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Soil Scientist Becomes First Female CSU Professor Elected Into National Honor Society

Colorado State University professor Diana Wall is the first female professor from CSU to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences for her achievements. Wall, a University Distinguished Professor, is the eleventh CSU faculty member to be elected to the prestigious honorary society.

Wall is the director of the School of Global Environment Sustainability and a biology professor. She is also a renowned soil ecologist who has conducted extensive research in Antarctica since 1989. In fact, a valley on the continent is named after her.

KUNC's Stephanie Daniel interviewed Diana Wall to learn more about her research and this prestigious award.

Interview Highlights

On her soil research:

Diana Wall: I started studying soil animals, nematodes - little round worms - when I was in graduate school… (I) spent about 15 or 20 years involved in both looking at the soil animals, the soil invertebrates, in agricultural soils as well as in other arid soils. And when I came to Colorado State, I started working more in extreme soils, extreme deserts. Comparing hot deserts, like in New Mexico, and the soil diversity, the animals and what they did … in the carbon flow and comparing that to Antarctica.

On why Antarctica:

Wall: In Antarctica there are lots of soils, but it looks like Mars when you see this area. And what we found out - even though there's no plants and there's no birds flying around and there's no insects flying around - the dominate invertebrate in these valleys are soil animals called nematodes. Which is the same thing we see in many other soils, soils here, soils out in the front yard.

(Antarctica soil) has very few species. … Like here, if you held a handful of soil or teaspoon of soil you're going to have - I think the analogy is - more organisms in your hand than there are people on earth. The diversity in soils out here, just in your handful that you garden with is really diverse. It's got bacteria and fungi and then it's got all these soil animals but they're invertebrates and they're very tiny.

And so, we just study one group of those which is these little round worms that live in film of water between soil particles. … They're nematodes, they're round worms (that) are found in Antarctica but instead of there being like 50 species (in the soil), there's three dominate species.

On the 'Wall Valley,' named after her:

Wall: It's pretty fantastic. I've only been there a couple times. … My PhD student was there last year and found our favorite nematode which is Scottnema, a real tough little worm that is able to survive the cold in the winter. So yeah. it's a pretty fantastic valley and it looks a lot like part of the Grand Canyon - you know, kind of red rocks and then this barren soil, no glaciers hanging there.

On being the first female faculty member from CSU to be elected into the National Academy of Sciences:

Wall: I think it's really important to have more women in the Academy. I think, like many things for a long time, it's been dominated by males. And I know, and I've heard, that the Academy like every branch of science and every branch of academia, everybody is working on increasing women in science and bringing more women into science because it's a great career. … Being the first woman at CSU is quite remarkable because there are many talented, extremely bright women on this campus. … I can see a number of other people on this campus being nominated, for example. So, it's kind of an award I share with a lot of people here I think.

On her plans for the future:

Wall: What I would want to do to with this award is not to just sit still, it's to make people more and more aware that soil is part of our life and we depend of soil for our life. It's all the living parts of soil that are the unknown, new universe we're studying. It much like going to Mars or going to work in the tropics where you don't what every species does. But we do depend on them and we cannot forget that we need to increase our knowledge about what we do to soils - can they be restored? And how our civilization would be in the future if we didn't sustain these soils.

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