Saturday Soil Science Story - Oct. 6, 2018

This week has been CRAZY! So I’m going to keep this week’s post fairly brief. Over the weekend, my friend Kelly was in town, so I waited to post my stories until Sunday. I spent the day working in the lab, but my tasks weren’t too glamorous. While I {somewhat} identify as a soil chemist, most of my lab work does not involve mixing chemicals, pouring liquids between beakers, or running machines to get chemical analyses. Rather, most of my time is spent on preparing a clean, functional work space and recording detailed information about my samples for quality control and accurate calculations later on. Here are the big three tasks!

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1) Fixing Equipment & ‘Building’ Automation
I never expected that I would wire electricity for soil sensors or build a PVC manifold when I started graduate school. I’m not an engineer! But I’ve spent countless hours acting as a plumber, electrician, engineer, and technician over the past few years. Sometimes I am working to fix equipment worth more money than I owe in student loans. I’ve had to troubleshoot issues on a gas chromatograph, ion chromatograph, and flow injection system. At other times, I’ve worked on building my own equipment to make a job easier. When I was doing greenhouse experiments, I created a vacuum manifold to pull soil solution samples from 40+ soil units at once. We also use PVC columns to wash sand, which I’ve re-caulked on several occasions. I’ve really enjoyed being able to think through technical issues and troubleshoot, but it would be okay if things went smoothly every now and then. I wouldn’t complain!

2) Cleaning Glassware
As you can imagine, accurate soil chemistry requires a clean and sterile environment so that samples are not contaminated. We have a multi-step process that requires soaking dishes in soapy water, rinsing, soaking dishes in dilute hydrochloric acid (HCl), soaking dishes in ultra-pure water, and finally rinsing and letting the dishes air dry. Even when we order new glassware, like beakers, flasks, etc., we always run the materials through this process so that we can eliminate any contamination when we move to the next step. Any guesses on the only material that we can’t run through the acid bath? It’s metals! If we were to put metals in the acid, they would start to corrode. Metal spatulas and weighing dishes only go through the steps that don’t require acid washing. When undergraduate technicians work in the lab, this is often their responsibility, but right now, our lab doesn’t have any helpers. Even if it’s a pain, I know that it is super important to thoroughly prepare the materials that I’m using in the lab so that I can produce sound data.

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3) Weighing Soil Samples
Another way that we ensure that we’re producing sound data is by knowing exactly how much soil is in each of our samples when we start chemical analyses. Running soil tests is similar to a recipe. It often starts by dictating how much of each “ingredient” is required for the test. On Great British Bake Off, they weigh their ingredients really precisely, but in my kitchen, I sort of just throw things together (perhaps why I’m not a contestant on a reality cooking show). In the lab, I try to be a bit more precise and know exactly how much soil I’m weighing into each of my sample containers. For example, the procedures may call for 5 g of soil. My scale will allow me to weight exactly 5.0000 grams, but it would take so long for me to make 500+ samples weigh exactly that amount. Instead, I get as close as I can to 5 g and then record the exact weight of each sample. When I finish procedures, I can account for the different weights in my calculations. Similar to thoroughly washing glassware, weighing out soil samples exactly allows me to produce good scientific data. Of course, I’m always introducing human error when recording weights, transferring samples, taking readings on machines, converting values, etc., but there are steps I take to eliminate this error.

Hopefully, this explains a little more about the not-so-exciting work that I do in the laboratory. One of these weekends, I’ll try to show you the fun stuff - running samples on a machine, getting results, and telling you what those numbers mean for the ducks that use my wetlands! Until then, thanks for letting me share my rather boring weekends with you. Cheers!

Saturday Soil Science Story - Sept. 29, 2018

I had big hopes to get to the lab and look like I was doing some interesting soil science work on Saturday, but unfortunately, I had to spend the day doing some work that looked far less exciting. Nonetheless, computer work is an incredibly important part of my life as a soil scientist right now. If you were following along on Saturday, I discussed creating priorities, finding balance between writing manuscripts and applying for jobs, and ended the day with a state soil quiz. Here’s a quick recap!

