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New faculty profile: Steven Hall works to improve ag water quality

Steven Hall joined the Department of Plant and Agroecosystem Sciences as an assistant professor and extension specialist in September 2023.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
My hometown is here in Madison, so couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return to UW!

What is your educational/professional background, including your previous position?
I was most recently an associate professor at Iowa State University, where I was a faculty member for eight years. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utah. My PhD is from UC Berkeley, and I earned MS and BS degrees here at UW.

How did you get into your field of research?
Agricultural ecology is fascinating to me because we get to tackle broad and thorny questions that impact most everyone, span many disciplines, and have no single correct answer. Such as, how can we support productive and profitable agricultural landscapes while minimizing their impacts on the environment? I have stayed in academia because I really appreciate the variety and the team aspects of the work. A great day might involve digging a soil pit, troubleshooting chemical analyses in the lab, running a computer model, and learning something totally unexpected from a farmer or one of my graduate students.  

What are the main goals of your current research and outreach programs?
My research and extension focus on improving agricultural water quality, a topic that dovetails with many other issues, especially soil health and climate change mitigation. We aim to produce actionable data that Wisconsin farmers and stakeholders can use to quantify impacts of agricultural practices on water quality, and to expand the “toolkit” of available practices for water quality improvement. To that end, we also work on fundamental research questions related to the cycling of carbon and nutrients in plants, soils, water, and the atmosphere. 

What was your first visit to campus like?
I have a memory of eating ice cream on the Memorial Union terrace as a toddler.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
I hope that when students evaluate agricultural systems and practices, they can learn to integrate environmental, economic, and social factors and trade-offs. As we envision current and future agroecosystems, what benefits are we seeking, and who will pay for these benefits?  

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
I am an infrequent social media user but I enjoy public engagement through webinars, workshops, field days, and “traditional” media (whatever that means these days; see an example at the url below). My lab website is stevenhallecology.com (soon moving to agwater.cals.wisc.edu).

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
Absolutely! Improving agricultural water quality and its impacts on human health and environment is a key issue for all of us in Wisconsin, regardless of political persuasion or where we happen to live (urban, rural, and everywhere in between). 

The pandemic forced us all to reconsider many things we took for granted. Is there something you’ve learned that has helped you through these challenging times, personally or professionally?
The pandemic made me appreciate even more the communal aspects of science and extension, and to embrace opportunities for short- and long-distance collaboration.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
You’ve probably heard about the potential of carbon sequestration in agricultural soils as a “natural” climate solution. But in some cases we might achieve greater and longer-term climate benefit (and critical benefits for water quality and the ozone layer) by prioritizing strategies to decrease nitrogen fertilizer use. This video I contributed to gives more of the story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=47AJuaYPvJI.

What are your hobbies and other interests?
I am looking forward to exploring and re-discovering Wisconsin’s natural landscapes as well as the local music scene.