Part 1: The ‘Soil Judges’ of Oz

Our adventure started bright and early Sunday morning, the nine of us piling into a shuttle to the airport, bleary eyed and still half asleep. The 2017 5th Australian Soil Judging Competition awaited us in Toowoomba, Queensland.

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Crisp morning at Christchurch International Airport.

Brisbane put on a show when we got there, what a beautiful day. We stopped and walked around Southshore, trying to acclimatise to the Australian weather. Five minutes out of the van, all we wanted to do was find somewhere cold to sit down and get out of the 30+°C heat!

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From Left: Sephrah Rayner, Connor Edwards, Alvand Azimi, Josh Nelson, Verina Telling, Judith van Djik, Milan Bonkovich, Irene Setiawan. Absent from photo: Camilla Gardiner (but still a key team member).

Off to Toowoomba we went. After settling into our accommodation we explored the local sites. Toowoomba the “Garden City” and had just finished its Carnival of flowers, giving us the opportunity to smell a few roses before we got into the depths of soil judging. Also enjoying the first of many BBQs.

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Exploring the Toowoomba Botanical Gardens with the Kiwi Soil Judgers, settling in to Toowoomba.

Soil Judging Practice. Now this is what you want to get into, if you have even a slight inkling of interest in soils you’d be addicted after seeing these practice pits. What beautiful soils! A broad range, contrasting in colour and conformation. They maybe not as varied in texture (clay everywhere) but if you’re used to New Zealand soils they sure are different!

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Alvand contemplating a buried Sodosol with his Niwashi.

We had a great bunch of knowledgeable Australian Soilys to take us through the practice soil pits. Finding and preparing seven soil pits in contrasting landscapes, sharing their expertise and time with us was greatly appreciated and very interesting. It definitely ‘expanded our horizons’.

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Jim Payne sharing his soils wisdom with the Kiwi crew.

Day one, we jumped on a bus and went east back down the Great Dividing Range (700m altitude) to Gatton to look at four different soil pits. Two clay rich soils, one Vertosol and one Dermosol, dark and prismatic. One Chromosol with rich red mottles at depth and the other a Sodosol, with a pale eluviated horizon that was buried under a gravelly red-orange fill that just made it ‘pop’ (image above). As well as this we heard from one of the local Ag Forestry and Fisheries Researchers, Steve Harper. With years of experience of the local area he talked about its history in market gardens, producing the majority of potatoes and other vegetables for all of Queensland.

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The complete Kiwi crew; Two teams of 4 and a team leader. From top left: Josh, Milan, Irene, Connor, Judith. From bottom left: Sephrah, Alvand, Camilla and Verina.

That evening we had the third BBQ of our trip, to finish of the sausages left over from the welcome BBQ the night before. Catching up with colleagues that some of us had met at last years competition in Wanaka and meeting new people just starting out in their soil judging careers. This is a great part of Soil Judging Competitions, extending collaboration and friendships across the ditch.

 

Day two, jumping on another bus we headed in the opposite direction. Off west to Darling Downs, with a pit in Toowoomba, Kingsthorpe and Jondaryan into the ‘erosional landscapes of the basaltic uplands’. The weathering status and hardness of Basalt determine many of the soil patterns in the landscape. Driving past paddocks with sodicity issues have cotton turned through them and left to fallow, ‘pasture’ paddocks with a few cattle here and there, bright green paddocks of barley and wheat providing a stark contrast to the surrounding vegetation.

Our first pit of the day was red. A Ferrosol that turns your hands red when texturing, providing a great instant tan for your legs or semi-permanent paint to graffiti your mates t-shirt. For the second we got treated to the most impressive slicken sides you’ve ever seen. Up until this point we Kiwi’s had a rough idea what they were, having read about them, but seeing them in person was next level. Lenticular peds, which have a horizonal lens shaped structure that when pulled out of the pit face revealed the polished slicken side faces. The third soil of the day was a Calcarosol, using acid to test for calcareous material.

Before our fourth and final pit of the day we got treated to hot fresh scones and tea at a historic farm. Just about as good as Kiwi scones.