Lists, lists, and more lists

After posting a picture of my current to do list, someone informed me that I need to get more hobbies outside of work. Trust me, I’m aware. This fall has been incredibly busy and I’ve been working to make sure that I am prioritizing tasks that are important, rather than simply being busy to be busy. Each day, I look at my to do list and try to pick the most important tasks for the day. Most days, the highest priority is to work on my dissertation manuscripts. But what happens when other tasks have imminent deadlines? For instance, as I’m working on applying for jobs, I have to decide how much time to spend editing manuscripts and how much effort I should put into writing good cover letters. Typically, I have to make sacrifices on my work deadlines, or I have to sacrifice sleep. At the same time, I coach the soil judging team and work with a science policy fellowship program in Missouri. These activities don’t necessarily take high priority professionally, but they are personally very important to me. I realize that my method of prioritizing and getting work done, won’t work for everyone, but here are some general guidelines that I use when deciding how to spend my time.

  1. From my large to do list, I identify 1 high-priority task that needs to be done each day, and any other tasks that have upcoming deadlines.

  2. For tasks that have upcoming deadlines, but are not of high professional priority (press releases, fundraising letters, emails, etc.), I set a specific time frame to work on those tasks. Typically, this will be 1 hour following my planning period in the mornings or 2 hours before bed.

  3. For long-term, high-priority tasks, such as working on a manuscript, I try to break down large goals into several smaller goals. I’m a person who is driven by completing tasks, thus, “Finish Germination Study Results” may be on my large to-do list, but my daily list may say “Reformat Figure 1” or “Outline Discussion”, which are tasks I can usually cross off with a couple hours of work.

  4. Finally, meetings are probably the biggest distraction I have throughout my week. This semester, I am attempting to set agendas and make meetings as quick and efficient as possible. I try to schedule meetings for 30 minutes, rather than 60 minutes. I have been attempting to schedule lunch or breakfast meetings so that I can meet while I would typically not be working in the first place.

My schedule and prioritization still needs some improvements, but I try to be intentional with my time so that I can work on tasks that are both professionally and personally important to me. And getting to spend time on the weekends with friends and family is pretty great too! In the past couple years, I’ve learned to appreciate days off and spending time relaxing with loved ones. I always used to feel like I needed to rush through school to get on with my life, but now I try to enjoy the time I have right now and not place so much importance on working non-stop.

State Soil Series

Because job applications and working on research posters aren’t too visually thrilling, I decided to post some nice pictures of soil at the end of the day Saturday. Specifically, I posted five photos of the State Soil of five states where I have applied to positions or will be applying this fall. If you’d like to learn more about State Soils check out the Dig it! Exhibit! I offered to send “I Heart Soil” stickers to anyone who could guess the states correctly, but unfortunately everyone was a bit off. Here are the photos and the states to which they belong. Thanks for playing along!

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Saturday Soil Science Story - Sept. 22, 2018

When I spoke with a class of 6th graders last spring, they asked me why I became a soil scientist. I answered that “soil is important and I can study soil anywhere in the world”. After nearly six years as a “professional” soil scientist, this sentiment still holds true. Last Saturday, I had so much fun telling my Instagram followers about what was happening in my life as a soil scientist, that I think I’m going to start posting similar stories every Saturday and writing a corresponding blog post. As you look at my page, you’ll notice I’m not a great blogger, but I hope a few people (i.e., my mom and dad) will enjoy reading about what I do as a scientist studying dirt.

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Missouri Soil Judging Team
That’s right, I said soil judging. What is this strange concept, you may ask? Well, soil judging is the World Cup of my profession. Each fall, undergraduate teams compete at regional contests to qualify for a national contest held each spring. In 2017, I reinvigorated the Mizzou Soil Judging Team with six undergrads who had never participated in the past. We did great at the 2017 regionals, but didn’t qualify for nationals, however, we competed in a different national competition last spring AND WON! Last week, we competed at the Region V Soil Judging Contest in Manhattan, KS against seven other universities. We didn’t win, but we did take fourth place overall which allowed us to qualify for nationals! Next April, we’ll be headed to San Luis Obispo, California to see some interesting soils and compete against the best teams in the nation. I can hardly find words to express my pride in this team. They were so excited that they cried when their name was called. They have heart. They have passion. And it is an honor to be their coach. I’m getting a little choked up writing this..

