From applied to fundamental research: Sindhu Jagadamma

Over the past several years, Sindhu Jagadamma has traveled across the world and through different areas of soil science. She began her career in applied soil science as a soil survey officer in India but transitioned to fundamental research as a graduate student with Dr. Rattan Lal at Ohio State University (OSU).

Sindhu Jagadamma using an instrument

Jagadamma now works as a postdoctoral researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). She uses neutron beams to study how soil and carbon interact at the nanometer scale and conducts lab-scale microcosm experiments to understand the major factors controlling soil organic carbon decomposition. By understanding the stability of soil organic carbon at different scales, she hopes to improve the accuracy of terrestrial ecosystem models. While soil carbon used to be a “black box,” Jagadamma says the techniques and skills needed to open that box and look inside are now available.

Soil Horizons: Where are you from and where did you go to school?

Jagadamma: I grew up in an agricultural community in Kerala, India—a very beautiful “green” state with the Arabian Sea in the west, the Western Ghats mountain ranges in the east, and a network of rivers and backwaters. After attending Kerala Agricultural University and working as an agricultural extension officer and county-level soil survey officer for six years, I received the prestigious Ford Foundation’s International Fellowship. This allowed me to pursue graduate studies at the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center with Dr. Rattan Lal. I completed a master’s and a Ph.D. degree in soil science and established myself as an expert in soil carbon sequestration in terrestrial ecosystems.

Soil Horizons: How did you become interested in studying soil science?

Jagadamma: My state of Kerala is blessed with two long rainy seasons. While these long rainy seasons are a joy for farmers, it was disruptive for my family because my father was a construction worker who generally didn’t work during the monsoon season. To make ends meet, my mother maintained a home garden. The yams and tapioca from her garden were a stable supply of food for us. I was always amazed with my mother’s skills in maximizing the yields from the small piece of land and maintaining the soil fertility by adding wood ashes and turning in some cover crops.

These early lessons in soil amendments and sustainable agricultural practices inspired me to pursue my studies in the agricultural sciences with a concentration in soil science. For my master’s thesis work in India, I gained hands-on experience by conducting research on banana farms to investigate the optimal level of potassium fertilization. Conducting research on the farm convinced me that research in an isolated lab setting is insufficient for addressing the real-world issues that farmers are facing. I am passionate about promoting lab-to-land campaigns to successfully transfer new research findings to farms and to obtain real-time feedback from the farmers.

Soil Horizons: How did you transition from working in applied aspects of soil science to the more fundamental research that you’re doing now at ORNL?

Jagadamma: I was very enthusiastic after performing experiments on farms in my master’s research, so for six years, I worked directly with farmers to develop and implement sustainable farming practices in Kerala. In 2003, I moved to the U.S. to begin my master’s research at OSU. I investigated the effects of existing soil and crop management practices for increasing soil carbon sequestration and improving crop yield. I was fascinated with the global significance of this research because it has the potential to reduce CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and mitigate global warming. This research introduced me to the complexities of soil carbon and the challenges in understanding and predicting its dynamics.

My switch from applied to fundamental research has been a gradual but natural progression towards understanding carbon stabilization in the soil. During my Ph.D. research, I refined existing laboratory methods for the separation of soil carbon fractions. I also employed high-resolution instruments for understanding the chemical composition and turnover of soil carbon.

This work led me to ORNL to continue working on fundamental research in soil carbon stabilization. I wanted to understand how soil carbon is stabilized by using state-of-the-art instruments available at ORNL. I feel very fortunate to have this experience because I am now ready to approach real-world problems in more fundamental and integrative ways.

Soil Horizons: What types of projects are you doing now?

Jagadamma: I am involved in diverse research projects at ORNL. I collaborate within the Climate Change Science Institute to understand the microbial processes responsible for soil carbon stabilization and decomposition. Our goal is to improve terrestrial soil carbon cycle models.

I also study the molecular-scale processes of carbon interactions with soil minerals through collaborations at the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS). We use SNS’s intense neutron beams to probe the structure and function at the interface of organic carbon and soil minerals. The application of neutron scattering to study the molecular-level structure of soil carbon is a new area of research, and more work needs to be done.

Most recently, I am collaborating with engineers to develop and deploy unique sensors for automated measurement of soil properties and processes. Overall, my research at ORNL has equipped me with new tools that can be used to explore the dynamics of soil carbon in the context of soil fertility and climate change.

Shed at Oakridge National Lab

Soil Horizons: If I were to shadow you for a day, what would I see you doing?

Jagadamma: On any given day, you might see me in the lab wearing coveralls, shoe covers, and two layers of gloves to conduct radiological work. Labeling soil samples with radiocarbon compounds helps us to understand how the chemical composition of soil carbon influences the rate of carbon decomposition. You might also see me training students and technicians on lab techniques or attending seminars and project meetings.

In the afternoons, you can generally find me in my office, performing data analysis or writing a manuscript. If you pick a day to shadow me when we do neutron experiments, you would see me taking the samples to the SNS for bombardment with a neutron beam. You would also observe me interacting with an interdisciplinary team of physicists, chemists, and computational scientists to plan and conduct experiments and interpret the data.

Soil Horizons: What do you enjoy most about your work?

Jagadamma: Over the years, my most enjoyable moments have been the times I have interacted directly with farmers. During a short postdoc at OSU, I worked on a project to assess the potential of no-till agriculture to mitigate global warming, sampling greenhouse gases throughout the crop growing season in Ohio. The opportunities I had to talk one on one with farmers were very rewarding. In my current research at ORNL, I really enjoy working with cross-disciplinary teams to improve our understanding of soil carbon stabilization and cycling.

Soil Horizons: Do you have any funny stories you’d like to share?

Jagadamma: I have some funny workplace memories, including the “Katy’s Kitchen” story. During my beginning days at ORNL, people kept talking about “Katy’s Kitchen.” The phrase got my attention because it sounded like a great place for lunch. I decided to try Katy’s Kitchen one day and invited a fellow postdoc who had also started around the same time I had. I asked around to figure out the location, but the route led us to the woods. At first, we thought it would be a relaxing place for lunch. But then we got a feeling that the middle of the woods was not a perfect place for a restaurant. Finally, we found the building—it was actually an abandoned analytical chemistry lab named after a staff member who regularly visited the place in the 1950s. The trip was clearly relaxing and entertaining but without lunch! (Learn more about Katy’s Kitchen and the history of ORNL here.)

Soil Horizons: What would you tell others who might be interested in working in soil science?

Jagadamma: I urge students to get involved in the science of soils and work to save this precious natural resource. Soil is not only the ultimate source of our food, but it is the most important natural resource on earth and the key medium for all earth surface processes. For many people, soil is still just “dirt,” but this misconception is slowly changing, and soil science is getting the appreciation it deserves. Researchers in other disciplines are now working collaboratively with soil scientists to develop an integrated approach in solving core environmental issues. The scientific community has made remarkable progress towards incorporating soil processes in global-scale models. In addition, the Soil Science Society of America has been doing a phenomenal job in acting as a great advocate for soils research.

I would also like to provide a small note on career advice to soil science students. I encourage each of you to ask the question, “What do I want to be when I grow up as a soil scientist?” and to take your time in figuring out the best answer. There are numerous job opportunities available in government, industry, universities, national laboratories, and other research organizations. You may want to approach your graduate studies differently in order to reach each of these destinations. Design a tailored plan that includes exposure to the skills necessary to succeed in each environment. Please feel free to contact me by email or LinkedIn with questions about my research.

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