The power of an enthusiastic role model in shaping my career
I’m often asked how I became a soil scientist. People seem to want to hear a story of childhood fascination; a story of a deeply rooted passion that I’ve spent my whole life chasing; that moment when I was 8 years old, digging up carrots in my backyard wondering at the beauty that is soil. The story of how I “always wanted to grow up to be a scientist”.
For me, this isn’t how it happened.
I fell into studying soils, really. Even though I cannot imagine myself without it now, when I look back on the events that lead me here, I could conceivably have studied anything. The soil scientists I met early on made all the difference.
. . .
After a lot of indecision, I pursued an undergraduate degree in environmental management. At 16 years old, I liked being outside and I cared about the environment. I had no idea of the career path that would unfold, but I decided that studying something about the environment was enough. I’d figure the rest out later.
Part of my degree requirement was to take an introductory soil science class. Just one. Soils were not an emphasis in my program, but rather an ancillary topic that you needed to know something about. A brief introduction was deemed sufficient.
I also happened to take the course during my second year — a time when I was beginning to ask the question of what was I going to do with the rest of my life. Fortuitous, definitely. Predestined? Unlikely.
Needless to say, I LOVED that first introductory course. It was one of the few courses I’d taken at that point in my college career where I actually enjoyed reading the textbook. There was something there.
But to say I was hooked and committed to a career in soils at that moment would be an oversimplification. It took another two years, a number of more advanced courses, and a trip to Wisconsin before I would figure that out.
My professors and mentors had an unquenchable enthusiasm for soils. They made soils seem like the most precious and honorable thing you could spend your life trying to understand. They opened my eyes to the endless complexity of soils. They made me curious and thirsty to learn more.
As soon as I expressed a deeper interest, they welcomed me into the field with a radiant energy. They made their job look fun.
Actually, it didn’t just look fun, it was fun.
I thought to myself, “I could be a professor of soils.” And that was the beginning of what I hope will be a long, fulfilling career.
. . .
My appreciation for my mentors runs deep. I was fortunate to have a strong, female scientist mentor during these undergraduate years who encouraged me to pursue my questions, ideas, and careers goals relentlessly. Like many scientific fields, soil science is male-dominated. In my early years, I was lucky to be shielded from this reality.
My mentor, Karen, was a critical role model for me. I could envision myself being a soil scientist. If she were a man, the picture of myself in that position would have been blurrier. She showed me that it was possible to be compassionate and successful; to love soils for their intrinsic value and beauty while also contributing to our understanding of how they form and function.
I chose this path so that I get to spend my career doing just what my former 8-year-old-self did in the garden — marvel over the wonders of soil.
But I also chose this path because I know that I can do it. I have seen a version of what is possible. I have seen a happy, enthusiastic professor that still loves soils after so many years. I have seen the fulfillment that a career in academia can bring. I have seen the genuine, intoxicating smile of a person who really loves what they do. Before soil, I hadn’t seen anything quite like it.
Throughout my career, I’ll continue to be that enthusiastic, obsessed-with-soil scientist who encourages students to pursue their curiosities, dig deeper into the complexities of the world around them, and find the one thing they can see themselves spending an entire career trying to understand.
My love for soil has only deepened with time. As long as I am still having fun with my job, I expect it will continue to.
By now, I know more about soil that I do about anything else. The fun part is, there is still so much more to learn. I am filled with deep gratitude for the people in my life who have made it possible to get here. To all my mentors out there (you know who you are), thank you for the endless encouragement!
Yamina Pressler is a soil ecologist and Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology and Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory. She received a B.S. in Environmental Management with an emphasis in plant biology from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo in 2013. Her dissertation research lies at the intersection of soil biology, disturbance ecology, and biogeochemistry where she investigates the effects of wild and prescribed fires on soil food webs and ecosystem carbon cycling. Yamina has a passion for science education where she works with K-12 educators to develop soil ecology curricular materials for their classrooms. Yamina also coaches the CSU Soil Judging Team. You can follow Yamina’s soil ecology adventures on Twitter @yaminapressler and on her website at www.yaminapressler.com.