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The Gilgai exposed!

At the fourth pit we found ourselves staring at a thing of beauty, the soil pit had been dug to reveal the perfect finger of calcareous material that protrudes between Gilgai! Gilgai was also something that us Kiwis were trying to wrap our heads around. A Gilgai  is a small, temporary lake formed from a depression in the soil surface in expanding clay soils. Additionally, the term “gilgai” is used to refer to the overall micro-relief in such areas, consisting of mounds and depressions, not just the lakes themselves. The name comes from an Aboriginal word meaning small water hole.

The practice days were long and hot, but comprehensive and helpful. Especially when it came to coming to terms with a whole new classification system and defining textures with more than 35% clay. Its one thing to read a book and practice in a lab, or on New Zealand soils, but Australia is a whole different ball game. A great experience all round.

A shout out to all the people that made the competition possible, preparing such great practise pits and generously sharing your time, energy and knowledge. Also to the funders both here and across the ditch that made the whole thing a reality. New Zealand Sponsors were: FAR, Landcare Research, Ravensdown, NZ Society of Soil Science, Centre for Soil and Environmental Research, LRS and Lincoln University.

Sponors

Part 2 of The ‘Soil Judgers’ of Oz, “Competition Day” article coming soon! and if you missed out on the daily photo posts on Instagram and Facebook, check them out now!

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The Kiwi Soil Teams: Light Green = Bedrockers; Milan, Connor, Sephrah and Camilla. Dark Green = Fifty Shades of Greywacke; Irene, Alvand, Josh and Verina. Ready for competition day!

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References:

Competition Handbook: 5th Australian Soil Judging Competition, 2017. Toowoomba Queensland.

Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilgai

Soil Judging – We’re off to Aussie

If you are interested in soils, want to get your hands dirty and get to know different soil types around the world you should get involved in soil judging!

A team from Lincoln University had the great opportunity of participating in the first New Zealand soil judging competition in Wanaka last year, as part of the New Zealand and Australia Soil Science Conference in Queenstown. Not only did we have a great couple of days in the field, hands on learning about soils but we got to know fellow soil lovers, with participants from across NZ, Australia and America.

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This year we are going to Australia for the 5th Australian National Soil Judging Competition in Toowoomba Queensland from 25 – 29 September 2017. One month to go before the competition there were 13 teams entered, representing 12 Universities and the registration numbers have gone up since then!

Soil Science Australia

Watch this space as we will have updates through out the week while we are there! Keeping you up to speed on Instagram, Facebook and of course the Blog!

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The Lincoln University Soil Department has entered two teams in this years competition, sending two teams of 4 and one team leader to Toowoomba! We are able to do this thanks to fundraising  and sponsorship from the Lincoln Soil Society, Lincoln University, the New Zealand Soil Society, FAR, Ravensdown, Landcare Research and LSR. To all of which we are very grateful.

The Lincoln University Soil Society Quiz Night, with the winning team holding the “Golden Spade”

The last couple of months have kept us very busy with fundraising and of course our weekly training/practice sessions. Fundraising has occurred in the form of LU Soil Society T-Shirt sales, Quiz nights (images above) and Bake sales, with a few sausage sizzles still to come.

Our teams in one of the Lincoln University soil pits, working through the different components that we will be judged on with the help of a couple of LU’s soil experts, Peter Almond and Roger McLenaghan.

Practice on (early and chilly mornings) Wednesdays  has seen us go through every aspect of what we get judged on: Soil Morphology; horizon designations,  texture, colour and structure, Soil Profile Characteristics; permeability, available water capacity, slaking/dispersion, Site Characteristics; land-form morphology, slope class, parent material….. Australian Soil Classification; diagnostic criteria, order…. and Interpretations; class for different uses and limiting factors.

Along side this we have been researching Australian soils in the area that the competition is going to be held. It’s interesting applying our New Zealand soils knowledge to Australian versions of the same thing. As we have found, we do things quite differently. Colours and textures will be a very interesting change! Bring on vibrant reds and rich clays!

