Tell us about your career path.
I hold an M.S. in soil science from Wageningen University (Netherlands) and a Ph.D. in soil science from Reading University (UK). For several years I have worked as a soil surveyor and pedologist in Tanzania, Congo (Zaire), Indonesia and for short periods in Australia, Rwanda and in Kenya. In the late 1990s, I was a lecturer in soil science in Papua New Guinea. From 1999 to 2011 I have been a senior researcher and Head of the World Soil Museum at ISRIC – World Soil Information (part of Wageningen University) and travelled widely and quite likely my carbon footprint probably outsizes all my effort to do good.
I have taught soil science at UNESCO-IHE (Delft) and Wageningen University, and supervise M.S. and Ph.D. students and in 2006, I co-initiated and coordinated for five years the GlobalSoilMap.net project. This large global project works on a new global digital soil map and encompasses a large collaborative group of soil scientists in all continents.
In addition, I am the Secretary General of the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS), co-Editor-in-Chief of Geoderma and two book series by Springer. Activities included the writing of brochures (Soil – Earth’s Living Skin, translated in five languages) and a soil flyer (translated in 17 languages), numerous presentations for the general public, school kids and Rotary groups and alike. The outreach program also targeted the soil science community and provided evidence that soils are now back on the global agenda and a soil science renaissance is at the doorstep.
So in short, I have worked about 12 years in the tropics, then 12 years at ISRIC- World Soil Information in the Netherlands, and now I am here at UW Madison! I have never planned a career or anything close to it—it appears whilst working, it just happens with time.
What is the main focus of your research program?
The main focus of the program is soil. So not the crop, or a single property, or contamination, or biofuels, or urban spread. It is the study of soils per sé and the study of soils at locorum natura, which means so much that we study soils in the field and their relationship with the landscape and land use and all environmental and human factors that influence the soil. That way we’ll gain a deeper understanding of soil behavior which is essential for proper decision and policy making. In a sense, I have stepped in the long tradition of field soil science that was so skillfully and wonderfully developed at our department by Francis Hole, and later on by Kevin McSweeney. In respect for all the contributions of Francis, we have named our lab in King Hall after him and also started the FD Endowment with the UW Foundation.
As to the research, we are developing a field-based program in digital soil mapping and are working in three contrasting sites in Wisconsin. We combine the latest technologies for observing soils with the best knowledge of soils in the field. The first site is the Driftless Area (Alfisols, mapping Terra Rossa), the second site is in the Central Sand Plains (Psamments, mapping subtle differences in clay content and land use effects), and we are developing ideas for a third site in Jefferson County (Histosols, wetland restoration, carbon mapping). These sites are all within a short drive from Madison and are used as research and teaching sites in the coming five to 10 years. The research aims to address pressing environmental issues like, for example, carbon sequestration, water scarcity or sustainable agricultural production, but also allow us to train a new generation with strongly developed skills in pedology and digital soil mapping. We are developing the soil base layer that can then be used by other disciplines for modeling groundwater recharge, solute movement through the landscape, or developing precision agriculture tools.
With time I hope we can turn these three sites into truly interdisciplinary research and training sites that can serve lots of UW staff to work on strategies for more sustainable land use – that is my Wisconsin Idea!
What drew you to UW-Madison?
Madison is one of the soil science capitals in the USA and I have known it since I started studying soil science in 1984. The World Congress of Soil Science was held here in 1960 and during that congress several resolutions were made that I was later on connected to: the establishment of Geoderma, ISRIC and the World Soil Map. Also several Dutch students (e.g. Johan Bouma, Pieter Raats) spent time at UW in the 1960s and 1970s and encouraged me to apply when the vacancy was published. The research excellence and long history of the department much appealed to me, and in particular that it is a Department of Soil Science – one of the few left in the USA. I knew several of the Soil Science faculty including Bill Bland and Jim Bockheim. Also the position itself: a research and teaching professorship in soil science attracted me. Having worked in various countries and positions, I have found that my heart is with research and teaching, and there is little so rewarding as obtaining exciting results and fascinating students for studying soils.
I had visited the department two times and have given seminars on our previous work. I liked the people, the atmosphere, and the possibility for studying the glaciated and unglaciated soils. I realized that the department is in dire need for filling some of its vacancies in order to catch up with the demands of students and society and keep up with other major universities. With time and the right amount of sustenance we can bring our department in the top of the USA soil science departments as well as globally. These are exciting times to be a soil scientist; there are many opportunities to build a strong research group and produce first-class graduates. I think that there is the right amount of support and freedom here to setup an independent but well-integrated research and teaching program that advances our discipline, and with that: our department, CALS and ultimately UW-Madison.
Perhaps I should not forget to mention that coming from the Netherlands the Wisconsin cheese, speedskating and cycling possibilities are quite unique and enthralling similarities. Life is good in all seasons here.