Va. Tech scientist inspired by soils, his students
BLACKSBURG, Va. — A fascination with the soils of the world and a strong belief in the future of America in the hands of the young people he encounters are the driving forces of one Virginia Tech professor.
Dr. John M. Galbraith, associate professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, is the coach for an award-winning soil judging team and a veteran soil scientist and educator
In a recent interview in his office in Smyth Hall on the Tech campus, Galbraith talked about his reasons for studying soils and the young people he worked with this summer in international competition in Brazil.
He said the real story from the event was how well the U.S. teams represented.
“I’m proud of the way American students conducted themselves,” he said. “We got a chance to show the world the best of America.”
Galbraith called these young people ambassadors for the country,” saying the nation has a bright future because of the bright students.
“I’m excited about it,” he continued. “That’s why I continue to coach.”
Coaching soil students is something Galbraith has been doing for the past 38 years. This summer he was honored by being named to coach one of the two U. S. teams at the Third International Soil Judging Contest in Seropedica near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Aug. 8-11.
Galbraith’s team won the championship and was followed in second place by its sister U. S. team.
“The contest was held in what was once the Atlantic rain forest, but is now dry pasture on moderately eroded hillslopes,” said Galbraith. “The soils are infertile and leached of nutrients. The students learned how to interpret and classify tropical soil properties to make land-use decisions,” he wrote in a Tech news release. “None of the students from the U.S. had been to Brazil or South America before, but they quickly learned the soils, hydrology, climate, and geology.
“They interacted well with all teams and learned how to be good ambassadors of their country and their university.”
Last year, he finished second in a national competition. This qualified him to coach one of the two U.S. teams in the international contest.
One of his Virginia Tech students, Ben Smith, was a member of the team Galbraith coached and placed as second high individual in the competition.
Asked “why soils?” Galbraith, a native of San Antonio, Texas replied that he first became interested in soils when he was an undergraduate student at Texas Tech University.
He said he had opportunities to see road cuts in west Texas where whole different worlds were revealed in the soils. The grading through the dry Texas terrain opened the soils to the view of passersby, he said. The lack of moisture like that found in Virginia keeps vegetation from growing on these cuts.
These opportunities gave Galbraith the chance to see the variety in soils including colors, textures, sand, silt and clay, the different types of the subsoils including some where certain plants grow better than others.
The soils also encouraged Galbraith’s interest in ancient history and geology, he noted.
“Soils give you a glimpse into past geologic events,” he said. “Soils gave me a chance to be a detective, a historian, a geologist, a paleontologist. Soils preserve the past.”
Learning from soils also encouraged his interest in plants.
“I never could understand why certain plants grew better in some soils until I started studying soils,” he said.
After studying soils, he can explain the reasons some plants and native trees grow better in certain soils and not in others.
“I went to college to study about native vegetation out west,” Galbraith recalled. “I learned humans could change the vegetation but the soil preserves a record of what plants are native.”
It enables scientists to learn about the hydrology, vegetation and geology as well as agriculture and forestry that has gone before on the site.
Galbraith credited soil science with allowing him to learn about both land management and native plants as well as other sciences.
“Soil is a fascinating subject,” he declared. “It never gets boring.”
Virginia Tech has both a soil judging team which currently has 13 members and a soil club with seven members. Galbraith coaches them.
He outlined what the teams face in the competitions. He said local soil science experts describe 16 different soil pits, telling of the different soil layers, rating soil for the best suitability for building or agriculture. Students have to describe drainage class or water holding capacity and rooting depth, all factors that relate directly to the potential for farmland.
“Yield is directly related to water holding capacity of the soil,” he explained.
After the experts have given their descriptions, the students travel to the same pits with their coach and attempt to describe soils as closely as possible to the explanations of the local expert. The team that gets the closest is the winner.
Galbraith said the competitions provide direct job skill training. He noted the jobs can be found with federal and private agencies, natural resources or environmental activities or farming and forestry among others,
The university clubs participated in both regional and national competition.
The two U.S. teams were partially funded by the Agronomic Science Foundation, Soil Science Society of America, and the American Society of Agronomy.