Comradery, companionship and competition! the perfect combination, all that and ‘expanding your horizons’ with great soils knowledge. Soil Judging is indeed the new NBA!

Want more?

Our previous articles on soil judging:

Article on 2012 Australian Soil Judging Competition 

Competition Details – Follow link for flyer

Sponors

 

A Field Trial has it’s Challenges

As part of my PhD project I am running a long term field trial. My project examines nitrate dynamics within the landscape continuum, along flow paths to surface and groundwater, using nitrate N and O isotopes to quantify nitrate attenuation, and apparent isotope fraction factors to differentiate N processes such as denitrification.

Aiming to evaluate the influence of spatial and temporal factors on nitrogen attenuation (N removal as through denitrification) with respect to New Zealand systems. Research data from a long-term field installation will allow the identification of temporal thresholds and trigger events for denitrification.

Sounds simple enough right? throw a few sensors in the ground at different depths and a bunch of ceramic suction cups and “hey presto”.

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Wrong. Add a couple of solar panels, batteries, cell modems, radios, aerials, two different soil types, SDI12 sensors, climate monitoring equipment; rain gauge and barometer. Okay now that you’ve got all that, put it 500 km away from where you’re based, throw in some nature, human and manufacturing error, along with poor cell coverage and now we’re being a bit more realistic.

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Set up started 6 months before the actual installation of the equipment, with funding, programming and calibration of equipment taking twice as long as expected.

Challenge #1: Funding

No explanation needed.

Challenge #2: Programming and Calibration

Programming and coding isn’t something that I’d had any experience with before. The extent of my knowledge was using AND, OR’s and IF’s in Excel, the usefulness of which cannot be dismissed, but when I was sitting in-front of a computer screen staring at more lines of letters and numbers than a bankrupt mans accountant, I knew it would be a steep learning curve.

The soil department’s Technician, Neil, took me under his wing and worked with me each step of the way (very patiently). As it turned out, I found this experience invaluable.

With technology advancing at the rate it is, taking this step into the world of programming, reinforced what a lot of us know already, that we need to keep up with it but we know very little. Lincoln University Soil Science Society’s motto is “Expand your horizons”, and seems very appropriate in this case, up-skill, expand those horizons. Technology provides so many opportunities for great scientific research, but to take advantage of this, we need to keep up and grow with it to use it effectively.

 

March saw the installation of the equipment. A week of digging and installing 24 sensors (oxygen, moisture and temperature) as well as 32 ceramic suction cups. This went fairly smoothly apart from one of the soils having more stones in it than you could shake a stick at, which promptly halted progress.

Challenge #3: Rocks, Stones and Pebbles

The oxidising a.k.a ‘stony as hell’ soil decided that it wouldn’t let go of the metal rod we were using to put the ceramic cups in place. This was the one rod that had to put them in, and it was the first try, so we needed it back. Digging by hand to unearth it, using a large jack and also trying to pull it out with the digger gave us no joy. One hour later, we got it out, but only by digging it all the surrounding soil out with the digger, bending it in the process. Now we were in search of an engineer that could straighten it.  Two hours drive later and $10 down, thanks to a very kind dude at the mechanics, we were back on site with a straight rod and all 32 ceramic suction cups yet to be installed.

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However to get around the rock, stones and pebbles issues we didn’t use it (the rod that is) to install the ceramic cups at this site. I hand dug, or more like, bashed, holes into the side of the soil pit with a crow bar to put the cups into and then we back filled it. At the other site they all went in easy as pie, thank goodness.

Okay. Set-up done, back to Lincoln.

Challenge #4: Communication

Data-loggers are great. You can hook them up to the national cell network and send your data back to where ever you wish, at what ever time and update them while 500 km away! Unless of course you have no cell reception…. then you have to make that 1000 km round trip again to install radio modems so that the site that doesn’t get cell reception can communicate with the one that does, via the radio routers, and send it’s info back that way. Fixed.

Note: Make sure your Yagi aerials are pointing in the right direction and are high enough to get the signal to the other one, so your radios can indeed communicate. If it’s not high enough, improvise and use a stick that you found near by as a temporary fix. Be sure to change the stick out to something more permanent before the forecasted 90 km winds hit!

