1. What are your personal perspectives as a researcher?
Our society depends on how we manage our soils, more than many people realise. Many civilisations in the past have fallen due to mismanagement of soils. Soil (aka the pedosphere) is central in physical geography and has been the ‘red thread’ in my research. My primary research interest is the interaction between vegetation - soil organic matter – and soil hydrology dynamics. My motivations for doing research are i) scientific curiosity, and ii) usefulness to society. My previous positions tended to focus on either one or the other. I was lucky to have had both motivations during my PhD work, which results were immediately used by the Ministry of Agriculture. Also my various current research activities have both the element of satisfying my scientific curiosity, and the link to society. I have moved around a bit, both physically and regarding research, and I have enjoyed the experiences. Now I’m looking to consolidate and develop my research over a longer time period in Aveiro. Of course, this will depend on the available career opportunities here.
2. In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges in your area of research?
Looking broadly, it is still a challenge to study soils holistically. This is in part because soils form the most complex ecosystems on Earth, but also because relevant time scales are often too long to experimentally observe. Soil scientists come from separate backgrounds, either geography/geology or chemistry or biology or engineering. A degree where all relevant disciplines are integrated does not exist in most countries, including Portugal as far as I know. We study soils by putting experts from different disciplines together in projects, multi-disciplinarity, which is useful, but for true inter-disciplinarity we need more broadly trained scientists as well. The UA is one of the places where this could be realised.
Looking specifically at biochar, the holistic challenge applies here too. In addition, the challenge of relevant scales of space and time is pressing. Biochar’s long residence time in soil is of interest for climate change mitigation and adaptation, but it poses real challenges studying the long term effects of a biochar on a soil, and where in the environment biochar moves to and accumulates. This understanding will be essential to develop a sustainable biochar application system.
3. Where are the strengths of the UA in your opinion?
Besides the excellent location of the campus, a real selling point, I think the strengths of the UA are in its open culture that enables collaborations. I have not experienced the ‘empire building’ of research groups here as much as is often the case in older universities. This is really positive as these ‘empires’ can really obstruct inter-group collaborations and scientific progress. Another strength is simply the people at the UA. Having dedicated, competent, and friendly professionals in research support positions, makes all the difference.
4. Could you give one idea to improve research in the UA?
I think that the one improvement that would have the biggest impact is to create a more stable career path, beyond temporary contracts and fellowships, for researchers at the UA. A happy researcher with career stability is a more productive researcher, and one that is more likely to publish higher quality works. Uncertainty about career prospects also hinders researchers from investing in building new research lines ‘from the bottom up’, thereby decreasing the capacity of the UA to respond quickly to new developments in tackling societal and environmental challenges.