Imagine having a job where you get to work outside and no one worries if you get dirty! That is one aspect many soil scientists enjoy about their jobs. Like other scientists, they have a love of science and are curious about the world around them – and as with other scientists, there are many different types of work that a soil scientist can do.

Advising people who work on the land

People who grow crops, trees, grapes or raise animals often get advice from soil scientists. They want to know how to manage their soil to get the best growth possible. They might also have concerns about how their farms, forests or vineyards impact the surrounding environment.

Scientists from AgResearch in Invermay are investigating ways to help dairy farmers manage their land. Nutrients from fertilisers and animal wastes can get washed away from farms and into local waterways. Dr Ross Monaghan and his colleagues are developing methods to keep the nutrients on the farm, where they can be reused, and away from streams and rivers.

If you want to work on a farm one day and fly to an overseas conference to present your results the next day, then this is a job you’ll love.

Soil scientist Dr Selai Letica

Soil science in cold places

Not a lot of plants grow in Antarctica – mostly mosses and lichens – but there is more to soil science than growing things. Dr Megan Balks is interested in cryosols – frozen soils and permafrost. She has had 19 trips to Antarctica to research the impacts of human activities on the terrestrial environment. Megan has travelled to some very cold, remote Arctic spots, too. She uses some of that time on airplanes to create soil-related artworks.

Soil, microbiology and cakes

Areas of science often overlap, and scientists may start out in one field but become skilful in others. Professor Louis Schipper started his career as a microbiologist, investigating land treatment of wastewater. Over the years, he’s learned a lot about soil and processes that happen in soil. This has helped Louis become a ‘big picture’ scientist and view scientific issues from many different perspectives. Louis also has a creative side. He and his team enjoy describing their work with ‘research cakes’ – cakes decorated to display their science findings in a visual and edible form.

Nature of science

Scientific knowledge is usually communicated through text, symbols and diagrams, but science communication has its lighter side, too. Soil science depicted through artwork or cake decorating demonstrates the creative aspects of science – dispelling the myth that science is always dry and procedural.

Other types of work in soil science

Soil scientists have jobs in city and regional councils and government ministries. They give advice to policy makers on all kinds of issues from where to build roads to protecting the environment. Some act as consultants for farmers and other land users. Soil scientists also work as teachers, researchers, lecturers or as lab technicians.

Activity idea

TW ‘Prof’ Walker was a leading New Zealand soil scientist. Use the interactive timeline to learn more about soil science from the ancient Romans to the present – and the role Prof Walker played.
Thomas William Walker

Useful links

Visit Louis Schipper’s webpage dedicated to describing research through cakes – clever, edible and fun.

Download the PDF brochure Explore Careers in Soil Science from the Soil Science Society of America.

    Published 30 June 2015