Mizzou School of Natural Resources Open House
If you caught my Instagram stories on Saturday, you may have noticed that my first scene was digging up soil and putting it in a fish tank (in inappropriate shoes..). It’s not every weekend that I get to participate in an outreach event, but on Saturday, families flooded onto campus for Parents Weekend before the big game (don’t ask me who was playing). I was responsible for the soil science display, as well as a display about aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates. For the soil display, we had soil monoliths, samples that showed different soil colors, shapes, and sizes, and a map where visitors could pin their hometown and see what soil they live on. It was a hit! And I’d like to give a huge shout out to Lindsey and Andrew with the Soil and Water Conservation Club, who helped out at the booth all morning.

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Back to the soil in a fish tank - to showcase the different ecosystems where my lab mates sample invertebrates, I created a mini landscape inside a fish tank. I had some soil exposed to represent a hill and “terrestrial” inverts and then some soil was submerged to create a wetland and show “aquatic” inverts. Turns out, everyone thought there were insects inside the fish tank, but it was only meant to be exemplary. Luckily, no one asked me questions that were too tough and I was able to talk a bit about the research I’ve been hearing from Anson and Kyle for the last two years.

After the excitement.. computer work
If you’re supposed to pick a profession that excites you, I certainly feel like I’m in the right place, especially after our soil judging successes and outreach event. I love telling people about soil science, teaching students about how soils form and develop overtime, and thinking of ways to clarify concepts to people who aren’t soil scientists. I’m also finally getting to the point where I feel competent in this discipline. Unfortunately, after being excited and passionate about soil science all week, I was a little exhausted the rest of the day on Saturday. As a graduate student, my work really never stops, especially during these last few months of my Ph.D. Instead of drinking lots of caffeine and forcing myself to be super productive on Saturday, I instead decided to lounge in bed and start to get caught up on emails and other upcoming tasks. For my official grad student responsibilities, I was working on making a poster for a meeting in October and writing the first chapter of my dissertation. However, I also co-run a policy fellowship program and now have to fundraise to attend a soil judging contest in California, so my brain is always moving in several different directions. It was nice to relax, take the path of least resistance (catch up on journal alerts), and watch a bit of The West Wing, my latest binge obsession.

Next Saturday
Right now, my schedule is open next Saturday, so I’ll probably be in the lab! Hopefully I’ll also have time to adventure with Kyle and Clyde out in the woods or at a wetland conservation area. But wherever I go, or whatever I’m doing, I can’t wait to share how soil science is involved and why it’s important! Talk to you next week!

Kansas Governor's Water Conference 2017: A good place to start

When I began my journey to talk with folks in the Great Plains about playas, I had a goal to visit each state in the region twice. Upon learning of the Kansas Governor’s Water Conference, I decided it would be a great event to kick off my tour de playas! The Governor’s Water Conference takes place annually in Manhattan, KS, bringing landowners, state agencies, industry, and non-profit organizations together to discuss pressing issues surrounding water in the state. Well, I learned that there is one big pressing issue surrounding water in Kansas – there’s not enough of it! Almost every talk I listened to discussed how to deal with the impending water shortage to protect crop production, livestock, and wildlife in the Kansas.

Because this was the first non-academic conference that I’ve attended since starting my Ph.D. work in playas, it was certainly a learning experience. I had to transition out of my research mindset and think about water issues facing real people every day. I have a strong theoretical knowledge of playas, but I lacked familiarity with conservation efforts on the ground and challenges associated with converting playas back to a semi-natural state. I found out different government incentive programs

In addition to gaining some practical knowledge of Kansas playas, I also was able to meet some of the Kansas playa players. Yes, playa players. I met Jessica Mounts, director of the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, and organization who hosts workshops and field days in Western Kansas to raise awareness of playa conservation. I also had the opportunity to meet with Dr. David Haukos, a member of my dissertation committee and biologist at Kansas State University who has been studying playas for 30+ years. He’s a BIG playa player. Through Jessica and Dave, I found out about a playa field day taking place in Colby, Kansas in January 2018. Look for more information coming soon on this event!

