Student Spotlight: Md Mahfuz Islam

Man in a white lab coat handles soil samples

“In my home country of Bangladesh, every student’s goal is to become a doctor or engineer,” said Md Mahfuz Islam, NC State Crop and Soil Sciences doctoral student. “But I found my strength was in environmental research.” 

Islam is one of six out of 101 college classmates who chose to pursue higher-level degrees abroad. He arrived in the U.S. in January 2021 after months of pandemic-related delays in the U.S. and Bangladesh that threatened his academic goals. But Islam put the gap time to good use by immersing himself in any online class he could find. He learned to navigate ArcGIS mapping software, speak French, and took several LinkedIn business and data science courses.

We talked with Islam about his path to NC State and the impact his work will have on soil science.

What was your academic journey to NC State?

I earned a bachelor’s degree in Soil, Water and Environment and a master’s in Environmental Science from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. One of my seniors, who is pursuing his doctorate at Texas A&M University, told me about the outstanding reputation of NC State for research in soil science. I visited the CSSC website and saw that Dr. McLaughlin’s lab was looking for a graduate student to support their research on the management of degraded urban soil. Their research idea seemed very intriguing and matched my research interests. 

Man in front of NC State display

What are you studying?

I am working with professors Dr. Rich McLaughlin and Dr. Josh Heitman on North Carolina Department of Transportation funded research, studying the impact of compost on the management of degraded or compacted construction sites and roadside urban soils. Road and building construction causes soil compaction that can lead to stormwater runoff of heavy metals, sediments, pathogens, and other contaminants that pollute waterways. Urban construction compacts both surface and subsurface soils to a density that makes them impervious to stormwater. Urban stormwater runoff is an issue in N.C. because of rapid land development and environmentally threatened species like freshwater mussels.  

My research will evaluate the compost type, application method and rate for different soil textures. I will also assess wildflowers as a roadside alternative to sod. Wildflowers have a deeper rooting system than sod. This vast network of fibrous roots may improve roadside water infiltration and sediment filtering, control soil erosion, and improve the soil microclimate. Environmentally friendly compost and wildflowers may be a solution to the increasing environmental challenges of urbanization.

How is technology enhancing your soil research?

For my field research, we are growing experimental comparison plots of grass and wildflowers individually and a combination of the two at different road sites in NC. We are capturing drone imagery of the plots to determine the percentage of vegetation cover and their effectiveness in controlling soil erosion and soil microclimate, particularly soil temperature and moisture. Using drones allows us to capture and analyze data from a large area in a single image. It makes our work more accurate and more efficient.

Why is this field of study important?

Construction of roads, highways and buildings is increasing day by day not only in the U.S. but around the world. There is an enormous opportunity to manage active construction site soils better to alleviate soil compaction and watershed pollution.

What spurred your interest in soil science?

Bangladesh is an agricultural country where people generally learn skills, like farming, through family tradition. There is no agricultural education or training among farmers. They often use inappropriate input amounts of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and water — both too high and too low. These inconsistencies impact the farmers’ harvest and the environment, especially the fish and animals in surrounding waters.

In 2008, I remember a year when we had heavy rains. Local farmers had just sprayed pesticides in their fields, and the rain washed it all into a local pond. It became white with dead fish. I, too, thought I wanted to be an engineer until I discovered that I was good at research and could help that way.

What is your career goal?

I want to finish my doctoral degree, but I also want to stay involved in research. It’s hard being more than 13,000 miles away from home and family. But I know that I have to sacrifice something to gain something. 

Eventually, I would like to pursue a postdoctoral degree based on the findings of my doctoral research and stay in an academic setting. I am enjoying research. When you enjoy something, it is easy to achieve it.

Tell us about the scholarship you just received.

The Compost Research & Education Foundation (CREF) offers two scholarships per year to college students studying compost research projects in the U.S. They are interested in improving the composting process and the use of finished compost to improve soil function and increase soil carbon storage to combat climate change. 

When I arrived at NC State in January of 2021, classes were online only. In one Zoom meeting, Dr. McLaughlin suggested that I apply for the foundation’s scholarship. At first, I was nervous because it was my first research proposal for any scholarship.  But I realized opportunity was at my door, and I must grab it. Both of my supervisors were very helpful during the proposal preparation. Fortunately, the foundation’s reviewer appreciated my research idea. I am grateful to receive the scholarship. 

Based on my research findings, I will submit results in one year and have the opportunity to be published in a professional journal and to present at a U.S. Composting Council Annual Conference during a foundation research session. It is a great honor.

What is your advice to a student interested in soil science?

NC State is an excellent resource for soil science. It is a top-ranked school in soil science, and the professors are very supportive. When I came here, my family was worried that I would be alone. But I’ve found a community here at NC State. I would tell other students that you, too, will find family here who will help you reach your goals.

Picture Yourself in Crop and Soil Sciences 

If you are looking for an academic path that leads to discovery, consider Crop and Soil Sciences. Our students learn from expert professors and experience hands-on adventures every day.  

Learn more about student degree pathways, including deep dives into our soil science and turfgrass programs. Then sign up for an undergraduate’s guided email tour of our Crop & Soil Sciences Department.  

Connecting students with growing careers is just part of how we are growing the future.

NC State logo in soil profile