Talking Dirt with the Soil Ecology Society


Will Beaton

Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative

The 2015 meeting of the Soil Ecology Society was my first soil conference, and though I got to spend a week tromping through the Rockies of Colorado Springs, it were the experiences I had inside chatting with soil researchers and absorbing presentations that I’ll never forget.

Mathodi Motsamayi was the only African at the conference, and as far as I can tell, he is the bravest man I’ve met in science. He came from South Africa alone for his first visit to the United States to give a presentation to his colleagues in a non-native language. And he nailed it.

Where Mathodi is from, the paint from cheap cooking pots can poison families’ meals, and so he explained his efforts to revitalize his community’s use of soil in ancestral pottery making.

On the top of Pikes Peak, he said he was glad to have come — that traveling to tell others of his work, even if they’re 10,000 miles away from it, is the best he can do to fulfill his responsibility as a scientist to communicate the value of soil.

Deborah Neher and Brian Darby know what it means to have a thoughtful advisor, and though they are in different stages of their research careers, they equally hold soil education — from the university level to kindergarten — as the key to the successful future of their field.

Deb advised Brian in graduate school, and he has since inspired innumerable undergrads (myself included) to become what we’ve lovingly called “dirt enthusiasts.” Like many of their peers, they seek actively to be the scientists they one day want their students to become, and with a sensitivity for cultivating the passions of others, their influence reaches far beyond themselves.

If we thought the maze of conducting science was complex enough, communicating it is like navigating Theseus’ labyrinth — and there are more minotaurs than one in our fairytale dream to tell the world what must be known of soil.

Jayne Belnap and Josh Schimel are just two folks at the SES meeting who have spent their careers going far out of their way to advance the field by studying not only their science but the science (and art) of explaining it.


Journalists, legislators, advocacy groups, and voters are only the first few to come to mind that would benefit from understanding what the field of soil ecology does (and doesn’t). Writing about science writing and speaking with professional speakers in politics are only two ways to start the conversation.

Communicating soil science will require hard work in the lab but also on the phone with politicians, writing emails to reporters, blogging for fellow scientists, and always making time to chat with any student who wanders through an open office door.

The Soil Ecology Society conference showed we have a commitment to communication. Do for others what turned you into a soil supporter, and we may find, in time, that the end of the maze seems less far off than before.