Featured New Faculty: Sarah Strauss

Jessica Southard Pardo, Communications Specialist, SWS

Sarah Strauss, Assistant Professor, SWS

Dr. Sarah Strauss is a new Assistant Professor of Soil Microbiology in the Soil and Water Sciences Department, stationed at the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center (SWFREC). Dr. Strauss took the time to answer a few questions for us, giving us a little insight to life as a University of Florida scientist.

 1.     At what point in your life did you know that you wanted to be a scientist?

 Growing up, I loved both being outside and plants, and had a vague notion of studying botany in college. My love of the outdoors and various high school science projects involving plants led me to the Environmental Science Department at Washington University in St. Louis as an undergraduate. The summer before my senior year I spent 6 weeks assisting a graduate student collecting water samples from hot springs in Yellowstone National Park. She was studying the microbial filaments growing in pools of boiling acidic water. The adaptations and evolution of these microscopic organisms that can survive in such harsh conditions impressed me. I realized there are still many questions about how organisms, both plants and microbes, grow in extreme environments.

2.     Can you tell me a little about your road to UF?

I pursed my interest in extreme environments and biological exploration as a doctoral student at Arizona State University examining microbial carbon and nitrogen cycling and community composition in Antarctica and the deserts of the US Southwest. I spent 3 field seasons on the Antarctic Peninsula examining microbial communities at a recently deglaciated site, and then spent several weeks driving around the Southwest collecting samples. As I was finishing my degree, I began exploring other ecosystems where little was known about the microbial carbon and nitrogen cycling contributions. It quickly became evident that there was little research into microbial systems in agriculture, and that with the fumigation and fertilizer manipulations, agricultural soils can also be considered “extreme” environments. I spent two years as a postdoctoral research assistant with the USDA-ARS Tree Fruit Research Laboratory in Wenatchee, WA, examining the microbial impact of different fertilizers on ammonia oxidation and nitrogen availability in apple orchards. I then spent four years with the USDA-ARS Crops Pathology & Genetics Research Unit in Davis, CA, looking at microbial-based fumigant alternatives to managing soilborne phytopathogens of walnuts.   

3.     What are you most excited about as a new UF/IFAS faculty member? 

I am thrilled to be part of an amazing team. From my colleagues in the department and the RECs, to the growers and extension agents, it is wonderful to work with such enthusiastic people.

4.     What is your vision for your research/extension work at the Southwest Florida REC?

I want to establish strong collaborations between the Soil Microbiology program at SWFREC, students, and growers. Together, we can examine questions about soil microbiology that will have a positive impact on growers, Florida agriculture, and our understanding of soil microbial communities.

5.     What part of your research are you most proud of?

I’m particularly proud of my applied research projects. While my studies of extreme environments were fascinating, it is extremely rewarding to examine questions about soil microbes that have the potential to directly impact growers and our agricultural production.

6.     Can you tell me a little about your extension work and its importance?  

My extension work is directed by my applied research goals to develop effective methods to manipulate the soil microbial community to improve soil health and increase production. Currently, my primary objective is focused on educating growers, production managers, and extension agents about current and new science-based information on the soil microbiology of citrus and vegetable production systems. There has been an explosion of microbial-based products and information in the last several years. I hope to serve as a resource for growers to make informed decisions about managing their soil microbiology.

7.     Do you have any exciting projects or collaborations underway?

Microbial mats

Microbial mats in a citrus grove.

All my projects and collaborations are exciting! One that stands out is a project exploring biological soil crusts, or microbial mats, that have been identified in some local citrus groves. I studied similar systems in the deserts of the Southwest for part of my dissertation, and was shocked when a grove manager pointed them out to me a few months ago. Since then, I’ve begun collaborating with Patrick Inglett and his lab, and a colleague at the USDA-ARS in Pendelton, OR, to look at the microbial community composition and nitrogen cycle of these mats. 

8.     What motivates you most to go to work every day? 

The support of the agricultural community and my colleagues are my biggest motivation. I am continually impressed by the interest and enthusiasm of the growers for the research at the REC. My colleagues at the REC and the department have been incredibly supportive and helpful, and I look forward to continuing to work with them on a variety of projects.