To kick-off our first newsletter, we interviewed our coordinator, prof. Tanja Mimmo from the Free University in Bolzano. What better way to learn about project ECHO, than from the person who holds it all together?
Let’s work from the ground up. When did you discover your passion for science?
TM: Since childhood, I’ve been intrigued by understanding why things are the way they are. It was during high school that I truly discovered my passion for science, in particular the natural sciences and chemistry.
Tell us about your work as a university scholar. What are your responsibilities and specializations?
I am a full professor of soil science and the director of the Competence Centre for Plant Health. Thus, my duties and my typical day are rather diverse and differ from day to day. It is also what makes my job very interesting – it never gets boring! Depending on the semester, I am teaching soil chemistry and fertility the winter semester and analytical chemistry the summer semester to students of the Bachelor’s Degree in Agricultural, Food and Mountain Environmental Sciences. This involves preparing lectures, excursions and exercises, leading discussions, and providing feedback to students. Of course, a major part of my day is dedicated to research activities, discussing research data, experimental plans, setups, etc., with my colleagues, correcting or writing papers, but also project meetings on ongoing projects, as well as meetings for future projects and the related writing phase of the projects.
As a full professor and director of a competence center, I also have many institutional duties and meetings, like faculty councils, steering committee meetings, etc. These gatherings are essential for discussing curriculum changes, administrative matters, and other aspects of university governance.
Of course, reading academic journals, attending conferences, and networking with colleagues to stay informed about latest advancements are part of my daily life as well.
How did Project ECHO come to be, and what drove you to focus on citizen involvement in soil health?
To be honest, I was not an expert on citizen science. I was participating in a brokerage event organized by DGAgri in June 2022, where I met several people, some of whom I knew already and some for the first time. We were talking about the topic of Mission Soil, and the one that caught my main interest was the one of citizen science. As a soil scientist, thus a researcher but also a professor, I am often in contact with students, farmers, and other stakeholders who do not necessarily have a background in soil science or knowledge on the matter. After further reading, I thought that citizen science could be a great opportunity to go in this direction. I started studying the topic and creating a network of partners.
What do you hope ECHO will change?
I hope ECHO will induce a behavioral change in society. The importance of soil needs to be increased among all citizens, starting with really young people – students from kindergarten and elementary school. In fact, I have already started doing this with my son. I’m showing him what soil is and why it’s so important. He is fascinated by all the “soil animals”, as he calls them, and when he finds an earthworm, he is really enthusiastic! Given my background as a soil scientist, with a specific focus on rhizosphere dynamics, he shares my curiosity. Whether we’re gardening together or exploring outdoors, he’s always keen to understand how plant roots look. Whenever possible, he enjoys digging them out and examining the intricate root systems.
I think people need to understand that soil is an integral part of our ecosystem. It is not only something beneath our feet, but an extremely important, yet “invisible” resource, and our lives depend upon it. Through ECHO, I hope to reach as many citizens as possible: all ages, all different cultural backgrounds, all different soil types, and involve them right from the beginning, so they feel part of the whole story. This will be the most important aspect, but also a challenging aspect, to be able to engage them. Our engagement strategies will be crucial, and we cannot fail.
I think and hope ECHO will also bring a great advancement in scientific research. Gathering so much data on soil health across Europe, different soil types and land-uses from different biogeographical areas will lead to a unique dataset – also considering that we will gather data from not only one soil health indicator, but from 8 indicators.
As a professor, you often interact with the younger generation. Do you see a trend in their engagement and interest in soil health?
I would not call it a trend; it really depends on how you teach them soil science. I try as much as possible to transfer my passion for soil science to them, bringing them out in the field to collect soil, then to the lab to analyze it, and finally interpret the results they get. Thus, through this involvement, I have noticed a growing interest, enthusiasm, as well as curiosity. In particular, at the Master’s and PhD level, students often express a desire to explore solutions and innovations that can contribute to soil conservation and regeneration. This trend is promising for the future, as it indicates a potential for greater focus and dedication to sustainable practices in agriculture and environmental science. Of course, we can start much earlier, by increasing the knowledge, interest, and awareness of soil health, at all levels of education. We try to do that now at high school level, working together with the education office of the province of Bolzano – to organize webinars for teachers and workshops for students.
After a busy day, do you come home to a house full of plants? Any specimens you’re particularly proud of?
Not only is my apartment and balcony filled with plants, but my office is as well! In fact, I have to resist the temptation of buying too many plants for the balcony, or there won’t be any space left to sit. I’ve cultivated a diverse collection, ranging from aromatic plants to an olive tree, palm tree, oleander, and roses. However, the plants I take particular pride in are my hortensia and oleander!