Inevitably, I will occasionally have to talk to somebody who I don’t already know. I’m a pretty friendly gal and I like meeting people, but if there’s one thing I dread, it’s answering the question, so what do you do?
A normal person, I imagine, would not find this to be a traumatizing question. You would probably just answer the question and move on. This is next to impossible when you tell people you study biogeochemistry, a clunky word containing not one, not even two, but three scientific disciplines. Common reactions to hearing this word for the first time include:
What was that again?
So what does that mean?
Are you like a geologist?
I hated chemistry in high school.
Did you make that word up?
That’s too much science for me.
You must be really smart or something.
Sometimes I tell people I’m an ecologist (sort of true) or a soil scientist (not technically a lie) just to avoid using the word biogeochemistry. Here’s the thing though: it’s a perfectly reasonable question.
So…what is biogeochemistry (besides the coolest science ever)?
Biogeochemistry is the study of the earth system as a whole. Biology, geology, chemistry, soil, water, air, plants, microbes - we think about all of these components of our planet, and how they interact with each other. Some common themes include nutrient cycling (think carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus), plant-soil interactions, and global climate change.
What is cool to me about this field is how integrative it is. In college I studied biochemistry because I am bad at making decisions and couldn’t choose between biology and chemistry. And I absolutely, wholeheartedly loved it. We learned about how crazy specific chemical reactions drive our cells and our bodies, which I think is just the coolest thing. For me, biogeochemistry takes that zoomed-in view of life and applies it to the whole planet. We basically ask, how do the chemical interactions between organisms and soil/rocks manifest on a larger scale? And what does that mean for people and the planet?
The people I work with are vibrant, brilliant, and usually covered in dirt. We are comfortable performing complicated chemical procedures, but we are also comfortable digging soil pits (yes, with shovels). It is not unusual to see people walking around lab clad in hiking pants and boots (and sometimes even lab coats). Biogeochemists are a crowd who are fascinated by the earth’s most intimate secrets. This fascination kindles both excellent scientific questions and intense passions for preserving our truly remarkable planet.
Also, it’s a field of study that has paid me to travel to wetlands, redwoods, mountains, and the desert, so that’s pretty sweet.