According to the United Nations Webpage: "At present, less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women. According to UNESCO data (2014 - 2016), only around 30 per cent of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education."
We are proud to count several female scientists within our team. One of them is Gerusa Pauli Kist Steffen. Gerusa is 37 years old, a researcher in soil science and mother of two children: Nicolas, 9 years old and Maria Luiza, 4 years old.
We have asked her some questions about her daily life as soil scientist and how she would motivate young children to choose a career in Science.
Why did you choose soil biology as your field of study?
Since I was a child, I have always been very close to nature. I was fortunate to grow up in a small and quiet town, surrounded by green fields, beautiful trees and streams. One of my favorite things to do was playing in the dirt and collecting insects, leaves and seeds of different colors and shapes. I remember that I loved to extract the liquid from plants with syringes. I then stored them in small glass bottles. I also picked flowers and leaves and kept them in a mixture of water and alcohol to keep their essences, colors and smells. As I grew up, my passion for biology, soil and plants had led me to choose an agronomy course. I am sure that it was the best profession I could have gone for. Among the various possibilities of action that the agronomy course offers, I chose to go deeper into the study of soil biology. I picked this area because it is important to me to take better care of our soils and the environment. Only then can we produce healthy plants and food for people. Human health depends on the soil's health. Soil biology is an excellent indicator of what is happening in the agricultural environment. We need to pay more attention to the organisms that are present in the soil and around us.
What does the daily work of a soil biologist look like?
One part of our work is directly in the field and the other part is the work in the laboratory. There are many possibilities; We can carry out surveys on the diversity of organisms that are present in the most diverse types of agricultural and forest environments. Once the organisms are collected, we take them to the laboratory, where we carry out the identification with our microscopes, magnifying glasses, and the specialized bibliography. We can relate the presence of each species of an organism with the function it has in the soil. This is very important as an indicator to determine if the soil is healthy. For example, the absence of organisms in the soil (such as earthworms, spiders, beetles, crickets and others) indicates that there is something wrong with the soil. It is most probably out of balance. If there are no organisms present, it is possible that plants (which are also living organisms) will have difficulties to grow and establish themselves in this soil. Maybe there are toxic chemical compounds, pesticide residues, excess fertilizers, soil compaction, absence of organic matter, excess moisture affecting it negatively. In short, there is a series of possibilities that deserves to be investigated.
What motivates you most about your work?
A good soil scientist is motivated by curiosity. I’m always curious to understand the reason for things. My husband is also a soil scientist and we work together. We spend hours of our day reflecting on the objects of study we are investigating. We seek a better understanding of the relationships between plants, the climate and soil- and microorganisms. We also assess the potential of different natural resources to fight pests and diseases that affect crops. Plants and soil are an inexhaustible source of compounds and reactions that enable natural control of insects, fungi and bacteria that make plants sick. Nature has the solutions – we just have to observe it. Thus, our routine is a constant search for answers, intending to find solutions to critical problems that involve plant production. We often say that when we find the answer to one of the questions, we redefine the question and start again.
If a little girl asked you why she should study soil biology, what would you tell her?
Well, I would say that studying soil biology is like diving into an ocean full of life. It is to unravel small and great mysteries. It is to understand that just like people, plants need company and benefit from each other's presence. The more diverse the soil and the entire ecosystem, the healthier the plants and people will be. Preserving the diversity of plants, animals and soil organisms is essential for maintaining the life of our planet. Thus, the first step in protecting this biodiversity is getting to know the species and the functions that each of them plays in the ecosystem.
Gerusa and Ricardo Steffen doing field research
Are you currently working on a study? What is it about?
Yes. My main area of expertise is soil biology and microbiology. I have several projects in progress. In the laboratory, I am responsible for maintaining a collection of beneficial soil fungi that protect plants against the occurrence of diseases. We multiply these fungi in the laboratory and apply them to the soil and plants. In this way, beneficial fungi prevent the evil fungi from growing and causing plant diseases. This research area is known as biological pest control. Instead of using pesticides, the farmer can apply the good fungus. Thus, the soil is healthy, food is free of pesticide residues and people are healthier. In the field, we evaluate the effects of commercial products and products under development as a natural control of pests and diseases. They are meant to be an alternative to the use of pesticides. This research is very important as it is essential to show farmers the technological tools available to increase agricultural productivity and improve soil health, protecting the environment and people's lifes.
Read here one of the articles Gerusa wrote with her husband on the importance of mycorrhizal associations for crop productivity.
Gerusa Pauli Kist Steffen with her husband Ricardo Bemfica Steffen and their two children Nicolas and Maria Luiza.
Do you have any motivational words for all the girls and boys out there about why they should choose a science career?
As a mother of two young children, I try to show them how important it is to believe and trust science. In this special time, facing a terrible pandemic, the whole world has highlighted the importance of science to save lives. All professions are important. Like soil organisms, each of us has a specific role in the world. Boys and girls, find out within yourself what makes you happy. Observe what you most like to do and read about and where you want to get a better understanding. Try to do something that you really like, because then you will never get tired of working because you will be doing something that will bring you happiness every day. For the girls, I leave a special message here: do not stop believing in yourself and never give up on your dreams. We girls have great inner strength and capabilities. We can be good mothers and good professionals at the same time! We do not need to give up our dreams. I am sure that the world reserves a bright future for those who have the strength and courage to live their dreams. So be like the sun: rise, shine and light the world!