What are your areas of practice? What is your expertise?
I have degrees in chemistry and soil science, and practice in all areas of natural resource management that involve soils: land use planning as it relates to soil conservation, ecosystem mapping where soils support plant growth, reuse of beneficial wastes in agriculture and forestry, reclamation and remediation of mine and other degraded soil landscapes, crop production, and water management.
My specific expertise is soil chemistry, so contaminant behaviour and plant nutrient management are my specialties. The beauty of working with soil is that it touches so many sectors, so I have the good fortune to be able to support governments, landowners, farmers, foresters, miners, contractors, and other natural resource professionals on projects ranging from food production to heavy industrial developments.
Why did you choose the career in which you are currently?
It was serendipitous. The only courses I passed in my first year of university were chemistry and German (which I took to be able to read the scientific literature in its original language). I redid that year in a junior college, eventually graduating with a degree in physical chemistry from UBC. That degree found me a job as a lab technician at the Soils Laboratory in UBC’s former Faculty of Agriculture. Soil science presented me with a new world. It allowed me to apply my chemistry background, beyond chemistry research, sales or analysis.
I wanted to know more, so took undergraduate soil science courses and then a post-graduate degree in soil science, researching soil trace element chemistry in intensive livestock production. My boss at the time, Dr. Les Lavkulich, allowed me to work part-time while studying, so was able to support myself while learning from the professors and graduate students I was working with. When I graduated in 1990, the contaminated sites sector was booming and Pottinger Gaherty Environmental Consultants Ltd. offered me a job to run a waste-to-resource project.
What do you do in a typical workday or week?
Working with PGL was exciting. They were just starting and I was able to do a bit of everything. I spent equal parts of my work week writing proposals and estimating contract budgets, doing fieldwork, conducting research, writing progress reports, technical briefs and final reports, talking to clients and regulators, and business management. I loved my job, because of the working environment, the surprising things I sometimes learned, and the satisfaction of helping clients solve their problems.
I became an expert in the behaviour of persistent organic pollutants, spent a lot of time on contaminated sites, and learned about project management. I was told I was great at project work, problem-solving and client liaison, but terrible with budgets! Writing technical reports for a non-academic audience was also challenging, but my boss, Ned Pottinger, was amazing at this and in client relations, so I learned both these critical aspects of consulting from him. I also learned how to run a consulting firm.
I started my own practice in 1995 and sold it in 2017. I am now semi-retired, so I no longer have full-time employees and have the luxury of picking my consulting contracts. I choose jobs that seem interesting or complicated or are with companies I respect.
I also am a director of the Pacific Regional Soil Science Society, where I mentor new soil science graduates and contribute time and expertise to NGOs in the natural resource sectors. I’m currently working with several groups in the southern interior on forest management policy.
Describe a challenge encountered in your career, and how you resolved it.
My work at UBC was wonderful, supported by an incredible group of leaders, students and projects. I can’t remember challenges. The private sector was a different story, and then mostly related to human-resources issues: I’ve had a confusing relationship with a complicated boss, had a client lure a valuable employee (our lucrative contract) away, and have regretted not being able to find meaningful, challenging work for all my staff all the time.
I have rarely been challenged technically but once did run into a process problem at an Environmental Appeal Board hearing. We were representing a local government in their complaint about pesticide use by a utility company.
We prepared binders of supporting documents, well-rehearsed presentations, and solid question/answer strategies, but it quickly became clear during the first hours of the hearings we had chosen the wrong strategy. We were facing a crowd of utility company staff, lawyers, technical advisors, and international experts, who commanded the Board’s attention. We looked puny in comparison. We had to rethink our strategy and spent the remainder of the hearing presenting and cross-examining during the day and working late into each night, rewriting the next day’s content based on who was expected to speak and how they may present their evidence.
It was exhausting, but we did convince the Board of some irrefutable harms from the company’s pesticide use, which won the local government some concessions, and at the end of the five-day hearing, the lead lawyer for the company shook my hand vigorously, suggesting I should have been an environmental lawyer. I laughed, as much from relief as from surprise!
Please share some favourite bonus "perks" and/or experiences from your career.
I’ve had so many perks and positive experiences: Meeting interesting people, working in unusual environments, and realizing unexpected successes. I have worked with amazing professionals from other disciplines, such as ecologists, wildlife biologists, hydrologists, and geomorphologists. The farming community is always interesting and willing, and I especially enjoyed working in the Peace River and with the Douglas Lake Ranch near Merritt.
I’ve had fantastic opportunities working with senior industrial and policy leaders, helping them find benefits in compromises. I have learned so much from these interactions, and hope they have too.
I have had the opportunity to work in the USA, India, Latin America, and North Africa, but two of my favourite working locations were three years spent ecosystem mapping on the west coast of Vancouver Island, in the Liard Plain and the northern Rockies. It was physically demanding, time-consuming work, but the things we saw and learned were amazing. That work defined forest management policy for large swaths of remote areas of the province.
I’ve also had the unexpected pleasure of successfully convincing heavy industry that diverting their wastes from landfills to beneficial use was a good idea. The pitch was that it would help their bottom line and reduce their environmental liability, but the bigger truth was that it was better for the environment and society. It was such fun to help big, profit-motivated companies make challenging changes that would benefit everyone, including them!
I could go on...I’ve worked on so many interesting projects under so many challenging conditions. Today, with climate change, expanding human activity, and increasing conflicts at the rural/urban interface, the opportunities for soil scientists are endless.