Charting a Course for the Soil and Water Sciences Department

Dr. Matt Whiles began serving as the UF/IFAS Soil and Water Sciences Department (SWSD) chair this past January. In his first several months on the job, he faced the same learning curve as all new hires of the University of Florida. However, he had to hit the ground running, dealing with annual faculty and staff reviews, a budget plan, and securing new graduate students. Whiles still found time to answer questions for Myakka, to give SWS alumni, partners, and friends an idea of what he has in mind for the future of the department.

Myakka: Before we look to the future, can you tell us what interested you about this position to make you apply for the job?

Dr. Matt Whiles

Matt Whiles: Several things attracted me to this position; in particular, I was impressed with the breadth of expertise across the department and the numerous large-scale, collaborative research projects that faculty members are involved in.  I was also aware of the excellent reputation of this program, IFAS, and UF, and how so much of the science that happens here influences agriculture, ecosystem management, and policy.  I’m excited to be back in a land grant university, where research, extension, and teaching are all priorities.

Myakka: Since beginning the job in January, what have you heard from your colleagues in the discipline about the SWS programs and their reputation?

MW: My colleagues are quite familiar with the SWSD programs and think very highly of this department. This program has an excellent reputation, nationally and internationally, and I’m excited to be part of It.

Faculty & Students

Myakka:  The SWSD has hired, and is in the process of hiring, more faculty due to some recent retirements and as part of UF’s effort to hire 500 new faculty members. After we finalize the three current openings (two assistant professors and one lecturer), would you be happy with the breadth of expertise the faculty has? Are there other research and teaching initiatives you would like to see that require another position or two in the near future?

MW: We seem to have some areas very well covered, and some where we could use more personnel and expertise, including soil physics and aquatic chemistry. The direction we go with future hires will ultimately be a group decision by the department. I look forward to working with the SWSD faculty to plot the course for the future of the SWSD.

 Myakka:  The SWSD has many on- and off-campus students, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. Do you foresee any academic program changes that could impact enrollment? Are the current recruitment and retention levels where you want them to be?

MW:  I don’t see any changes in the short term that would affect us in that way. I still have a lot to learn about academic programs that we interact with and/or influence our programs and students. I do think that we need to address the current low number of undergraduate Soil and Water Sciences majors. I met with many of them recently and they all indicated that they really like the program and people. We are in the process of putting together a committee that will explore recruiting, visibility, and related issues with the major. We have plenty of students in the Interdisciplinary Studies major (Environmental Management in Agriculture and Natural Resources), but I would like to see more Soil and Water Sciences majors. As I mentioned, the current majors indicate they are having a great experience; this suggests the low number may be more a function of visibility and recruiting. I also think we need to look at ways to better communicate the diverse career options for Soil and Water Sciences majors.

Alumni & Stakeholders

Myakka:  There are a number of SWSD alumni in Florida as well as spread across the country and the world. How would you like to see them be involved in the department?

MW:  We are always interested in hearing from our alumni. In my opinion, the ultimate measure of a program is the accomplishments of its students. I would like for our alumni to stay in touch as much as possible. I hope they will check in every now and then to let us know what they’re up to, and certainly inform us of any exciting news or significant accomplishments. Alumni are also an important part of our institutional memory; understanding the history of a program is important for plotting the future.

Myakka:  What type of partnerships do you envision for the SWSD within UF or with government, nonprofits, and industry?

MW: One of the many impressive aspects of this program is the array of connections, partnerships, and collaborations. This is an existing strength I think we can continue to build on. Diverse partnerships and collaborations are key to success in science, and our students benefit by learning and gaining experience in large, diverse networks. Studies from the social sciences demonstrate that success as a scientist is directly linked to the breadth of the professional network. SWSD faculty members collaborate extensively with government, industry, and NGOs in their research and extension activities. This is central to addressing today’s complex challenges related to balancing food and energy production, sustainable development, and healthy ecosystems.

SWSD’s Strengths

Myakka:  You have said soil and water are the foundations of ecosystems and vital resources in urban, agricultural, and natural landscapes. How can the SWSD better position itself to address the grand challenges facing these two resources?

MW: The SWSD is poised to address many facets of these challenges. In order to continue doing so, we need to maintain, and in some cases enhance, our expertise in basic areas of the soil and water sciences, while also adapting and responding to emerging issues and new technologies. This program has an impressive track record of communicating science to stakeholders through our excellent extension programs. I think maintaining and building on that success is critical as we move forward. Doing great science is one part of the impact “equation” – communication is the other. As we plan for the future, we need to make sure to maintain top-notch teaching, extension, and research programs across the disciplines we cover.