Research Soil Scientist, USDA-ARS, Grasslands Soil and Water Research Laboratory

Doug Smith

Career Sector 



BS in Animal Science from Texas A&M University–Commerce, MS in Agriculture from Texas A&M University–Commerce, PhD in Soil Science from University of Arkansas

Briefly describe your career path from college to today.

Coming out of high school, I wanted to work with animals and majored in animal science for my bachelor’s. My master’s project was focused on composting manures and food waste and using the compost as a soil amendment. As I worked on that, I became increasingly interested in soil science and working to minimize the environmental impact of agriculture. I went straight through from my bachelor’s to a PhD. My advisor worked for the USDA Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), so I was aware of the great work they do and was very interested in a career in research. I was fortunate that my first job after completing my PhD was in research, when I was hired by USDA-ARS to work on source water (drinking water) protection at the National Soil Erosion Research Laboratory in West Lafayette, Indiana. The Source Water Protection Initiative started because of atrazine contamination in the drinking water source for Fort Wayne, Indiana. One scientist in our research group was focused on the pesticide component, whereas I was really interested in nutrients, particularly phosphorus. This was in 2002, so pesticides were really the main concern in the area. So I sort of dabbled around the edges of that project doing nutrient work, and then in 2010 they really started to get concerned about phosphorus losses from agricultural land in the region. The water that we studied went to Fort Wayne, and then to the Maumee River, which empties into Western Lake Erie, a major drinking water source in addition to being the focus of a more than one billion dollar per year recreation industry. At that time, Lake Erie was dealing with some large algal blooms as a result of an overabundance of phosphorus. I was in a position, having already completed a lot of work on phosphorous in that watershed, that I was able to provide some insights into what was happening up in the watershed. After about 12 years in Indiana, I moved to the Grassland Soil and Water Research Laboratory in Temple, Texas, where I work today.

What was the best advice you received regarding your career?

My PhD advisor, Philip Moore, told me that your publications are your primary asset for a career in research, and I have found that to be true.

What have you done to continue your education and professional development following college graduation?

I’ve taken a few short courses, especially ones focused on Geographical Information Services (GIS). Early in my career, I tried to push myself to go to professional meetings that were a little outside of my research focus and that would expand my knowledge and understanding. I went to several meetings of the Society for Freshwater Science, which used to be called the North American Benthological Society. Because of my work in Indiana on watersheds, and starting to work in streams and larger waterbodies, I thought it was really important to understand the processes that are happening beyond the edge of the field. I learned about a lot of great work being done by ecologists looking at how the nutrients are processed in small—often pristine—streams. It’s been really valuable to learn about things from a different perspective. I’ve also attended most of the SWCS annual meeting for the past fifteen years and have been a presenter at many of those.

How has SWCS impacted your career or contributed to your continued education and/or professional development?

My research program is very applied, so going to the SWCS meetings where there are so many practioners and people that work in the policy arena has been worthwhile. Quite a few of my publications are in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, and the reason I tend to publish there is because it is a great way to speak directly to the NRCS and other action agencies. If I would like to get my research into the hands of the NRCS, then I publish in the Journal.

What is the job outlook for your current position in the future (is there growing demand, no change, or less demand)? Also, what changes in required skillsets do you anticipate?

I don’t necessarily see environmental problems ever being fully solved, and there’s certainly increasing need to optimize production with environmental and economic concerns. I know many of my colleagues and I are working on those types of issues. There is absolutely a need for more brilliant scientists to work in this area. There are many, many vacancies in ARS currently. There are also a number of scientists who are eligible to retire. So there will be abundant opportunities for young people and students who are interested in pursuing research in sustainable agriculture systems.

What advice do you have for college students or early career professionals who might want to work in a job similar to the one you have right now?

Publish, publish, publish. Opportunities are certainly out there, but you have to be open to the opportunities as they come along. I think there is an increasing need for GIS as farmers are getting more interested in precision agriculture. We need people with the skillsets to marry all the geospatial information—the massive amounts of data—that are coming in and to make the assessments from that.

The mission of SWCS is to “foster the art and science of natural resource conservation.” Do you feel that your job has an impact on this mission?

I certainly hope so! I have worked through my whole career to minimize nutrients losses from agricultural landscapes, and I like to think that I’ve been successful in that endeavor, that I’ve made a difference. We have certainly done many things to advance that effort, but there is more work to do.

What do you like most about your job?

Doesn’t every little kid dream about getting paid to go out and work in the dirt? Right now, at this point in my career, about 90% of my time is spent tethered to a computer. But it makes me value my time out in the field even more. I love my job, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. My particular career path has allowed me to see and do things that I never thought I would be able to do. I love what I’m doing, and I’m probably one of the rare people who truly enjoys coming to work on a Monday. I get an opportunity to work with some tremendous researchers from all over the world, which is always exciting. I also really like being able to dive into problems that are very difficult and trying to understand how solve those problems.