Stepping out of my comfort zone into soil science by Dr Sarah Bennett

On my arrival at Lancaster train station, the tell-tale sign of a poster tube bobbing along in the distance indicated I was in the right place.  I was here to attend the Annual Meeting of the British Society of Soil Science (fondly known as BS cubed) and with a background in oceanography this was definitely an area of research outside of my comfort zone. 

Four months ago I joined BGS as a Stable Isotope Research Geochemist in the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory.  While still maintaining my links with the oceanographic community, this position gives me an amazing opportunity to work with scientists in all areas of environmental science.  It is my role to offer expertise in light stable isotopes i.e. hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur, which are typically used for tracing chemical cycles, inferring processes, estimating rates and determining temperatures.  This involves collaborating with scientists across the country and I was to meet the soil community at this conference. 

A peat core demonstrated by
Prof Ed Tipping (CEH Lancaster)
The aim of the conference was to deal with one of the more academic intellectual challenges faced by soil scientists: scale.  This means dealing with both spatial and temporal changes.  How do soils impact river basins, the atmosphere and climate and how will this change in the future?  This was dealt with in a three day program, starting on day one thinking big, through to the finer scale and ending on day three considering the long term and wider impacts.  On day two we had a day in the field and learnt about some of the latest developments being rolled out in the farming community and the importance of peat.  Many of the issues and analytical techniques discussed by the soil community resonated with my own experiences in oceanography.  Suddenly I didn’t feel like the beached oceanographer that I initially thought I was. 

One of the challenges of environmental research is working with people from a wide range of backgrounds.  Chemists, biologists, physicists, geologists, mathematicians, environmentalists and that’s just to name the core disciplines.  For me, that’s what makes this work so interesting and enables exciting collaborations.  The soil community was no exception to the rule and were extremely welcoming.  I am therefore looking forward to spinning up new collaborations and working with them into the future.

A day in the field – Near to the highest peak in the
Pennines (Cross Fell), we were rewarded with views
of the Lake District
By Sarah Bennett