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.

última atualização a 23-03-2016

Physical Geography is the study of the interactions between the lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. I am a physical geographer (MSc) from the University of Amsterdam, located a few meters below sea level in the large delta that forms most of The Netherlands. My MSc research focused on interactions between plant species and soil water repellency, in the drylands of southeast Spain. For my PhD I moved to soils formed in the glacial sediments of the low hills of southeast England (Cranfield University) to study how soil organic matter may provide on-farm economic benefit. Since then, during the last ten years, I helped to design and test a harmonised EU soil monitoring system in a 38 partner project. I moved to the old floodplains of the river Thames in London (Queen Mary University of London) to study the effects of a wildfire on the recovery of an organic soil in a Scottish peatland. I moved to the southern foothills of the Alps in Italy to work at the European Commission Joint Research Centre, where I led a small team in publishing a major EU report on biochar (2010) that identified positive, negative and unknown effects. Finally, I moved close to a drowned river valley in Portugal (University of Aveiro) to push for more scientific discovery of those unknown effects.


Dr. Frank G.A. Verheijen
Department of Environment and Planning & CESAM
Universidade de Aveiro
Campus Universitário de Santiago
3810-193 Aveiro, Portugal
phone: 00351 234 370200 (ext. 22608)
e-mail: verheijen@ua.pt 

Learn more about Biochar Investigation Network of Portugal (BINP)

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