anywhere else.
4. How would you stimulate teenagers and young graduates to study soil science?
With fewer and fewer people coming from an agricultural background and the inexorable trend toward urbanization, the challenge to break down the barriers of ignorance about agriculture is immense.
Soil scientists need to adapt to the changing circumstances and become communicators to a non-science non-agricultural audience. National soil science societies should strive to have soils information part of schools curricula in geography and environmental studies, and indeed cultural studies. Soil science needs another Norman Borlaug as well global champions such as David Attenborough, or maybe a Bob Geldoff for soils? We need to address other scientific disciplines; it often amazes me when talking to some well educated professional people how little they know about the material that supports them, the material that provides medicines for them, the material on which their cities are built upon, and the material that will eventually consume them and so complete the cycle of life. The problem is that, as soil is all around us, we take it for granted. Innovations in thinking and communications are needed to address the problems of a changing world.
5. How do you see the future of soil science?
I don't have a crystal ball, but I hope that renewed appreciation of soil will not come from a major world catastrophe, but from the collective and rational will of society and its scientific institutions. With a world population now at unprecedented levels, the role of soil in balancing the global food demand-supply equation was never greater, and even more so when we consider the environment and the need to live in a world where animals and plants and nature must co-exist. 'THEY ARE NOT MAKING LAND ANY MORE'; if anything, the supply of land is diminishing, being buried under concrete. The decline of soil science as a profession in the past decades is a bad omen. But the challenges in future can be great, especially as soil science is broadened to embrace concerns other than food production, in which it had a major contribution. The challenges for soil science to contribute to sustainable food production are still urgent in developing countries. New and exciting frontiers are emerging for soil scientists, especially in relation to the environment, energy, and climate change. As soil science has evolved to serve the interests of society over the past century, it surely will continue to do so. Soil science is international--- and a global career beckons.
The profession can have greater visibility in serving mankind.