‘A nation that rebuilds its soils rebuilds itself’ is all about rebuilding soils to rebuild environmental, economic and societal health. Using waste minerals and organic matter, aligning with the circular economy to rebuild soils can help address several of the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals including SDG13 on climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Neil Gray (Newcastle) - As a Geomicrobiologist Neil is fascinated by the interaction of microbes with their geochemical environments. These interactions have far reaching effects on ecosystems, global processes and human societies. He is interested in the relevance of microbial communities and their activities (which occur at relatively such small scales) to the larger scale environmental issues e.g. ecosystem damage and regeneration, climate change and its mitigation, soil productivity and health, water quality. Neil has over 30 years research experience in experimental approaches and techniques which explicitly link microbial biodiversity’s structure to function and geochemical conditions. These approaches and techniques have been applied widely to determine changes in community structure, relative abundance and activities of micro-organisms in response to natural and artificial environmental perturbations.
Wendy Stone (Stellenbosch) - Wendy navigates a tension between interests in microbial ecology and waste management strategies, and has been pursuing intersecting elements of both throughout her career. She studied molecular biology (South Africa), followed by a PhD in Environmental & Applied Science Management (Canada), exploring microbial impacts on the storage of used nuclear fuel in geological repositories. This multi-disciplinary exposure has continued with her work at the Water Institute (Stellenbosch University, South Africa), bridging microbiology, genetics, soil sciences, engineering, economics and law. She is currently exploring (1) the built environment microbiome: the impact of disinfectants on surface microbial ecology and the competitive exclusion of pathogens, and (2) the co-diversion of water treatment sludge wastes from landfill into agricultural applications. Linking both is an interest in the public perception of risk (the over-use of disinfectants and antibiotics, and the avoidance of wastes due to contaminants), and the role of scientific communication in minimizing fear-based societal responses.
Steve Chivasa (Biosciences) - Steve is a Plant Molecular Biologist with research interests in understanding how plants respond to stress. A key hypothesis being tested in his lab is that plant cells operate an ingenious collective “decision-making” process where a quorum must be reached for stress-adaptive response activation. The translational application of the research has been directed at ongoing efforts to design agritech innovations for crop protection from drought stress and developing technologies to combat pesticide resistance in agriculture. How plant roots communicate with the soil microbiome is emerging as an exciting new area for collaborative research. This has led to fruitful partnerships with academics and industry in Africa and the UK, with projects focusing on soil-root interactions and strategies to develop drought-resilient crops. Steve's ambition is to develop sustainable technologies for improving agricultural crop productivity.
Karen Johnson (Engineering) - Karen is passionate about soils and working with partners across the world to rebuild degraded soils. She studied Natural Sciences and worked in the Water Industry before moving to Durham as an environmental engineering lecturer. She believes rebuilding soils will help with delivering the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals. She has worked with the UK Government, helping to launch the UK's Soil Health Inquiry back in 2016 and is now just starting to work with the UN on a rebuilding soils agenda. Her main scientific expertise is in carbon sequestration on minerals like iron and manganese oxide and she is interested in how this science can help us use soils to achieve net zero by 2030. But this is not just a technical matter, the rebuilding soils agenda involves working with social scientists, businesses and communities as well as many other disciplines, and this interdisciplinarity is at the heart of what she does.