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Digging deep with Sydney Institute of Agriculture

27 September 2017
From Scotland to Sydney, via soil samples and Groucho Marx

Professor Alex McBratney, Sydney Institute of Agriculture director and soil fanatic, discusses his journey to Sydney from Scotland and what has kept him here.

What is your background, and why did you decide to join the University?

I’m a soil scientist. I grew up in rural Scotland on a farm, before doing my studies at the University of Aberdeen. After seven years of working at CSIRO in Brisbane, I decided to join the University as I was interested in teaching, as well as doing research. At that point, I thought I had done enough research to know enough to teach others. Of course, I now realise one never knows enough.

Did you always see yourself pursuing a career in science?

I’ve never really accepted the word career – I’ve simply come to work every day and, for the most part, enjoyed it enormously. I guess I’ve always had an analytical and critical mind, so perhaps science was the easier path, and science education in Scotland, even in rural Scottish high schools, was phenomenally good. I often wish I had studied literature, or history or philosophy. Some of my colleagues think that too. Perhaps it’s not too late.

Why is soil important?

That’s an essay! But to summarise: more than 95 percent of everything you eat depends on the existence and functioning of soil. Soil is a crucial component of all terrestrial ecosystems and contains 25 percent of all known biodiversity. There is no future without soil.

You’re the director of the Sydney Institute of Agriculture. Can you tell us more about the institute and what you’re hoping to achieve? 

The Sydney Institute of Agriculture is a whole-of-University initiative that is aiming to provide world-leading, cutting-edge research and outreach for agricultural innovation, business and policy. Our vision is for Australian agriculture to be highly profitable, value-added, not commoditised and environmentally stable. We are working together with our key stakeholders in the production, agribusiness, and agtech sectors, to devise the production methods and food supply chains that enable this. 

What are you looking forward to this year?

I’m really looking forward to building our institute. The official launch is on 27 September, and I’m excited about making new collaborative links to enable this innovative agricultural research all across the University. 

Also, the Christmas break. We seem to need it more and more every year.

Coming from Scotland, what has kept you in Australia?

The sun and the soil – probably in that order. I came to Australia thinking it was a young country and would be a place that values radical new thinking. It has turned out to be much more conservative. Nevertheless, it has sufficient pluralism, and the wonderful weather has kept me here –  something to do with barely seeing the sun in the first 20 years of my life. The soils on this old continent are also diverse and infinitely fascinating. To me, Sydney is one of the world’s truly great cities.

What is your all-time favourite quote?

There are three that spring to mind: the first we could all go to see: it’s on Spike Milligan’s gravestone at Woy Woy that says: “I told you I was ill.” I also love many from the great philosopher Groucho Marx, one highlight is: “Any club that would have me as a member, I wouldn’t want to join.” From an academic perspective, I like this one: “Science is the differential calculus of the mind, arts is the integral calculus” – I can’t remember who said it, but they were obviously a scientist.

We can’t live without soil – Professor Alex McBratney

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