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Image showing Professor Karen Johnson

Professor Karen Johnson from our Department of Engineering has recently been awarded the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin Award. We caught up with Karen to find out more about this award, and her work in soil and soil health.

Congratulations on being awarded the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin Award. Tell us a little more about this particular award.

The Rosalind Franklin Award recognises a project to promote women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and can be awarded to someone in any area of STEM. It is named in honour of biophysicist Rosalind Franklin. This year I have been awarded this for my work in environmental engineering and my commitment to engaging women in my field of work.

What is your area of research focus?

I am an environmental engineer and I focus on soil and soil health. My research looks at using sustainable technologies to improve the health of our soils, enhance their ability to help with flood and drought resilience, and improve nutrition for crops. This includes understanding how carbon sticks to the minerals in soil and how these minerals can convert carbon into stable forms that stay as solids in the soil, rather than being transformed into gases that contribute to climate change.

I also work on understanding the soil microbiome and how to work with it to enhance soil health including through carbon storage and pollutant immobilisation.

Why is soil so important?

Soil underpins all terrestrial life, but the reality is that most people do not understand it at all, nor give it much thought. (Even soil scientists don’t understand it all. But that doesn’t mean to say we don’t have good ideas on what we need to do. It’s about getting people on board.)

Healthy soils store more carbon, which can help fight climate change. They also store more water, which helps fight flooding and droughts.

Soil is relevant to all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) so it should be a central concern when addressing these.

What do you want people to understand about soil and how we can improve it?

I am passionate about helping people understand that soil is living.

This is a relatively new discovery in environmental engineering, so my work is all about applying this knowledge to help reverse the 50 years of soil degradation that we’ve caused with industrial agriculture.

The soil microbiome controls soil structure, and the soil environment is key to a healthy soil microbiome. We need to restore the balance between plants, soil and the atmosphere to ensure healthy soil microbiome, healthy food and ultimately a healthy planet.

How do you hope to encourage more women into STEM subjects, and in particular into civil engineering.

I have worked on Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion in my field for many years, and engaging more women in civil engineering remains quite a stubborn challenge!

However, talking to my students, and to local school pupils through my work, has made me realise that the holistic and interdisciplinary nature of soil health provides an opportunity to engage more women in this field of engineering. I hope that projects like the one I will be running with the prize money from this award, which will link soil health and the UN SDGs to engineering, will help to show more people what civil and environmental engineering involves, and encourage more women to get involved.

Find out more:

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