Mary Beth Kirkham (USA)
Department of Agronomy
1. When did you decide to study soil science?
I was exposed to soil science from my earliest memories through my father, Don Kirkham, a professor of agriculture and physics at Iowa State University. Under his guidance, I did my first soil science experiment in high school (seeing the effect of earthworms on corn growth). In college, I originally planned to be an English major. After I had an excellent ecology course taught by Dr. C. Robert Shoop, I switched my major to Biological Sciences. My first job after I got my Ph.D. was with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where I studied the uptake of heavy metals on sludge-treated soil. I have done soil science research since then.
2. Who has been your most influential teacher?
Dr. Shoop influenced my career choice. Dr. Wilford Gardner, my thesis advisor for my M.S. and Ph.D., was my most influential teacher in graduate school.
3. What do you find most exciting about soil science?
What I find most exciting about soil science is seeing how basic laws of physics and chemistry can be applied to it. Through quantitative relationships, we can predict what will happen.
4. How would you stimulate teenagers and young graduates to study soil science?
I would have children do soil science experiments from an early age. The exposure to soil science should begin before the teenage years. Even nursery-school children should be taught about soil. Both mother and father need to encourage the child's interest. The support of the mother is especially important for female soil scientists.
5. How do you see the future of soil science?
The future of soil science is good, because new problems will always need to be solved. However, as a professor, I am concerned about graduate students who are rejecting careers in soil science, because they do not want to spend their professional lives writing grant proposals. They see that their major professors have to do this. Students want to do research, not raise funds. In the USA, we are losing good minds to other professions because of poor funding. The number of graduate students in my department has fallen 40% in the past four years. Other countries, like China, are actively supporting soil science research. I also am concerned about discrimination I see against minorities and females. Soil science must be inclusive. However, despite poor funding and discrimination, there will always be a few people who have a burning desire to do research and teaching, and soil science will remain vibrant because of these dedicated people.