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Being a soil scientist.

From catching a 103 cm barramundi in Lake Proserpine to a surprise landing by a Dutch military helicopter, learn where being a soil scientist can take you.

When I tell people I'm a soil scientist I usually get one of three reactions.

1. Glazed eyes and a change of subject because people don't know how to respond.

2. "So you work in a lab?"

3. "Well my orange tree is sick and ..."

Being a soil scientist is a fascinating and certainly diverse career, which can indeed involve working in a laboratory or diagnosing sick orange trees. However it often involves much, much more.

2015 was the United Nations designated 'International Year of Soils', a year to acknowledge and celebrate the source of our food, fibre, medicines, and more. As part of this celebration, Soil Science Australia's (SSA) 'Soils in Schools' program helped to shine a light on the wonderful world of soil by developing teacher guides focused on soil science that fit within the National Curriculum for science and geography.

SSA wants to show teachers and their students what it means to be a soil scientist, and some of the amazing things you get to do when you're a soil scientist. Soil scientists don't work exclusively with soil, and don't only work in agriculture. We are required to understand how soil affects water, plants, animals, the atmosphere and buildings. Soil scientists can work in either rural or urban areas. Because soil science knowledge is transferable across the globe, soil scientists often find themselves working in different countries over their careers.

Now meet two soil scientists who, despite studying the same subjects, do very different things in their day-to-day jobs. Luke mostly works in rural areas in Australia, while Gillian often works in cities and overseas.


Gillian runs her own soil science consultancy business.

Why did you decide to become a soil scientist?

I came to soil science through a broader love of environmental science. I wanted to do something that was both interesting and practical. I got my first taste of science in the outdoors through the agriculture program at Corinda State High School and I loved it.

When looking for a degree, I found a course at The University of Queensland (St Lucia campus) that had a great base in the hard sciences but had practical environmental applications. Many of the subjects had connections to the soil and on finishing my studies, I realised I had a skill set in this area which could lead to interesting work.

How did you become a soil scientist?

My first job after university was working in mining, looking at soil erosion from rehabilitation areas. I used my training in soil physics to interpret the results and this work led to other soil-related mining projects. I enjoyed the outdoor work--particularly the interesting and challenging locations such as Kakadu and Cape York--along with applying science to solving real problems. Since then, I've continued to develop and apply my soil science skills, moving from the mining industry to the contaminated land sector. I completed further soil science studies in The Netherlands and have brought that knowledge back to continue working in Australia. I now own my own company and continue to apply soil science to solving industry contamination problems.

What are some things you do day-today in your job?

I remove underground petrol tanks and remediate contaminated soil and groundwater. I provide technical soils advice and oversight on contaminated land projects. I sample soil and groundwater, interpret results and write reports.

What are some interesting things that have happened to you/places you've seen in your career?

I was collecting soil samples from an artillery base in The Netherlands and a Chinook helicopter landed right next to me. Armed Dutch soldiers on army exercises crawled out and off through the vegetation. A bit of a surprise.

I've also worked in Kakadu National Park, Arnhem Land, Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria. These are all amazing places and I loved the opportunity to see parts of Australia that aren't always easily accessible to tourists.

I was also lucky enough to visit the Amazon Rainforest in Bolivia and saw a special clay soil that the wild pigs come to eat when they're sick. Apparently this clay makes the pigs feel better. I'd love to study this (... and see if there is a medical application?).


Luke is a land resource officer for the Department of Science, Information, Technology and Innovation in Queensland.

What do you like most about being a soil scientist?

I like the range of different scenarios I'm asked to consider and provide solutions for that have a real value to both companies and to society (e.g., people being able to use contaminated land again). Soil science principles can be applied to so many different areas, from mining to medicine, or from conservation to construction. It is a really flexible discipline and a worthwhile occupation.


Why did you decide to become a soil scientist?

I have always had an interest in the natural environment. As a kid I enjoyed being outside, exploring new things and new places. When I graduated from university and started thinking about my career, I decided I wanted a job that would take me to different places with interesting landscapes, and to work in the natural environment.

Now, as a soil scientist, I am actually paid to travel around Australia to a wide variety of different places, and study the different landscapes. A career in soils is multidisciplinary--meaning I also get to develop my knowledge in botany, geology, agriculture and geomorphology (understanding landscapes).

How did you become a soil scientist?

Becoming a soil scientist was just one of those things I fell into. I never really considered a career in soil science until after I graduated from my horticultural science degree at the University of Sydney and was frantically looking for a job.

My very first job offer came through my university supervisor who put me into contact with a private engineering and environmental consultancy in Brisbane.

This company offered me a job as a soil scientist. As a 21-year-old single guy, the opportunity to move to a new city was just too good to pass up and within a month I had packed up my life in Sydney and moved to Brisbane.

What's the most interesting thing you've ever seen/best place you've ever been/most interesting project you've ever worked on?

Where do I start? When I'm in the field I see interesting things almost every day. Some of my personal highlights include:

* catching my first ever barramundi (which happened to be a monster at 103 cm and 15 kg) on Lake Proserpine;

* swimming in the crystal-clear, natural spring waters of the Upper Nogoa River;

* seeing ancient Aboriginal artwork in Ka Mundi National Park and knowing that only a handful of people may have seen this artwork (this was very special);

* climbing Spyglass Peak for a spectacular sunset on the sandstone scarps and gorges in Salvator Rosa National Park (this should be on everyone's bucket list); and

* seeing the vast array of native plants and animals in our country is always so special, particularly watching a fully grown wedge-tailed eagle with its wingspan as wide as a car take off over your head.

What are you working on at the moment?

I'm currently working on a project that is investigating how to reduce sediment and nutrient run-off into the Great Barrier Reef by understanding soil erosion in the Fitzroy River Basin.

The Fitzroy River Basin is 122,000 [km.sup.2] (about half the size of the United Kingdom), so preparing and undertaking field work in such a vast area requires lots of planning and coordination. During the dry season (May-October), we are out in the field for two weeks at a time, collecting data about the different soils in the region. When I'm back in the office, I analyse the data and plan for the next field trip. When the fieldwork for this project is complete, we should have enough data and information to see if we can help conserve the Great Barrier Reef.

What do you like most about being a soil scientist?

When people ask me what I do for a living, I explain to them that I get paid to travel around the country, studying Australia's spectacular and complex landscapes. Watching their reactions when I tell them where I have been and some of the things I have done always makes me appreciate how lucky I am to be a soil scientist.

Also, being a soil scientist means I don't only study soil. I get to develop my knowledge in a wide variety of disciplines within environmental science. Just some of the other skills I also use in my job are identifying native vegetation, geology, geomorphology and agriculture.

I also like that soil science is applicable in many facets of society (e.g., involved in food and fibre production) and that there will always be a demand for people with knowledge of soils.



This article explains what forensic soil science is, and how two Australian soil scientists used their specialist knowledge to solve a double murder case. Available at


Soil scientist Tim Overheu describes his job as a soil scientist. Learn why he is passionate about teaching soil science to communities, improving soil, and engaging with regional communities. Available at: http://!/media/528019/who-loves-soil-tim-does
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Title Annotation:Careers in science
Author:Bryce, Alisa
Publication:Teaching Science
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2015
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