Integrating Soil Biodiversity into Ecosystem Services

Cultivating Change: A Conversation with Prof. Maria J. I. Briones on Soil Health, Diversity, and Gender Equality in STEM

It is often emphasised that reversing climate change and safeguarding the planet require the collective contributions of all individuals. However, concurrently, there seems to be a persistent issue of gatekeeping within academia, particularly towards marginalised groups such as women, people of colour, queer individuals, and citizens from the Global South—a challenge that is not being adequately addressed.

Looking at ecosystems and the soil, we learn that biodiversity is essential in preserving life and ensuring a sustainable future. As a global society, we should extend this principle to academia, politics, and economics. In fact, the integration of diverse perspectives and voices has been proven to foster knowledge-sharing, innovation, and skills development.

In celebration of Women and Girls in Science Day 2024, we sat down with our coordinator, Prof. Maria J. I. Briones, to discuss the contribution of women in building a future with healthy soils. Our conversation covered several topics, including land management practices, and the importance of inclusivity in academia.

As a Professor of Ecology and Animal Biology, could you share your academic path leading up to this point and provide insight into your current research areas?

I have always had a keen interest in nature and the vast array of living organisms that inhabit our planet. As such, I chose to pursue a degree in Biology in order to gain a deeper understanding of the physicochemical aspects of life and how organisms adapt to their environment.

Last year, as the project coordinator, you launched SOB4ES. What is the main goal of this research endeavour, and what skills were crucial for the partners to bring to the table in order to achieve it?

The main goal is to link soil biodiversity (the variety of life that exists within the soil) to ecosystem services (goods provided by ecosystems to humans). The research team will need to conduct a thorough assessment of soil biodiversity (from microorganisms to macrofauna), and hence, good taxonomical skills are required. They also need to identify factors that drive soil biodiversity alterations, which demand skills in remote sensing and modelling. Finally, we will also need to transfer all scientific knowledge gathered to land managers and policymakers, and for this, communication skills are essential.

The academic fields you mentioned have historically been even more male-dominated than others. How much has the situation shifted for women working in these fields, and what biases and difficulties do they still experience?

The more technical ones tend to be more male-dominated (e.g., those that require computing). Although gender stereotypes still persist today, there are more women pursuing engineering and computing STEM fields than in the past. However, even if women outnumber men in these fields at universities, very few persist in their selected career paths, and many stop chasing their dreams because caring responsibilities impact women more than men. Nearly six out of ten women (58%) say caring responsibilities have stopped them from applying for promotion or a new job, and one in five (19%) have left a job because it was too hard to balance work and care, according to wide-ranging research by Ipsos and the charity Business in the Community (BITC).

When it comes to land management, gender inequalities in economic opportunities, access to, and control over land are still evident, particularly in rural areas of the Global South. From your perspective, how might the preservation of (soil) biodiversity foster gender equality in this context?

Degraded and low-resilient soils occur mostly in poor rural areas, but women can be agents of change by leading the development of sustainable practices that enhance soil biodiversity. For example, by creating soil biodiversity conservation units that unite small, women-led farms, or by including them in forest and agricultural management groups, they have the opportunity to strengthen their capacity to protect our ecosystems and result in better resource governance and conservation outcomes.

Which piece of advice do you have for all girls who are interested in pursuing a career in STEM?

STEM women do not have superpowers. You can be one of them!