Hot Tips: Bring an umbrella, great for those days you have no choice but to be in the field to fix something and the weather isn’t playing ball. Also, make friends with the locals. They make great company and provide entertainment in those moments where you have to stand around waiting for something (there’s a few of those), and don’t forget snacks! being in the field is hungry work.

Challenge #5: When it doesn’t rain in Southland….

So the aim of the game is to collect samples from the ceramic suction cups installed at the two sites. Sampling over a two month period to capture the seasonal winter wet up of the soil, and see the nitrate leaching break through curve.

But when you’ve been in Southland for 3 weeks, the weather has been stunning and your samples are only a couple of milliliters when you get any sample at all…it starts to be an issue (if I’m honest, I really enjoyed it, was great for tramping on the weekends).

The solution to this challenge was just patience. Week 4 proved to be more successful…. that’s also when the snow came, and the ground and ceramic cup sampling tubes started freezing…but that’s another story.

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Challenge #6: RATS!

“Rats like to chew things” the pest control lady at Environment Southland said as she looked at the leaky, cut up ceramic suction cup tubes that I’d brought back from the field trial site. Over a couple of weeks I’d noticed that some of the tubes weren’t working as I tried to apply suction to the ceramic cups, meaning I wasn’t drawing in any soil solution for collection. On closer inspection the tubes had small cuts along them. I replaced a couple but it continued to happen. Feed up, I decided to find a solution.

A self resetting rat trap seemed like the ideal solution. Thanks to the pest control department at Environment Southland I got my hot little hands on one of these, installed it on the fence post near my site. With it’s intoxicating chocolate bait, the rats must’ve found it more enticing that plastic tubing and voilà, no more problem.

Challenge #7: No Comms…again

Okay people, no worries. This one was easy. Blown fuse. Changed the fuse. Fixed.

Getting good at this now (a.k.a good at listening to the technician over the phone to help me solve issues while in the field).

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Challenge #8: Oxygen Sensors aren’t playing ball

The oxygen sensors we had installed were giving very random readings, dropping into the negative 1000’s or not reading at all. Three at one site and one at the other. Two at the deepest depth we just un-plugged. The other two we decided to replace with analog sensors rather than the digital ones we were currently using.

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The technician sent these down to me, very kindly having pre-calibrated them. All I had to do was dig a couple of holes, one at each site, to the correct depths, install and wire in the new sensors. Done. The frozen ground causing no issues with the spade work…

Challenge #9: Human Error

It was the day before my flight back to Christchurch. I get a phone call from the technician. “Now all of the moisture sensors seem to be playing up, they’re giving odd readings.” Here we go…

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An early frosty Saturday morning in the field it is.

Four hours of my head in a data logger, staring at wiring, un-wiring, re-wiring, re-installing programs, testing voltage, re-testing. Thanking the technician for giving up his Saturday for this, worried that it may end up with him having to fly down with a new data-logger after none of the things we were trying was solving the issue.

The 5th hour came around and I stuck my head into the data-logger once again, lying on the ground wondering if I’d ever feel my fingers and toes again… then I saw it. That wire, that one wire that was in the wrong place! in one port higher than it should be!

I took it out, wired it into the port it was meant to be in. An exclamation from Neil, the technician on the other end of the phone and I knew the problem was solved. Feeling extremely guilty for all the extra time I’d kept Neil, especially on a weekend, he reassured me that it happens to the best of us. We’re only human right?

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Challenge #10: Lightening Strike!

You know when you get to challenge #10 that the world must be plotting against you…?? What are the chances of the field trial getting hit by lightening? Seriously?

Well, it happened. You just have to keep reminding yourself that all things happen for a reason, right?

So the comms were down again, the day after I got back from being based in Southland for 2 months and the technician was busy with other work at Uni. So a couple of very helpful people from the Environment Southland Team came to the rescue.

