Embracing difficult conversations: The necessary path to diversifying soil science

By BRiDGE Committee Member Mariela Garcia Arredondo

Dr. Sprunger (center) after her BRiDGE2Science talk about the effectiveness of perenniality and diversity at providing agro-ecosystem services.

This October at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, we were fortunate to host Dr. Christine Sprunger, an Assistant Professor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State University. Dr. Sprunger investigates how management practices influence soil and rhizosphere interactions for enhanced agronomic performance and ecological function. For her BRiDGE2Impacts event Dr. Sprunger led a discussion about representation and inclusion in agricultural sciences.

She opened her presentation by talking about the fields of agricultural and soil sciences and their struggles with diversity amongst students, faculty, and practitioners. These fields have been historically dominated by males with little racial diversity. In a recent study, Vaughn et al. (2019) found that only 20-26% of soil scientists across academia, federal agencies, and private industries are women. Racial diversity in agricultural and soil sciences is even lower, however the reasons for this are rarely discussed.

To explore this lack of diversity, Dr. Sprunger related experiences during her time as a professor and mentor to students of color. The topics and issues that surfaced in her interactions with students of color shed some light as to why racial diversity is so low in this field. While still maintaining the individuals’ anonymity, she shared how her students experienced insensitive remarks and behaviors from faculty about their race. Since the field of agricultural sciences is predominantly white and male, scientists and extension workers who do not fall within these categories are at risk of being belittled or left working alone in aggressive and unsafe environments, and they risk not being taken seriously since they are from groups traditionally with no power in these spaces. She described how although one of her students enjoyed the lab work and topics of research, doing field work on agricultural sites made them uncomfortable. They confessed to Dr. Sprunger that the act of working within these agricultural field sites and seeing pictures of themselves doing this work reminded them of slavery. 

Dr. Sprunger leading her BRiDGE2Impacts discussion titled Embracing Difficult Conversations: The necessary path to diversifying soil science.

I can’t speak for everyone in that room, but for me as she described this last scenario I could feel my heart freeze and sink inside myself. What this student felt relayed to me a simple truth that anyone with a basic understanding of U.S. history should be able to comprehend. This painfully obvious mark that history has laid on our generations of black and brown people is ever so ripped anew when important conversations of diversity, inclusion, and safety are avoided. It gets etched into us every time we look out at our fellow crowd of peers and can’t find a single face that looks like ours. We wear it every time we walk into a new learning space where we find no one that shares our stories and therefore our same pains, qualms, and anxieties. But the most painful way in which this mark further entrenches its melancholic scab, making it harder for us to heal, is what it reinforces or reminds us about ourselves and our “place” in society. It’s what “others” us in our own research and field of study. 

This conversation reminded me of the time I’ve had to work with my own family’s complex history and relationship with my current field of study. My family comes from a generation of braceros and shadowed agricultural workers. Choosing to be in a space in the agricultural and soil sciences after obtaining academic degrees initially had my family and myself questioning what I was doing with my life. Why was I “returning” to a space that resembled the environment in which my ancestors exposed themselves to back-breaking work that for them was full of carcinogens in the forms of herbicides & pesticides, unforgiving to the physical body and wearying to the mind? How could I explain to my family that their years of working underpaid jobs that did not care for their health, that left their hands and arms scarred, burned and rough, was a space in which I was choosing to work? That I was choosing to get my hands dirty and get my clothes soiled? My answer is twofold. I’m working to reclaim this space for myself and my community. There was a time when my family owned and worked the land for their families and knew more about their land’s plants and soil than anyone else, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be like this again. I want to make room for this piece of our story wherever I go in the world of agricultural and soil sciences.

Dr. Christine Sprunger’s event reminded me that we still have work to do to reclaim this space, and it starts with recognizing that we need to be having these conversations. We need to talk about the importance of–and barriers to–diversifying soil science.


Vaughan, K., Van Miegroet, H., Pennino, A., Pressler, Y., Duball, C., Brevik, E. C., Berhe, A. A., Olson, C. (2019). Women in Soil Science: Growing Participation, Emerging Gaps, and the Opportunities for Advancement in the USA. Soil Science Society of America Journal, 0(0), 0. https://doi.org/10.2136/sssaj2019.03.0085

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