Overall, I was extremely impressed with the comradery among the agricultural and conservation communities in Kansas coming together to address water shortage and the declining Ogallala Aquifer. While I didn’t win the student poster contest, I was glad to attend the meeting and learn more about Kansas water initiatives and some of the work taking place with playas in the state. I look forward to returning to Kansas in January to tour playas and talk with landowners about benefits and challenges of having playa wetlands on their properties. Special thanks to Dr. Bill Johnson at University of Kansas for recommending I attend this conference!

Playa wetlands in a changing climate: Taking science to stakeholders in the Great Plains

Playa wetlands for the future!

Picture yourself traveling down I-40 through Oklahoma and Texas. Or across Nebraska on I-80. Likely, you aren’t envisioning large lakes or beautifully flowing rivers (with the exception of the Platte River!). The Great Plains tend to be fairly dry, yet they contain an incredible density of small, seasonally-flooded wetlands, known as playas. 

Playas are shallow, rain-fed wetlands throughout the Great Plains. When wet, playas provide crucial habitat for many wildlife species that depend on water to survive, such as ducks, frogs, and bug larvae. When dry, playas also support several other Great Plains wildlife species because they are often the only natural lands in a region dominated by agricultural production. Playas also recharge water to the underlying aquifer, filter nutrients and chemicals from the surrounding watershed, and add recreational value to the region.

In the next 50 years, the Great Plains temperature is expected to increase substantially, and precipitation will begin to decline in all seasons except the spring. These climate changes pose an additional threat to the already vulnerable playa ecosystems. In a changing climate, it will become more important for private landowners, conservationists, and researchers to join together to preserve playas and the functions they serve throughout the Great Plains.

It’s time to get the conversation started. In an effort to assist existing outreach efforts in the Great Plains, I have been traveling to field days and events throughout the Great Plains to provide learn about stakeholder perceptions, develop educational materials, and provide field demonstrations to describe playa sensitivities to climate change and suggest conservation efforts that may help to mitigate further degradation. Field days have covered general playa characteristics, playas in a changing climate, managing for biodiversity, best management practices, and conservation support programs.

Field days have been hosted by a variety of organizations, including Playa Lakes Joint Venture, Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, Ogallala Commons, Texas Department of Wildlife and Parks, Kansas Water Office, Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, and Ducks Unlimited.

The time is upon us to work towards an integrated, healthy, productive landscape throughout the Great Plains moving forward. We can control the fate of playas in the future by thinking about how we can manage playas for the future today!

Assessing Stakeholder Perceptions

In addition to attending field days, I am working with stakeholders to describe playa sensitivities to climate change and explore conservation strategies. In partnership with the University of Missouri and Missouri Transect EPSCoR Project, I am conducting a research survey aimed at gathering information on how communities in the Great Plains currently view climate change. I am also collecting data on how communities perceive the challenges and solutions for problems caused by climate change in playa wetlands and agricultural ecosystems. Through this survey, I hope to provide tools and support stakeholder engagement through productive discussions about issues impacting playa wetlands and their functions in communities across the Great Plains.  

The request for information through my survey did not originate from NCCWSC or U.S. Government funds. The survey is being conducted independently by the School of Natural Resources at the University of Missouri and the Missouri Transect EPSCoR Project.

We are inviting community members and stakeholders to provide input on their experiences regarding playas and climate change. Access the survey here.

Preparing for the annual ASA, CSSA, SSSA Meeting

In a few short days I'll be headed to Tampa, Florida to attend the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America annual meeting. Last year, my colleagues (Leo Bastos and Martin Battaglia) and I wrote a brief article to help graduate students prepare for the meeting, so I thought I'd share that information as my first blog post on this site! While these tips were created for the ASA, CSSA, and SSSA meeting, they certainly apply to any professional society conference. Enjoy! 

Ten Steps to Prepare First-Time Graduate Students Attending the Annual Meeting

Reprint from October 2016 issue of CSA News

The ASA, CSSA, and SSSA Annual Meeting can be a bit overwhelming for first-time graduate student attendees. Follow these 10 steps to prepare yourself before the meeting, so that you can arrive with a plan of action and leave with a feeling of success!

1. Bring Business Cards You just met someone who could be a future employer. The last way you want to share your information is on a torn piece of paper, right? Bring business cards, which can be ordered online or through your university or even printed at home. Remember to include your name, current institution and position, address, email, and phone number. There are great tips online on how to make your own business cards in using Word.

