NC State Crop and Soil Sciences professor of soil physics and hydrology Josh Heitman has been named a 2021 American Society of Agronomy Fellow. The awards are presented to Society members to recognize outstanding contributions to agronomic science through education, service, and research.
Deanna Osmond, NC State professor of soil fertility and watershed management, nominated Heitman for the honor.
“Dr. Heitman is one of the most, if not the most, productive faculty members with whom I have ever worked. He has a comprehensive understanding of soils and a working knowledge of agriculture, as he grew up on a farm,” Osmond said. “His ability to synthesize information and move it to a higher level of understanding is truly unique.”
The ASA website notes, “Fellow is the highest recognition bestowed by the American Society of Agronomy. Members of the Society nominate worthy colleagues based on their professional achievements and meritorious service. Less than 0.3 percent of the Society’s active and emeritus members may be elected Fellow.”
An Affinity for Nature’s Puzzles
Since soil is ubiquitous to humankind, the research field is equally diverse. Heitman’s research spans multiple applications: improving soil productivity and resilience in commodity and alternative crops; enhancing soil functions like water infiltration for stormwater management in urban or disturbed soils; and fundamental investigations on soil hydraulic, thermal, and electrical properties.
“Soil is comprised of so many individual particles. They are like puzzle pieces but don’t necessarily fit together in an exact form. Plus, they can be aggregated in unlimited combinations and don’t stay stable,” Heitman said. “Our lab works to understand soil structure and how we can modify and measure the dynamic ways water can flow through it.”
Leading In and Out of the Lab
While he enjoys the breadth of research in the lab, Heitman’s passion stems from teaching and sharing inspiration with his students. He has served as an advisor for 24 graduate students and seven post-doctoral scholars over the last 15 years.
In addition to teaching undergraduate and graduate semester-long soils courses, Heitman also leads a National Science Foundation-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates program at NC State.
“There are many REU sites for biology and engineering, but to my knowledge, ours is the only soils-focused program in the country,” Heitman said. “This 10-week event attracts students from across the country (usually without a background in agriculture). Their zeal for fieldwork is infectious. It’s amazing to watch how quickly and enthusiastically they learn.”
Soil physics has relevance to many fields, so Heitman is a frequent contributor to graduate committees in civil engineering, bio and ag engineering, horticulture, natural resources, and more. His expertise makes him a valued resource for many groups interested in understanding the cycling of soil disturbance and settling on gas exchange, water transfer, and nutrient cycling in both agricultural and urban systems.
Currently, Heitman also serves as a collaborator and founding member of the university’s new Climate Adaptation through Agriculture and Soil Management (CASM) cohort.
“There’s been much coverage on the role of agricultural soil management’s role in mitigating climate change, but only a small portion of this work is directly relevant to conditions in North Carolina and the southeast,” Heitman said. “I look forward to seeing this broad interest more directly addressed under our unique conditions and ultimately put into practice through CASM’s work.”
Heitman accepted the Fellow award at the American Society of Agronomy’s annual meeting in November. While he was surprised and humbled by the recognition, the university found it highly appropriate and well deserved.
“Dr. Heitman is a nationally and internationally recognized leader and expert in soil physics,” said Jeff Mullahey, Department Head of NC State’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. “He is an exceptionally productive faculty member in the department evidenced by his exemplary level of scholarship in research and teaching, and his outstanding record of service within our department.”
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