New faculty profile: Thea Whitman studies soil biogeochemistry


Thea Whitman joined the faculty in the Department of Soil Science as an assistant professor in January.

Briefly describe your career path—up to this point.
I grew up in rural Nova Scotia. As I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Environmental Biology at Queen’s University in Ontario, I wanted to pursue a career where I could have a meaningful impact on environmental issues. A graduate degree seemed like a good step in that direction, and I originally looked for an M.S. program where I could study compost and climate change. I ended up coming to the U.S. to work with Dr. Johannes Lehmann at Cornell University, where I studied the climate change impact of biochar (charred organic matter that is produced intentionally for carbon management or as an agricultural amendment). During that M.S., which focused on modelling and policy, I wanted to strengthen my skills in field and lab work. So, for my Ph.D., I stayed at Cornell, but targeted the question of how biochar affects existing soil carbon – sometimes it increases decomposition, and other times it decreases it. My research was aimed at understanding the mechanisms behind those effects. During my Ph.D., though, I realized that microbes were at the heart of all the soil processes I was interested in, and that I needed to engage with them to be able to really answer my questions. So, I made one of my minors microbiology, and took an amazing summer course out at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, where I fell more in love with microbes. Before taking up my position here at UW Madison, I investigated the role of plant roots and soil microbes in soil organic matter stabilization and destabilization as a postdoc with Dr. Mary Firestone at UC Berkeley. While there, I developed my expertise in microbial ecology and bioinformatics, and enjoyed being part of a large and productive team of scientists.

What is the main focus of your research program?
I am fascinated by the beautiful complexities of soil, from its tiniest inhabitants to its role in the global carbon cycle. My research is situated at the nexus of soil biogeochemistry, microbial ecology, and global environmental change. Focusing on organic matter cycling and the molecular and microbial mechanisms that drive it, I seek to understand the processes that control soil organic matter dynamics and interactions with microbes and minerals. My lab combines soil biogeochemistry and microbiology with bioinformatics, molecular work, and fieldwork, in order to conduct fundamental and applied research with relevance for land-use management, agroecology, and climate change policy.

What drew you to UW-Madison?
The Department of Soil Science at UW-Madison was a key draw of the position for me – a strong, integrated soil science department is well poised to address today’s and future challenges of food security and climate change. Part of my fascination with soils lies in their complexity: soil science is a field where effective collaborations are not only important, but almost essential. The potential for collaboration at UW Madison, within the soils department, as well as across departments and institutes was very appealing to me. Coming from another land grant college, I was also excited about the mission and the resources at UW Madison, especially the robust network of research stations across the state.

What do you like to do outside of work?
I like playing classical chamber music, bluegrass, or experimental music with friends on the violin or the accordion, climate action, reading, cheese, canoeing and sailing, board games, listening to CBC radio, and joking around.