2. Prepare Your Elevator Speech Everyone is so busy at the meeting, and if you have the chance to talk to someone in a hurry, having your elevator speech ready is the best strategy! An elevator speech is a brief introduction of yourself. It is usually less than 30 seconds long, so it may take you some practice to summarize your position, degrees, current research, and future plans in such a short time. Nonetheless, people will appreciate your preparedness and objectivity. Also, this is the perfect time to hand out one of those business cards you brought!

3. Be Intentional A researcher’s name came up many times on your literature review, and you would love to meet her/him in person. Face your fear and shyness by walking up to that person and introducing yourself. Even the busiest researcher at a meeting enjoys getting to know students, so sharpen up that elevator speech, have your business card ready in your pocket, and go for it!

4. Dress Code The graduate student dress code is somewhat more flexible, and it depends a lot on your personality. Normally, you would see male students wearing a button-up shirt, khaki pants and matching belt, and dress shoes. Female students usually wear slacks or skirts with nice shirts and comfortable shoes. Nonetheless, many people wear jeans and polo shirts. At the end of the day, it will depend on how comfortable you feel and on your personal style. Dress is typically a more professional (think suits) during your own oral or poster presentation.

5. Download MySci Meetings App Want to pave the road to great success at the Annual Meeting well in advance of the meeting? The essential app for mastering the meeting, the “MySci Mtgs” app, is available on both Apple and Android platforms. This amazing app will allow you to create your own agenda; browse for more than 3,000 papers by date, section/division, or session name; search for daily updated programs for oral and poster presentations; view appointments you make with other attendees and respond to messages they send to you; and keep information about exhibitors and the Career Center handy in your “To Do List,” among some other amazing things!

6. Make Your Plan of Action before the Meeting You can easily kick off with a great plan of action by answering some simple questions: What do I expect to learn from the meeting? Will I focus more on attending lecture and poster sessions, or will I spend more time meeting scientists, grad students, and policymakers as a way to build up a larger network of contacts? Is/are my major adviser(s) in agreement with me on this plan? Based on this, you should be able to quickly define two or three objectives that you want to accomplish at the meeting. Then, carefully review the points presented here. Before you realize it, your plan of action will be completed!

7. Attend a Variety of Sessions The Annual Meeting features sessions for scientific content, professional development, and networking, all of which occur simultaneously throughout the four-day conference. Once you have decided your objectives for attending the meeting, you can better identify which sessions will take priority in your schedule. But don’t be afraid to attend a variety of sessions. Fill your lunch time with a Lunch & Learn session. Take a few hours in the evening to attend the mixer for your alma mater. The Annual Meeting is not only a time to get up to date on your science, but also to make new contacts, keep in touch with former colleagues, and gain professional skills that aren’t offered at your university.

8. Don’t Be Afraid to Get Involved The ASA, CSSA, and SSSA Graduate Student Committee is an excellent way to get involved before, during, and after the meeting. As a member, you will work hand in hand with other grad students as well as early career members working in industry and academia. It will help you hone your leadership skills and look terrific on your resume! To become a member, attend one of our meetings, and tell us about your interest to get involved. To get a better grasp of our work, find more information on the graduate student program for the 2016 meeting at www.acsmeetings.org/ graduates and visit our website to learn more about the committee at www.agronomy.org/gradstudents.

9. Engage with Social Media Search and follow #ACSmtg on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to stay up to date on what’s going on at the meeting and also engage with other attendees. Be sure to tag the Societies in your posts, and you may even gain some new followers!

10. Be a Student Intern to Help Cover Expenses The ASA, CSSA, and SSSA staff are always looking for help during the Annual Meeting. You can volunteer and earn up to $100 by being a student intern. Interns help with tasks such as answering questions for conference attendees, collecting and distributing continuing education forms, and guiding visiting local high school students. Look for a link to sign up in the News Flash emails.

Hopefully, you now feel better prepared to attend the ASA, CSSA, and SSSA Annual Meeting. If you still have questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with colleagues who have previously attended meetings, or email any of the authors on this article (contact information can be found on the directory pages, e.g., crops.org/membership/directory). We can’t wait to see you in Phoenix!

L. Bastos, M. Battaglia, and R. Owen, members of the ACS Graduate Student Committee