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Alexandra Cooke

I am a 25-year old agricultural engineer who works in the areas of soil science and water management. I originally trained as a geoscientist at Cardiff University, and went on to study the Cranfield MSc in Land Reclamation and Restoration before working as an Environmental Soil Scientist in industry. Currently I am undertaking a PhD in soil erosion and agricultural engineering at Cranfield University.

What would you tell people at school and university about soil science?

It’s a very rewarding area to work in because soil science has an input into many current global issues; and not just those which are environmental. However, it’s not something that many UK universities provide specific training in and so you are more likely to stumble into the soil science discipline rather than train specifically in it.

Most soil scientists originally trained as environmental scientists, geographers, or agricultural engineers and these disciplines provide wider knowledge to input into practicing soil science. Myself, I realised that I enjoyed soil science during my A-Levels and this lead me to opt for soil related modules during my undergrad degree, and a specific soil related master’s degree. However, I went down that path because I found that I really enjoyed it – by choosing what you enjoy means you’re more likely to be successful and will find it more rewarding.

What do you like the most and the least about your job?

I love the variety of projects and places. One day I can be working on a land evaluation survey for a renewable energy development, the next a restoration plan of a quarry and the next implementing soil erosion field trials. All across the world, in all industries, soil science is an active part of the decision making process for the future and so the discipline can take you to some amazing places with some amazing people.

I also love the soil science family. Although numbers of us are increasing, there’s still not very many of us, and so in the UK especially we tend to all know and work with each other, like a close-knit family. It’s great to have that kind of relationship with your colleagues.

In my job, I have a hard time coming to terms with the lack of recognition of the importance of soil by the world’s governments and industries. Every soil scientist knows how crucial soils are to our planet; food production, nutrient cycling, elemental cycling, water retention and purification amongst many other things. And yet there are hardly any laws protecting soils, making it easier to justify their degradation and destruction. It can be hard to undertake all this research highlighting just how important they are when it can often fall on deaf ears.

How does it feel to be a woman soil scientist?

Traditionally soil scientists have always been men; I’m guessing because of the long hours in all weathers, however nowadays there are plenty more women soil scientists who are in the discipline because of a natural care for the environment.

It’s great that more women are taking up soil science; however I think the real issue is the general lack of people in the discipline, not just women. There are a lot of opportunities spanning the soil-water-agricultural sciences, and just not enough people to fill them.

That’s why it’s important to continue outreach activities to the younger generations to ensure they realise how important they are to secure the future of the world’s environment.

What made you leave industry to pursue a PhD?

I realised quite quickly that being an environmental soil scientist in UK consultancy was not for me. The variety of work is quite limited as generally industry is only interested in the very basic soil science information due to the lack of legislation and funding. When I got the opportunity to do a PhD I immediately took it because it would allow me to do independent research in soil degradation; the most common soil issue across the planet, and the solution of which is directly relevant to how industry is in the future going to have to function. It’s great to know that the research I do will shape the way we protect the environment, and the way soil science is understood in industry; it has a real world application. 

About Alex’s work …

Alex’s research involves developing Filter Socks, an end-of-pipe solution used on construction sites in the US to be suitable for agricultural lands in the UK. In particular she intends to mitigate soil erosion, runoff and phosphorus losses in arable lands, under different climate change scenarios. This involves 3 years of field trials, rainfall simulators and laboratory work, and will result in the development of Filter Socks as a Best Management Practice (BMP) in agricultural lands in order to reduce poor water quality. Alex’s field site is in Herefordshire, and her PhD is sponsored by the Environment Agency and the Douglas Bomford Trust

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