Allan Bacon in forest ecosystem

Featured Faculty: Dr. Allan Bacon

By Jessica Southard Pardo, Communications Specialist, Soil and Water Sciences Department

Dr. Allan Bacon is a relatively new Assistant Professor of Environmental Pedology here in the Soil and Water Sciences Department.

Dr. Bacon in his favorite place to be – the bottom of a soil pit.

Bacon grew up in a rural community in Arizona. He spent his time outdoors, enjoying things like hunting, hiking and fishing. These interests led him to pursue a career in forestry – to study science and math in an environmental setting.

Bacon started as an undergraduate in a forestry program at Northern Arizona University. “I took an  introductory soils class because it was required by the forestry program,” he said. “I was immediately hooked.”

He expressed his interest in pursuing a career in soils to his professor, who hired him as an undergraduate to work in his lab. “I’ve been full-speed ahead ever since,” Bacon said.

Bacon first came to the University of Florida to accept a post-doc position in the forestry department. “The position involved working on a big regional project focused on Southern Pine forest ecosystems across the Southeastern United States and it involved a massive soil database,” Bacon said. “The project is called PINEMAP.” While he was in the middle of his post doc position at UF, his current position became available.

“My interest in soil is to understand how soils vary across big landscapes and on smaller scales, and essentially to determine what that variation means for management and the role that soils play in bigger ecosystems,” Bacon said. “So PINEMAP was a great way to work at a big scale and then when a job opened up here in pedology – soil formation, distribution, and change – it just seems like an ideal fit.”

Bacon is most excited about his opportunity to establish the foundation for a research program based in, what he believes to be, the best place in the world to study soils. “There’s no better place than Florida  to think about soils and their interaction with hydrology, ecosystems, management, and geologic processes,” he said. “I’m really excited to start to dig into the Florida landscape – literally.”

Bacon currently has three graduate students and three undergraduate students working in his lab. “I’m most proud of the students in my lab because they are all doing really well,” he said. “They are getting awards, writing papers, attending conferences, and gaining real experience by learning about soils.”

The focus for the students in Bacon’s lab is a little different than what you’d traditionally find in a soils lab. ”Much of what we know about soil comes from studying the most surficial fifty centimeters or so, and occasionally we may sample to a couple of meters for mapping purposes,” according to Bacon. “But soils go a lot deeper than that,” he said. “Stuff below two meters matters – so that’s where we work – in the deep subsoil world.”

Bacon has many exciting projects underway already, even after only being here for just a year. “One of my students is studying this massive and unaccounted-for pool of deep soil carbon,” Bacon said. “She might as well be studying the surface of Mars because nobody has looked at carbon at this depth before.”

Bacon describes the soil as the savings account for the carbon cycle. “If you added up all the carbon in the atmosphere and all the carbon in plants they still wouldn’t have as much as the soil,” he said. “And soil carbon matters because of its exchange with CO2 in the atmosphere, which can influence weather and climate change.”

Bacon’s labs are also working on an exciting new technique for determining soil texture. “A classic property of soil is its texture – how much big stuff and how much little stuff it has – sand, silt, and clay,” he said. “It’s a really important property of soil that’s been measured for a long time the same way.”

Bacon and his students are using laser diffraction to get a more comprehensive view of soil texture and a better understanding about the physical nature of soil. “In my opinion it’s a big step forward in the way we think about the physical nature of soils,” he said.

He is dedicated to bridging the gap between the vast majority of people and the soil. “I think there is a general lack of appreciation for what soils provide us economically, agriculturally, and with regards to the ecosystem services like water purification,” Bacon said. “That’s not great for our discipline or for our ability to be stewards of the land.”

Bacon says he remains motivated by the opportunity to share his enthusiasm and passion about soil’s role on Earth’s surface with students, and the opportunity every day to continue to learn something new.

“If you want to pursue a career in soil science, don’t just study soil science,” Bacon said. “Study ecosystems, hydrology, geology, ecology, anthropology – all the things that interact with soil.”