The radio aerial was fried. A new one needed to be ordered and sent down, along with a new radio router, then installed. Then the deep cycle battery had gone flat. A new one ordered and installed. Radios still didn’t want to talk to each other. Last straw, the awesome technician here at Lincoln ended up having to fly down for a week to fix it all.

It took about a month an a half to get it back up and running. But it is running!

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Challenge #………..well I could keep going but I think you get the picture. Field trials are full of challenges, some you can fix, some you need patience for, some you need to ask for help, sometimes you just want to scream or cry or laugh. Nature, people, animals, weather, technology. But it’s worth it.

I’d be lying if I said I’d enjoyed every bit of it, but looking back I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bring it on PhD, love the challenge, love the science, love soil!

Seph at field trial site

A special thanks to all those that have helped me along the way so far. Neil Smith, Lincoln’s awesome technician and the very helpful Environment Southland Staff, all your time and patience is very much appreciated!

Staff Intro – Senior Lecturer Carol Smith

Main Research Areas: Paleoclimate. Land-reclamation. Pedology.

Carol is originally from the UK, growing up in South-East England, before moving to New Zealand in 1993. She completed a BSc. (Hons) in geographical science at Portsmouth, followed by a MSc in pedology and soil survey at Reading and then a PhD in soil science at Aberdeen.

Paleoclimate – a climate prevalent at a particular time in the geological past.

Pedology – the study of soils in their natural environment. The scientific study of soils and their weathering profiles.

It was her undergraduate focus on geomorphology, pedology, combined with micro-morphology while at Reading, that got her into the area of research she follows today. “The paleoclimate record in soils and landscapes is relevant to our understanding of the extent of past climate change; it offers a point of reference to computer models of future climate”. Carol is also passionate about land rehabilitation and the opportunities that using recycled organic materials can have on improving soil quality.

“Looking at New Zealand’s past climate through soils is very exciting.”

Carol Smith at Soil Judging Comp 2016

Carol started at Lincoln University as a tutor alongside the legendary Phil Tokin in 1993. Following a move to Sydney in 1997 with her young family and a stint in the private sector as an environmental consultant, she returned to Lincoln in 2005 as a lecturer in soil science. She was appointed to her present role as HoD in 2017. Carol’s inspiration in this role is being able to work with people and help them do their job to the best of their ability; whether that is through teaching, research or university management.

“It’s all about the people – the staff and students in the Soil Department; we all work together as a good team. We are small enough to know each other and we also have a few adventures along the way.”

In her down time Carol makes the most of the outdoors, seeking a balance between a busy work week and active relaxation on the weekends, when she can be found hitting the Port Hills on her bike. Skiing and tramping are also favourites when the seasons allow, as well as catching up with her two young adult children (when they’re not asking for money or to borrow the car). “Exploring NZ, all those hidden, beautiful corners.”

Find out more: Carol Smith Lincoln University Staff Profile

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PhD Postgrad Intro – Monica Giona Bucci

Monica Giona Bucci has just completed her PhD in the department of Soil Science at Lincoln University. Professor Peter Almond (Lincoln University), Dr. Pilar Villamor (GNS Science), Dr. Martitia Tuttle  (Tuttle & Associates) and Dr. Carol Smith (Lincoln University) have supervised her research.

I come from Italy where I completed a Bachelor and Master degree in Earth and Environmental Sciences at “La Sapienza” University of Rome. During both my final dissertations I learnt the importance of studying pedology and GIS mapping and these skills were particularly useful during my PhD.

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My PhD project was about studying the sedimentary architecture of two settings (alluvial and coastal) affected by liquefaction features triggered during the 2010-2011 Canterbury Earthquake Sequence. My PhD research was very interesting because it allowed me to learn different techniques for liquefaction investigations and to contribute in improving the understanding of the susceptibility to liquefaction across the Canterbury Region.

Staff Intro – Professor Leo Condron

Main Research Areas: Phosphorus. Micro-organisms. Chronosequences.

