“It’s not Dirt” – Sara Vero | Shot of Soil Scientist

“It’s not dirt, and it’s not boring!”
This is Sara Vero’s response to people who don’t understand what she does as a soil scientist.

“Soil is not simple. It’s made up of solids, liquids and gases. It’s full of little tiny pores. Our history is dictated by the soil and our future will be dictated by the soil.”

Sara is obviously very passionate about her work. As part of her post-doctoral research, Sara found herself in Kansas studying prairies. She loved the prairies so much, that she set fire to them.

Well, that was a surprise.

During this research Sara and her team dug holes in the prairies, placed soil monitoring devices at various locations, and then backfilled it all in. The devices are measurable from a small computer.

“And in November, we set fire to the whole thing and monitored it. It was really exciting.”

fire in the prairie
Fire in the Konza Prairie – Photograph courtesy of Sara Vero

So how did an Irish lass find herself setting fire to the prairies of Kansas?

“I’ve always been interested in science. My gran is fond of telling the story that when I was five or six I said I was going to be a farmer or a scientist. So I somehow landed right in the middle!” Sara studied animal and crop production for her undergrad, and then for her Masters moved into soil science. After finishing her PhD on soil hydrology, she decided it was time to get some international experience.

“Ireland has excellent environmental science, but it’s a small country so you quite soon get to know all the researchers, even in different fields. If you want to expand your research, find new collaborations and see new things, it’s beneficial to go abroad. Kansas State University has an exceptionally phenomenal reputation in soil science.”

The prairies themselves were also a drawcard. Kansas University is adjacent to the Konza prairie, an expanse of unplowed grassland owned by The Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University.

“I’d never seen a prairie before, and I’d certainly never seen one on fire. So it was an exciting adventure. So that’s how I wound up here.”

I confess to Sara that I don’t actually know what a prairie is, or why it’s important. They are, essentially, grassland ecosystems.

“They are a huge source of biodiversity,” Sara says. Prairies can tell us a lot about carbon and nutrient cycling, which is obviously different to intensely managed landscapes. But Sara is also keen to point out their cultural element.

“People forget the important cultural aspect of soil. The prairie supported people. They lived off the land. You can look at landscapes and soils forensically and learn about the culture there.”

As she says, it’s not just dirt, and it’s certainly not boring.

Blue sky on #Konza #prairie

A photo posted by Sara (@konzasoils) on

Back home in Ireland, Sara’s Masters saw her driving around in wet fields. Rain is important for agriculture, but it can also lead to soil compaction which can impede root development and increase water runoff. Sara would drive around in different conditions to see how squashed the soil got and how quickly it recovers. Using this research, Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Agency, developed a tool to allow farmers to assess whether it was safe to work the land or to wait.

For her PhD, Sara moved more into the policy side. “We’re all stakeholders in water,” she says. “But we have to be realistic.” The EU Water Framework Directive sets targets for water quality, but water moves through soil at different rates depending on a whole host of factors. This lag was the subject of her thesis.

But now she’s in Kansas. Setting fire to prairies.

“Burning vegetation is important to stop invasive woody species – they’ll kill a prairie. So it has to be burned. Uncontrolled wildfires are of course threatening and increase CO2, but some research suggests that controlled burning may actually lead to increased sequestration of CO2 in the long term. We’re going to have live data during a burn.”

The other exciting side of being in Kansas is that the Konza prairie has a large amount of accumulated data. As Sara says, during a PhD you only have a few years of data. In environmental terms, that’s peanuts. The long term data sets from Konza provide much more scope for analysis.

As far as settling in, Sara says that the people are lovely which makes it easier. Not having a car was a problem at first. And she was surprised by how hot it was. “Arriving in summer was not the best planning! I came from a cool damp spring into a humid summer.” A particular point of pride, however, is seeing Kerry Gold butter sold at the grocery store at a premium. “It’s 5 or 6 dollars! It’s nice to know that our dairy products are so well regarded.”

Naturally, as always, I ask Sara about advice she has for other people who might be interested in soil science. “Dig a hole,” she says. “Have a look.” There are loads of resources online where students can find out about any subject they might be interested in. “Even if you don’t know what field you want to be in, but you see yourself in that white lab coat or muddy boots, take a general science course. Four years is a long time to decide where you want to go.”

Sara is also very keen to emphasise the role of communication. She has given talks, and encourages her students to participate in science communication events, such as FameLab. And even on an individual level communicating is important. “Talk to your lecturers, don’t just take notes. Now is a great time to be involved in this field. Find out what their interests are, what opportunities are out there.”

In this spirit, Sara has set up an Instagram account – konzasoils – so that the public can see the work, investigation, equipment and arrays that go into their research. They’ll be able to see it as it happens and follow along with the experiments.

“Most of us spend all our time at our desks and we’re disconnected from the soil. I think that’s quite sad. Remember, where we live is called ‘earth’.”

*Since this interview was conducted Sara returned home to Ireland to take up a position as a research officer in water quality research at Teagasc. She is still involved with the ongoing research at Kansas State University.

Main Images courtesy of Sara Vero