Position: Graduate Student / GeoScientist
Education: Bachelor of Science in Agriculture (Environmental Science major, Soil Science Minor)
Employer: University of Saskatchewan / O’Kane Consultants
What kind of work do you do?
I work with an environmental engineering company in Saskatoon that designs reclamation soil covers to be placed over toxic mine waste. We do work all over the world at all types of mines: gold, zinc, lead, diamond, and the oil sands. I work mostly with engineers, but the work is basically soil science – soil physics, to be specific. We look at a lot of different things to do with the physical properties of soils: how water and contaminants move through it, how energy from the sun is divided between evaporating water and raising the soil’s temperature, and how greenhouse gases are released.
Using our understanding of soil physics, we design soil covers to prevent clean water from snow and rain from mixing with the waste material and carrying contaminants to lakes, rivers, and groundwater. Right now I’m back in university doing a PhD program to look at better ways of designing these cover systems. With more mines needing reclamation all over the world, it’s very important to make sure we design covers that function the way we want them to.
How did you get interested in soil science?
When I started university I knew nothing about soils. I knew that I generally wanted a career in the environmental sciences, but what that actually entailed, I wasn’t sure. So I enrolled in the college of agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan. There I had two great soil science professors early on who really got me excited about what an interesting field soil science was. I just found all of it fascinating: how glaciers laid our soil’s foundations, why you see horizons in a soil, how you can have clay in one area, and gravel close by, how water moves and what that means for pollution. These were all of the things I was interested in, and they all boiled down to soil science. I think it’s a really underappreciated fact that so much of what we consider environmental science depends on what happens in the soil. It’s such a diverse field that a solid base in soil science can take you in so many different directions.
Why do you think it is important to study soil?
I think it’s important because there’s so much that we still don’t know about it. Soil science has existed as a discipline for over 100 years, but we’re learning new things all the time. The problems that we’re facing are getting more and more complex, too. I study soils used in the reclamation industry. I need to have a very good understanding of how a soil will interact with its surroundings like snow and rain, the atmosphere, the sun, plants, and contaminants – all sorts of things that interact in very complex ways. We need to know how all of those puzzle pieces fit together if we’re going to be able to help prevent pollution of our water resources.