Francisco Arriaga joined the faculty in the Department of Soil Science as an assistant professor this past summer.
Describe your career path—up to this point.
Growing up in Puerto Rico gave me a great appreciation for nature and the environment. I decided to pursue a B.S. in soil science because I wanted to be able to work outdoors. During this time, I developed a better appreciation of soils and decided to pursue an MS in an environmental science. As luck would have it, I was offered a research assistant position at Auburn University in the Dept. of Agronomy and Soils. I quickly realized how different the soils in the Southeast were compared to my native tropical soils, but there were some similarities, such as the reddish colors. During my time in Auburn, I worked closely with my major advisor, who had an extension appointment, and a co-advisor that was actually a scientist for the USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS). At that point, I was not very familiar with ARS, but my co-advisor was always very helpful.
After I made the decision to challenge myself and continue for a PhD, I was offered a research assistantship at the Dept. of Soil Science in UW-Madison in applied soil physics. Having only experienced snow a handful of times in my life, I enrolled at UW-Madison. The Dept. of Soil Science was world known and UW-Madison had a great reputation. The soils in Wisconsin are quite different than those in Puerto Rico or even the Southeast, and provided me with a great learning experience. During my PhD work, I started helping with other research projects that my advisor was conducting because I was interested in learning new things. That led to a project assistant position and eventually, after I finished my PhD, a post-doctoral position. I really enjoyed working in the Driftless region, the Central Sands and Wisconsin River Valley, but the time had come to find a more permanent position.
Interestingly enough, I was hired at the National Soil Dynamics Laboratory in Auburn by ARS. I worked as a research soil scientist for a little over nine years developing conservation agriculture management systems to improve the soil water holding capacity for cropping systems typical to the Southeast. The main issue was increasing soil organic matter and improving soil quality. Winter cover crops and non-inversion tillage were very effective for this purpose, but the process of improving soil quality is a long one. Working with these challenging soils and climate was very rewarding. Nevertheless, my close working relationship with farmers and students as an affiliate faculty member in the Dept. of Agronomy and Soils in Auburn University made me realize that I enjoyed that direct interaction with both groups.
When the opportunity to return to Madison as a faculty member in the Dept. of Soil Science presented itself, I knew it was the right choice. My current position has extension, research and teaching responsibilities, all three areas I enjoy.
What is the main focus of your research program?
Soils are invaluable for many reasons, but food production is probably one of its most important functions. However, soils are a fragile natural resource. My research supports the development of management systems that promote crop productivity, as well as soil and water conservation. My research interests include applied soil physics in general, including erosion, soil quality, and water quality and quantity issues.
What drew you to UW-Madison?
UW-Madison is respected worldwide for its academics and research programs. When I interviewed, I was amazed by the intellectual and mental stimulation ingrained in everyone. I could almost feel it in the air. This must have been the Wisconsin Idea. Plus, I already knew Madison was a great place to live.