Leo grew up in Glasgow, Scotland. After completing a Bachelor of Science with Honours at the University of Glasgow he moved to New Zealand to further his education at Lincoln University. 1980 – 1984, PhD in Soil Science at Lincoln. Reaching for the highest possible qualification, Leo also completed a Doctor of Science in Soil Science at Canterbury. Returning to Lincoln in 1989 he’s never left, and is now a Professor of Biogeochemistry; 50% research (including PG supervision), 30% teaching, 20% admin.

Why soil science? “My father was a farmer, I always had an interest in Agriculture and while doing my degree I developed a greater interest in soil science.” Working at Lincoln University has allowed for Leo to focus on one area of research for more than 30 years, meaning that he has been able to continue to develop it. ‘It’ being phosphorus, or a combination of all his passions; phosphorus, micro-organisms and chronosquences where possible. This is what keeps him going, having never lost interest in it or agriculture.

Continuity is Leo’s favourite thing about the Soil’s Department at Lincoln. The Lincoln University Soil Science Department has been able to sustain the continuity of research even though there has been a lot of changes, allowing for a coherent department that is great to work in. Maintaining this number of Soil Scientists together has been really lucky, “There is no other group of soil scientists this big in the world that I know of.

Outside of University Leo’s time is taken up being a father to three kids and some tropical fish. Also enjoying music, Cuban cigars and a good bottle of Bourbon whiskey.

Find out More: Professor Leo Condron Lincoln University Staff Profile

Leo Condron Blog Photo_B&W

D.Sc. University of Canterbury, New Zealand. 2016.

Biogeochemistry of Phosphorus in Soil-Plant Systems
Ph.D. Soil Science. Lincoln College (University of Canterbury), New Zealand. 1986.
‘Chemical nature and plant availability of phosphorus present in soils under long-term fertilised irrigated pastures in Canterbury, New Zealand’
B.Sc. Honours (II i). Agricultural Chemistry. University of Glasgow, Scotland, UK. 1980.
Research Profile:  Biogeochemistry of organic carbon and major nutrients in natural and managed ecosystems, with an emphasis on the nature, dynamics and bioavailability of organic and mineral forms of nutrients in the soil-plant system in relation to soil management and land use.  Project areas include organic matter and nutrient dynamics in grassland and forest soils, soil chronosequence dynamics, rhizosphere processes and nutrient acquisition, relationships between soil microbial diversity and function, and the nature, and the bioavailability and mobility of phosphorus in terrestrial environments.

Links:

Staff Intro – Professor Timothy Clough

Professor Timothy Clough.

Main Research Areas: Green House Gases (GHG), Nitrogen (N) and Carbon (C).

Lincoln University has been lucky enough to have Tim here for 20 years! Tim’s enthusiasm for research and teaching in soil science hasn’t waned, saying “there’s no ground hog days, it’s always different, there’s variety and it’s very interesting. The discovery of new findings keeps me going.”

Tim is a Christchurch man, born and breed in Canterbury. After working on a Sheep station one summer he was inspired to go to Lincoln University, where he pursed a degree in Agricultural Science. Completing a BAgSc with Honours he went to work at MAF in Hamilton, before returning to Lincoln for a PhD in Soil Science. Tim’s PhD research looked at “Bovine Urine N in Peat Soils”, this lead onto nitrous oxide and where he is today, specialising in GHGs.

Tim’s role at Lincoln University includes scientific research, teaching and postgraduate supervision. The things that stand out for Tim about working in Lincoln University Soil Science Department are; the open door policy, collegiality and the expertise within the department. “We’re world leading in some of the work we do. When I came to Lincoln, you’d heard of the guys who worked here, they were well known for what they were achieving on the world stage.”

‘Collegial – an adjective describing a work environment where responsibility and authority is shared equally by colleagues. You know you work in a collegial environment when your co-workers smile at you, and you don’t have to hide from your supervisor.’

When he’s not hard at work at Lincoln University unearthing new scientific discoveries, teaching young minds and supervising postgrads, Tim enjoys the outdoors. Spending his down time; tramping, fishing, swimming and biking, also enjoying his music, having played saxophone. Who knows how he fits it all in!

Find out more – Professor Timothy Clough Lincoln University Staff Profile

TImothy Clough - Blog Photo