COLLEGE STATION – Dr. Peyton Smith was soaring through the skies before she could drive, but it’s what is on the ground, or beneath the ground, that grabbed her fascination and led to her latest position with Texas A&M University.
“I received my private pilot’s license the last year of high school and was enrolled in the Aviation Technology degree program at Purdue University, but I was quickly captivated by the biological sciences,” she said.
Now Smith, who’s been on the job a little more than a month, will be looking deep into Texas soils in her new position as an assistant professor of soil carbon dynamics in the Texas A&M soil and crop sciences department in College Station.
Her research in both above-ground and below-ground restoration and recovery responses has allowed her to travel all over the world, including research in north and south India, western Kenya, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and throughout the U.S., including Alaska.
“So, while I may not be piloting myself around the world, I certainly have flown around the world to study forests and soils,” Smith said. “And now I’m eager to explore some of the issues that are pressing for Texas in the context of global change.”
She said she will concentrate on soil carbon preservation – namely, how climate change and extreme weather events such as drought and floods destabilize soil carbon.
“Soil organic carbon, organic matter, is one of the most essential components of the soil – it aids in soil structure and stability, water-holding capacity and nutrient availability – all things necessary to sustain microbial and plant life,” Smith said. “Soils are the largest terrestrial sink of carbon, but their potential to maintain stored carbon is being compromised by global change.
“Current research suggests soils may become a major source of carbon instead of a sink,” she said. “Soils have always been a significant source of greenhouse gases, but that is offset by their stabilization or sequestration capabilities. With changes in land use and climate, previously stored carbon may become available for microbial turnover, resulting in increased respiration and carbon dioxide production.”
Smith said she believes “soil science deserves to be recognized as an important platform,” and that’s why she chose to come to Texas A&M, which has one of the largest soil departments in the nation.
“Soil chemistry, physics and water dynamics are strengths of Texas A&M’s soil and crop science department, and their expertise will complement the interdisciplinary focus of my research, which has been identifying and characterizing soil chemical, biological and physical processes that control carbon and nutrient cycling.”
While much of her previous work had been in natural ecosystems or subsistence-based agriculture/forest systems, Smith said she looks forward to expanding her research to include important land uses in the state, such as different cropping systems and other agro-ecological ecosystems.
A native of Madison, Wisconsin, Smith earned her bachelor’s degree in forest ecology and natural resources management from the University of Washington-Seattle and master’s degree in environmental science from the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University.
She earned her doctorate in soil science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and came to Texas A&M after spending three and half years as a postdoctoral research associate at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington.